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.