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Ray Charles: The Rolling Stone Interview

Getting real with the great one

Ray Charles

Ray Charles, Newport Jazz Festival, Yankee Stadium, July 7th, 1972.

David Redfern/Redferns/Getty

Five years ago, when he was still working the lounges, second billed to such as Mongo Santamaria, Flip Wilson had an album out that had this skit about Christopher Columbus. Columbus is telling Queen Isabella about his wanting to journey off to a new land, “to discover America.”

America?!” the queen exclaims, in a high, throaty black voice. “You goin’ to America? You gonna find Ray Charles?”

* * *

Ray Charles is one of the great ones, a genius, as he’s been called for some 13 years, or, as Sinatra put it, “the only genius in the business.” He is the major influence on dozens of blues, jazz, R&B, pop, and rock & roll musicians. Joe Cocker idolized him, from faraway England, to the point of imitation. So did Billy Preston, who would show up at Ray’s doorstep in L.A. to audition. Aretha Franklin called him “the Right Reverend,” and Georgia legislator Julian Bond picked up the beat, in a poem called “The Bishop of Atlanta: Ray Charles,” finishing:

Throbbing from the gutter
On Saturday night
Silver offering only
The Right Reverend’s back in town
Don’t it make you feel all right?

Ray Charles’ 26 years in the business are represented by some 40 albums. He got his first gold record with “What’d I Say” for Atlantic Records in the summer of 1959, seven years after he’d joined that label. Charles then switched to ABC and began a streak with “Georgia on My Mind,” “Ruby,” and “Hit the Road Jack.” He topped them all with a country & western album that gave him a three-million-selling single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” along with criticism from fans who didn’t want to hear the Genius kicking shit. Others, like Gladys Knight, listened: “Ray Charles,” She said, “hipped a lot of the black people to country & western bands . . . we was kind of listening before, but he made it even more down-to-earth where you could dig it.” And Quincy Jones, long-time friend and arranger with Charles, appreciated his pioneer sense of eclecticism: “Ray Charles was responsible,” he said, “for us opening our ears to all kinds of music.”

Born September 23rd, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, Ray first jumped onto a piano bench, for fun, at age five in Greensville, Florida, where his parents had moved into what he remembered as a “shotgun house” – “If you stood on the porch and shot a gun you’d go right through it”. Over the next two years, he lost his sight (he had been stricken with glaucoma, doctors determined years later); his parents, Bailey and Araetha, were laborers who couldn’t afford medical help. “When I wroke up in the mornings,” Charles recalled, “I’d have to pry my eyes open.” Blinded, he learned to work to help out, washing clothes, scrubbing floors, even chopping wood, until he went to blind school in Orlando, Florida. He studied music there – he’d begun to pick out tunes on a neighbor’s piano by age seven – and by 15 was writing arrangements for big bands he heard in his imagination. Then his mother died, following his father by five years, and Charles left school to go to work, playing in combos around Georgia and Florida. He was “crawling,” he said, until he split to Seattle and got a record contract from Swingtime, a small label. He cut “Confession Blues,” then had his first success, “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand,” done in the style of one of his main influences – or, as Johnny Otis put it, “It was a wonderful thing, but he definitely was aping Charles Brown.” Ray would soon develop his own fusion of blues, jazz and gospel, touring with Lowell Fulson, then forming a backup group for Ruth Brown in New York. He returned to Seattle and formed the Maxim Trio, worked at the Rocking Chair club and on local TV, and found himself signed to Atlantic Records when Swingtime sold his contract. First sessions were done with studio musicians (and, one time, with a pickup band including a Mexican-dominated horn section at a radio studio in New Orleans). At Atlantic, Ray began to write arrangements and compose his own great songs, blended gospel with a rocking R&B sound, formed a septet, cut “I Got a Woman,” and moved into the first of Many heights.

And all the time, he was on junk. He’d been using heroin since 1948, when he was 18, and he’d been busted before, around 1956, but it had all been kept hushed. Then, in 1965, Charles was arrested in Boston, reportedly in possession of a planeload of heroin, and entered a hospital in Lynwood, California. According to published stories, he spent three months undergoing medical and psychiatric help, followed by a year off. He saw a Viennese psychoanalyst regularly.

Charles has his own version of his involvement with drugs, but over the years, he has refused to discuss it. When Playboy asked him, in 1970, how he started, he begged off the question. Asked if he might not be an influence to stop potential drug-users, he replied: “Bullshit. Everybody’s aware that cigarettes probably cause cancer, but how many people do you think would give them up just because Ray Charles stopped smoking?” And, he continued, “I’m fed up with talking about that aspect of my life. Jesus Christ couldn’t get me to say another word on the subject to anybody.” Downbeat, in fact, must have had the devil on retainer; an article on Charles in the jazz publication took the form of an apologetic memo to future interviewers of Ray Charles, warning them not to ask him about narcotics. Instead, they were advised, accentuate the positive! Write about him knowing how to produce his own records! In his own studios! For his own label! How he plays chess and repairs radios and TVs! How he could even fly his own plane if he had to! How he helps fight Sickle Cell Anemia! How he’s gotten all these Grammies and awards! Let the good times roll!

But when you call him the epitome of the American Dream, as Whitney Balliett did in the New Yorker, that’s pretty positive. And yet, you’ve got to know that there were some nightmares along the way.

In two short sessions with Ray Charles, in a dressing room in San Francisco and in his recording studio in Los Angeles, I found him an articulate man, sometimes volatile in defense of his pride, deep-steeped to the point of repetition in telling what to him was the truth, and seemingly inclined to halve that “truth” sometimes, in discussing the beatdown aspects of his life. Example: He says, in the interview, he has maintained sales figures between 300,000 and 800,000 per album through the years. Fact, from ABC, which distributes his Tangerine Records: His best record in recent years, Message from the People, sold 250,000. Volcanic Action of My Soul, released in 1971, sold about 200,000. And the three albums before Volcanic “did even less.” His most recent pop chart single, said the ABC executive, was “Don’t Change on Me,” in June, 1970.

Example: The sudden shift from Atlantic to ABC. Charles says it was for a big money deal, and that he gave Atlantic a chance to match the offer. Sources at Atlantic insist that Charles had people around him who got him to sign the ABC deal before Atlantic even learned about it.

So when we got the conversation around to dope, to his 19-year addiction to heroin, it was a surprise to hear Ray plunge into his hooking and kicking, and it was no surprise that the stories sometimes seemed, in at least two definitions of that word, fantastic. Example: Ray says he took that year off the road, after his bust in ’65, to make the courts happy (he continued to produce records, including “Crying Time” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned”). He’d kicked even before the bust, he hinted in our talk. But Ron Granger, who was director of Tangerine for three years and knew Charles from long ago, told us: “He took that year off to kick it. It took a year.”

But the man is clean, a nonstop worker, a perfectionist/taskmaster devoted to his music. He moves around his office building with ease, with no cane, still missing a stairstep now and then as he moves between control room and main studio, instructing musicians, running the console, re-doing his vocals. He is a gentleman as I toss in questions over an 11-hour mixing session. Sometimes, ego challenged, there’s volcanic action, as he stands up, all dressed in black, and shouts a reply, punctuating it with a “Hel-lo!” before he sits again. In his hotel room, with milk in the refrigerator and coffee and toast on the table, he writhes on the couch, sits forward pensively, falls almost onto his knee to find another restful position. He’s just returned from a visit to President Nixon at the White House, where he accepted praise for his work as honorary chairman of the sickle cell foundation. (“It was a gas!” he would tell reporters; to me, he said he might even vote for Nixon, given his record of hiring Negroes and given McGovern’s strange changes.)

We accentuated the positive for a bit, talked about how he plays chess with a specially carved set, how he admired Bobby Fischer for insisting on championship playing conditions, how he “saw” baseball games by going to the stadium with a transistor at his ear, how he chose the songs for the new album, Through the Eyes of Love. We began by asking him to recall himself as a five year-old, when his eyes began to run, to hurt.  

* * *

It didn’t happen like one day I could see 100 miles and the next day I couldn’t see an inch. It was, each day for two years my sight was less and less. My mother was always real with me, and bein’ poor, you got to pretty much be honest with your children. We couldn’t afford no specialists. I was lucky I could get a doctor – that’s a specialist. 

When you were losing your sight, did you try to take in as much as possible, to remember things?
I guess I was too small to really care that much. I knew there were things I liked to watch. I used to love to look at the sun. That’s a bad thing for my eyes, but I liked that. I used to love to look at the moon at night. I would go out in the back yard and stare at it. It just fascinated the hell out of me. And another thing that fascinated me that would scare most people is lightnin’. When I was a kid, I thought that was pretty. Anything like brightness, any kind of lights. I probably would’ve been a fire bug or somethin’.

And there were colors. I was crazy about red. Always thought it was a beautiful color. I remember the basic colors. I don’t know nothin’ about chartreuse and all – I don’t know what the hell that is. But I know the black, green, yellow, brown and stuff like that. And naturally I remember my mother, who was pretty. God, she was pretty. She was a little woman. She must have been about 4’11”, I guess, and when I was 12 or 13, I was taller and bigger than my mother, and she had this long pretty black hair, used to come way down her back. Pretty good-lookin’ chick, man [laughter].

A lot of people have asked you to define soul. I’d like to get a definition of beauty.
If you’re talkin’ about physical beauty, I would have to say that to me beauty is probably about the same thing that it means to most people. You look at them and the structure of their face, the way their skin is, and say like, a woman, the contour of her body, you know what I mean? The same way as I would walk out and feel the car. Put my hands on the lines of a car, and I’d know whether I’d like it or not from the way the designs of the lines are. As I said, I was fortunate enough to see until I was about seven, and I remember the things that I heard people calling beautiful.

How about beauty in music?
I guess you could call me a sentimentalist, man, really. I like Chopin or Sibelius. People who write softness, you know, and although Beethoven to me was quite heavy, he wrote some really touching songs, and I think that Moonlight Sonata – in spite of the fact that it wound up being very popular – it’s somethin’ about that, man, you could just feel the pain that this man was goin’ through. Somethin’ had to be happenin’ in that man. You know, he was very, very lonesome when he wrote that. Anyway, I thought that with the exception of just two or three compositions, he was a little bit heavy for me. Just like from a technical point of view, I think Bach, if you really want to learn technique, that was the cat, ’cause he had all them fugues and things, your hands doin’ all kinda different things. Personally, outside of technique, I didn’t care for Bach, but I must say, in order for you to make your hands be able to do different things from each other, he was the greatest in the world for that.

Did you try to catch up with high school or college after you left school?
No. When I left school, I had to get out and really tough it, as you know, because my mother passed away when I was 15. I didn’t have no brothers or sisters. But my mama always taught me, “Look, you got to learn how to get along by yourself,” and she’s always tellin’ me, “Son, one of these days I’m gonna be dead, and you’re gonna need to know how to survive, because even your best friends, although they may want to do things for you; after all, they will have their own lives.” So at that point I started tryin’ to help myself. So what do I do to help myself? The thing I can do best, or figure I can do best, anyway. And that is sing or play the piano or both.

What else did they teach you in school that could have been applied to a career?
Well, I don’t know where I would have used it, but I can probably type as fast as any secretary. Well, not any, I can type about 60-65 words a minute, somethin’ like that when I wanna. Then I can make all kinds of things with my hands. I can make chairs and brooms and mops and rugs and pocketbooks and belts and all kinds of things like that. So guess if I had to, I would go and buy me some leather. I love to work with my hands, and I’m sure that’s what I would do had I not played music, you see, because it’s the kind of a thing that you can use plenty of imagination in it, you know what I mean? And so I know how to do various kinds of stitchin’ Mexican stitchin’ and regular stitchin’ overlappin’ it and stuff. So I guess I would have – although it would have been a very meek livin’, I suppose. You can’t turn out a lot by hand.

Music was a meek living for a long time, too.
Yeah, it was really crawlin’. I became very ill a couple times’ I suffered from malnutrition, you know. I was really messed up because I wasn’t eatin’ nothin’, and I wouldn’t beg. I refused to beg. I’d say hell, I’d starve first. I mean, this is just embedded in me as a child. You don’t beg. You go and try to offer your services or somethin’, but if you ask somebody for somethin’ and they don’t give it to you, you don’t beg them for it. Two things you don’t do, you don’t beg and you don’t steal. And I don’t do neither right now. That’s right.

Did you get to the point where you actually did steal?
No. No. Those are the two things I would not do, and I don’t do it now.

What kind of music education did you have in Florida?
They taught you how to read the music, and I had to play Chopin, Beethoven, you know, the normal thing. Just music lessons. Not really theory. I don’t know what that is. It’s just, they taught me how to read music, and naturally how to use correct fingerin’, and once you’ve learned that you go from the exercises into little compositions into things like Chopin. That’s the way it went, although I was tryin’ to play boogie-woogie, man, ’cause I could always just about play anything I heard. My ear was always pretty good, but I did have a few music teachers, and so I do know music quite well, if you don’t mind my saying so. I was never taught to write music, but when I was 12 years old I was writing arrangements for a big band. Hell, if you can read music, you can write it, and I think certainly what helped me is that I’m a piano player, so I know chords. Naturally, I can hear chords, and I could always play just about anything I could hear. It was just a question of learning how to put it down on paper. I just studied how to write for horns on my own. Like, understanding that the saxophone is in different keys, and also, when I was goin’ to school I took up clarinet. See, I was a great fan of Artie Shaw. I used to think, “Man, ooh, he had the prettiest sound,” and he had so much feelin’ in his playin’. I always felt that, still feel it today. I mean, it’s amazing, I don’t know why he stopped playin’, but I always thought he was one of the best clarinet players around, bar none. So I took up clarinet as well as piano, but piano was the first thing I took up.

Where were you hearing this boogiewoogie?
We lived next door for some years to a little general store, that’s what it was, ’cause this is a country town, remember, Greensville, Florida, and it had a little store there where the kids could come in and buy soda pop and candy and the people could buy kerosene for their lamps, you know. And they had a jukebox in there. And the guy who owned it also had a piano. Wylie Pittman is the guy, even when I was three and four years old, if I was out in the yard playin’, and if he started playin’ that piano, I would stop playin’ and run in there and jump on the stool. Normally, you figure a kid run in there like that and jump on the stool and start bangin’ on the piano, the guy would throw him off. “Say, get away from here, don’t you see me”. . . but he didn’t do that. I always loved that man for that. I was about five years old, and on my birthday he had some people there. He said, “RC” – This is what they called me then – “look, I want you to get up on the stool, and I want you to play for these people.” Now, let’s face it. I was five years old. They know damn well I wasn’t playin’. I’m Just bangin’ on the keys, you understand. But that was encouragement that got me like that, and I think that the man felt that any time a child is willin’ to stop playin’, you know, out in the yard and havin’ fun, to come in and hear somebody play the piano, evidently this child has music in his bones, you know. And he didn’t discourage me, which he could have, you know what I mean? Maybe I wouldn’t have been a musician at all, because I didn’t have a musical family, now remember that.

You were also able to hear ‘The Grand Ole Opry’ when you were a kid?
Yep, yeah, I always – every Saturday night, I never did miss it. I don’t know why I liked the music. I really thought that it was somethin’ about country music, even as a youngster – I couldn’t figure out what it was then, but I know what it is now. But then I don’t know why I liked it and I used to just love to hear Minnie Pearl, because I thought she was so funny.

How old were you then?
Oh, I guess I was about seven, eight, and I remember Roy Acuff and Gene Austin. Although I was bred in and around the blues, I always did have interest in other music, and I felt the closest music, really, to the blues – they’d make them steel guitars cry and whine, and it really attracted me. I don’t know what it is. Gospel and the blues are really, if you break it down, almost the same thing. It’s just a question of whether you’re talkin’ about a woman or God. I come out of the Baptist church, and naturally whatever happened to me in that church is gonna spill over. So I think the blues and gospel music is quite synonymous to each other.

Big Bill Broonzy once said that “Ray Charles has got the blues he’s cryin’ sanctified. He’s mixin’ the blues with the spirituals. . . . He should be singin’ in a church.”
I personally feel that it was not a question of mixing gospel with the blues. It was a question of singin’ the only way I knew how to sing. This was not a thing where I was tryin’ to take the church music and make the blues out of it or vice versa. All I was tryin’ to do was sing the only way I knew how, period. I was raised in the church. I went to the Sunday school. I went to the morning service, and that’s where they had the young people doin’ their performin’, and I went to night service, and I went to all the revival meetings. My parents said, “You will go to church.” I mean they ain’t no if about that. So singin’ in the church and hearin’ this good singin’ in the church and also hearin’ the blues, I guess this was the only way I could sing, outside of loving Nat Cole so well, and I tried to imitate him very much. When I was starting out, I loved the man so much until I really – that’s why I can understand a lot of other artists who come up and try to imitate me. You know, when you love somebody so much and you feel what they’re doin’ is close to what you feel, some of that rubs off on you – so I did that.

But, say, Joe Cocker is a white man, and British; you were emulating a fellow black.
That’s right, but man, look, I want you to – please, if you can ever put this into words, ’cause I can’t say it, but if you can ever find a way to say this – I wish to hell that people could do one thing. We don’t have to lose our identity. Nobody does, because they happen to do a certain thing. I feel that you’ve got great basketball players – white and black ones. You got great musicians – white and black ones. I’ve heard where a person says, “Well, damn, you know one thing, man, I didn’t realize that guy was white until” . . . or, “I didn’t realize that this person was black until . . . ” You understand what I’m sayin? I’m not the kind of a guy that wants to generalize and say that you can’t do this if you’re black or you can’t do that if you’re white. I think that if a man has had the kicking around and the abuse and the scorn, I think that if he has talent, he can put that some way or another so that the people can hear him. I remember one time a guy asked me, hey, man, do you think a white cat could ever sing the blues? Which is a legitimate question. It didn’t hurt my feelings. I feel that anybody, if you ever have the blues bad enough, with the background that dictates to the horror and the sufferin’ of the blues, I don’t give a damn if he’s green, purple – he can give it to ya.

It was said that Joe Cocker, or his people, were picking out more of the contemporary rock and roll material that was popular with a large segment of the young audience. . . .
When you say he has a bigger whatever-it-was with the “young audience”– what young audience? All right now. Come on, now. I guarantee you [shouting] you got far more people who know . . . you’re talkin’ about the overall white audience. Let’s call a spade a spade or whatever. . . .

Young, white audience. . . .
Well, I don’t care what you call it, I don’t care whether it’s two years old, five, I don’t care what you call it – the fact – you can never get away from it, man, it’s just no way to get away from this. I am not saying it out of bitterness. I’m just telling you the truth of the matter, and I’m old enough. Hell, I’m 42 years old. I never joke with Ray about realism, and the fact of the matter is here’s Joe Cocker, here’s a guy – listen, I’ll tell you something’ – I guess about 10, well, it’s back there more than that – maybe 13-14 years ago, they had ads in the paper where they were tryin’ to find anybody to sing like me. You think about that for a minute. You see?

I guarantee Joe Cocker ain’t never appealed more to the young people who raised me up. He appeals to the young white because he’s white. Shit, man. That ain’t a mad statement, that’s just the truth. [Laughter.] You don’t fool around with the truth. When you get a guy who come up and say, like an Elvis Presley, let’s face it, man, you had more people goin’ out shakin’ their behinds and stuff like that. You know where Elvis got that from – he used to be down on Beale Street in Memphis. That’s where he saw the black people doin’ that. Ain’t no way they’d let anybody like us get on TV and do that, but he could ’cause he’s white. Now, see, I don’t like to bring the racial thing in this, but unfortunately, the way we are set up, the whole thing is man, I guarantee you, Nat “King” Cole go down there in Alabama and sing these love songs and they’d beat him up. You understand what I mean? Why? Not because he’s doin’ a bad job, but because the young white girls run up and say, “Oh, Nat!” and they say, “No, we can’t have that.” Come on, man, shit, that’s where it is.

I don’t have time to be bitter. What I have time for is to try to see what I can do to help the guy that’s comin’ up and maybe he can make it better if I can help him. You see? I done seen all this, man. I know all about the places where I couldn’t drink outta the fountain. I know all about the places I couldn’t go to the bathroom when I had to pee – somethin’ that’s natural for every human bein’. You understand me? And if I do it on the highway and the cop see me, he gonna put me in jail for it and maybe beat my head, too. Depend on where I am. See, I know all about that, but I don’t want to let that get into what I’m doin’. I figure that, OK, I’m in this business because I love music. So I can’t afford to let bitterness get into me, but if when you ask me what’s really happenin’, if you get people and sit them down and say, hey, man, let’s cut all the fat outta this.

Get down to the real thing. What is it? This is the real thing I’m tellin’ you now. That’s without bitterness and I ain’t mad. I can afford to tell you that for one reason; you see, thank the Lord, I’m fairly cool about it. My kids ain’t gonna starve unless they bomb the country or somethin’ with nuclear weapons or somethin’. Man, I’m pretty straight, and I can tell you all about both ends of it. I know how it is when you have to use a piece of like cardboard to put your shoes on when you don’t have a slipper spoon, and I know how it is to live in a $200,000 house.

What keeps me from being bitter about this – the reason that this happens is because people who are in power tend to lean toward themselves. It’s the same as a guy who is in a house. He has his own house, he’s got his own, whatever it is, his own family. Well, let’s face it, he may love you, but if it’s somethin’ comin’ up, he’s gonna tend to lean towards – if he can get his own kids in there, he tends to go that way, you understand? I think this is basically what happens in the structure of our society. It’s a capitalistic country, and it’s a white society, and they control. They got the money. They got the airplanes, the bombs, every goddamn thing. You name it, they got it. So therefore, naturally you have, what is it? – 15-20 percent black, you got 80-85 percent white. Fine. So, as a result of that, if you’re not careful, you can become ve