ALTHOUGH HE SHRUGS IT OFF, Ray Charles deserves his unofficial title – he really is a genius. In a recording career that stretches back to 1948, he’s truly done it all. His R&B hits (beginning with “I Got a Woman,” in 1954) defined soul music, blending bluesy grit and gospel fire in a volcanic eruption. His excursions into pop (“Georgia on My Mind”) and country (“I Can’t Stop Loving You”) are classics in their own right, elegant crossovers achieved without a trace of compromise. Charles can put his passionate stamp on any song, from “My Bonnie” to “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah.” Proof of this lies in Rhino’s recently released five-CD box set, Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection. The 67-year old genius is currently on the road, as always – with his piano, orchestra and backup singers, the Raelettes.
On some of your old R&B sides, you jive-talk against the beat, and it’s very funky – but I don’t want to accuse you of inventing rap.
[Laughs] You don’t have to worry about it, babe. I’ll never be accused of inventing rap. The truth of the matter is, all rap is is talking to the beat. I did that years ago on “It Could’ve Been Me.” But rap doesn’t grab my attention in the same way as when I hear Oscar Peterson play the piano. Name me a rap that you can hum!
When you first recorded Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, your record company labeled it Ray’s Folly.
I understood why. They felt it was going to ruin my career. At that time, I was into R&B – “What’d I Say.” I said to the president of ABC Records, “You may have a point. But I think I’ll gain more fans than I lose.” Since they wanted to sign me to another contract, they let me have my way, so to speak.
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Did you sit down one day and think, “I’m going to invent soul music by mixing gospel and blues”?
It was not a conscious thing to sit down and mix nothin’. It was a conscious thing to sit down and be myself. See, before I started being myself, I tried 1,000 percent to sound like Nat “King” Cole. I could get hired, but nobody knew what my name was. So one day I decided to be myself. And, naturally, I grew up in the church. Naturally, I grew up with the blues. So, naturally, the flavors came together, ’cause that’s what I grew up with.
If you were starting out today, could you be yourself?
I would not make it if I were starting today. When I came up, the record-company guys could snap their fingers to the music. They could feel the groove. Now you’ve got guys at the record companies, they couldn’t keep time to a march. When I was on Atlantic, I made four or five records before I had a hit. I wouldn’t get that in today’s market. They’d put my ass out, and after two records, I’d be over.
What would you be if you were not a musician?
I could probably be an excellent lawyer. I think I have a good sense of rationality and judgment. But I have no interest in that, man. All my life, I’ve never wanted to do anything but music. I can do other things – I can type 60 words a minute, but I don’t plan to being a secretary.
How did it feel to be labeled the Genius?
I ignored it. I’m not a genius. Art Tatum – that man was a genius. Charlie Parker was a genius. Where I’m coming from is, I do a lot of things well. That’s the key to my survival.
In the ’60s, you had trouble with drugs. Did the bad publicity hurt your career?
No. That’s why I don’t talk to people about drugs, because I don’t say the things that I’m expected to say. They want me to blame somebody else. I don’t blame nobody but me. The man wasn’t at my door; I hunted him down. That’s another one of my problems with the world today: Don’t nobody want to be responsible.
What do you look for in a Raelette?
A girl that has a voice she can control. I don’t like singers to holler, OK? I like singers who can sing in their range and do it well.
Aren’t hotels a drag – all the traveling?
Whatever you do in your life, there is a price you have to pay. In order to get my music to the public, that requires taking buses, airplanes, sleeping in hotels. But the reason I don’t worry about that is, see, they pay me a lot of money. I sing and play the piano for nothin’. But I get paid for all this opposite stuff I have to go through.
Do you have advice for young musicians?
Practice, You’ve got to keep your fingers loose. You’ve got to keep your vocal cords loose – you’ve got to practice all the time. And a lot of youngsters don’t want to do that. They just want to learn one or two chords, especially in today’s age, with computers. I mean, you can use these things. I don’t knock a calculator. But I need to know how to add myself. I need to know how to do it. S’pose I ain’t got a calculator? S’pose the electricity go off?
Any plans to slow down?
[Laughs] Tell me, what would I retire to? Music is my life. I’m not going to sit on somebody’s beach or on some porch in a rocking chair, I mean, what the hell is that?