The night at the Howard Theatre was all so familiar, and perhaps a bit bittersweet. A master of concerts, which are always thinly disguised church meetings, Ray Charles recycled all the electricity of the good times of the past.
"We're gonna hear us some right Reverend Ray," one woman shouted as the band struck up its first note. Was there even a time when "What'd I Say" wasn't instantly recognized?
With members of the audience standing, waving their arms like palms of welcome, the man sat down, his slight body swinging like a pendulum, his raspy voice shouting out "Marie, your lips so tender." It went on -- the songs that are now adults in musical history, the interpreter who is the granddaddy of modern pop music and an audience that spans his 35 creative years, offering newborn shouts.
"Here are the Raeletts. Sweetness. Tenderness. Softness." The voice of Charles is oozing jive and saccharin. "Let me repeat the word softness.It's something that you can feel. Amen for the feel."
The next morning the exuberant spirit is still intact from Friday night, but there is room for calm thoughtfulness. Dressed in a maroon jumpsuit, Charles sits back, no visible worries on his lean face, its [WORD ILLEGIBLE] burnish marked by a rough beardy shadow. Almost 50 now, survivor of the prices and privileges of fame and the gambles of a fast personal life, Charles foresees few career wrinkles and ponders the question of how he's managed to last so long. "Well, I obviously don't rightly know," he says. "What's important for my longevity is that I've always played to people. I don't care nothing about where I am. . . . If you have talent -- now, of course, you have to have some talent, and you treat it very delicately and sincerely. The public can tell, after a while they know you are genuine. The people who survive are the ones who are consistent in their work. They are always good."
For a true American musical original, this blueprint of raw material, hard work and box-office sense seems appropriate. More than anyone, Charles created the contemporary idiom of soul, fusing gospel's fervor with the weary and searing passions of the blues, all the while paying homage to the jazz and honky-tonk men he was weaned on. It was a musical combustion no one else has matched. He influenced two generations of singers, from Stevie Wonder to the Beatles to Loretta Lynn. And Frank Sinatra once said, "Ray Charles is the only genius in our business." Charles fusses over that.
"I figure, all right, after all, he's a singer, and he knows what I am doing. He's a tremendous figure. So therefore, if he says this, then what can I say?" says Charles. "I have had some wonderful things said about me. People have called me a genius, a cornerstone, a legend in my own time. I tell you I don't take them that seriously. I have sense enough to know I am not a genius."
During the 10-year span from 1956 to 1966, the years Ray Charles dominated pop music, he lived and loved as hard as he worked. Now there are no regrets about the women and children he left in his wake or the 17 years of heroin addiction. And even though the last 10 years have seen few hits and an end to his marriage of more than 20 years, the faithful audiences and the respect his name evokes bring him adequate satisfaction. "Music to me is part of me. I am never going to retire from it," he says. ". . . As long as the public feels as they do right now, I will always play. I would play music for nothing. It just so happens that people want to pay me. I look at music the same as I look at my blood-stream, my respiratory system, my lungs. It's something I have to have."
Twenty-two years after his first major hit, "I Got a Woman," Charles' style remains constant, entangled in the same lack of innovation that faced Louis Armstrong in his later years. His records, all produced on his own Crossover Records label, have slumped in sales. But the dynamism of his personal appearances hasn't changed, and he still is a contender in music polls. Of his 10 Grammy Awards and numerous industry nominations, several have occurred in this decade of eclipse. In 1975 he won a Grammy for his interpretation of "Living for the City," and last year was nominated for his version of "Some Enchanted Evening."
In a way, these years are a time of pay backs. Some critics have said he is all washed up, but his performance humbled the "Saturday Night Live" gang. On Thursday he plays with the Boston Pops. A black man raised in the dust of a shotgun house in Georgia, Charles made the state legislature come to its feet when his song "Georgia" was adopted as the official state song. "I cried over that. I never thought I would live to see the day," says Charles. "When I came up, you had to be careful even which way you looked. You realized as a little kid, walking around barefoot, raggedy, you come out of the prejudice, the lynchings. And someone would say they are going to take a song of yours and make it the official song of Georgia. You said, 'uh-huh.'"
That's where it all started, along a dirt patch in Albany, Ga. His mother took in wash and the family was so poor, Charles recalls, that they "ate everything on the pig but the oink." Music and tragedy were his early companions. Through the church and a jumping local general store, Charles learned gospel, blues and big band.
When he was 5, he watched his brother drown in a backyard washtub, and a year later glaucoma slowly took young Ray's sight. "Well, when you are that young, a lot of things come easier," he says, talking about his lack of bitterness over his blindness. "I just sort of floated into it. It didn't bother me. What bothered me was going to a strange school, leaving my mother, being in an atmosphere that was totally foreign to me."
At a segregated school for the blind in Orlando, Fla., Charles learned to cook, ride a bicycle and play the basic Strauss melodies. But his heart belonged to jazz and boggie-woogie. As a teen-ager, he showed some promise and sat in with one of the late Cannonball Adderly's groups. At age 15, after the death of his mother, he started out on his own, slowly at first, moving from Tampa to Seattle, determined that the soda-cracker-and-sardine existence would turn into at least a steady job.
His first goal was to stand equal with Nat "King" Cole. "The reason I emulated him, he was more into what I wanted to do than Art Tatum. Now Art was God on the piano as far as I was concerned. But Nat sang and accompanied himself," recalls Charles. "When people would say, 'Ray, you sound so much like Nat Cole.' I got to thinking, that's nice, but. . . . I knew I couldn't keep doing this. I had to find out if people liked my voice."
In the early 1950s Charles had a few solid hits on the black circuit. And soon, he would prove what crossover meant with songs like "I Got a Woman," "What'd I Say," and the records from his first country and western album, "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "You Don't Know Me." "My career is like a ladder. It wasn't all of a sudden. It sort of grew," says Charles, sitting in the corner of his hotel suite's couch. "It may have happened when we did 'Georgia.' Then we did 'Ruby,' then the country and western album. It sold over two million albums. So I would guess by the time of 1958, I was at the beginning of what one would call the peak."
The men around him in the early days recall his stubbornness and creativity fondly. "His talent and his uniqueness haven't diminished," says producer Jerry Wexler. "As his own producer, he is not serving himself as well. He, like everyone else, needs a sounding board. But let me say it would be an overstatement to say we produced him. We were in attendance."
Parts of the Ray Charles lore involve his female backup singers, the Raeletts. One night when he was recording "I Believe to My Soul," he became impatient with the group's trial and error. He sent them home and then did the four-part falsetto by himself. The lore also includes the casting-couch auditions the Raeletts reportedly had. Charles is unabashed. "Well you know what they say, if you wanted to be a Raelett, you had to let Ray," is Charles' standard reply.
George Wein, the festival producer, remembers another side of Charles. "During the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, Charles was into a hot, swinging number. And the crowd started to move to the stage. This was the year a riot was going on outside the park. And I had learned from Duke Ellington how to calm a crowd: just slip into a blues number. So I snuck up behind Ray and whispered, 'Slow blues.' Without missing a note, he went into a blues. Anyone else just reaching their peak would have wanted the crowd screaming," recalls Wein.
In the 1960s, even though his own life was etched with pain and his name carried immense respectability, Charles left the protesting to others. "I think everybody has a function in life. Everybody can't be a leader. My thing with Dr. King, I knew he was going to be put in jail, he was going to have to rent buses, pay for food, need lawyers. So the best way for me to serve the man, I could raise money," says Charles. He sounds angry. "I am not going to go out there and get in line for no damn body. My temperament wouldn't stand it. I would be dead the first time anybody hit me. . . . I am just too gut-bucket."
During this time a succession of drug arrests kept Chares' name in the paper. After 17 years on heroin, he checked himself into a hospital when he found he couldn't sit through his son's Little League banquet. In his autobiography, "Brother Ray," published last year, he is frank about his drug pursuits, saying, "I believe if I am not inflicting my problem on you, then it's my business."
His stand about drugs hasn't changed. "I'm not a missionary. If somebody asks me something I tell them the truth. People want you to say you hated drugs, someone forced you into it. I can't tell those lies because it didn't happen that way," he says. "When I do talk to kids, I do tell them what I really know. Drugs ain't never made anyone do anything better."
When he is not making music in the two-story, plain office building in Los Angeles that houses Crossroads, Charles spends his time at his L.A. home, reading in Braille editions of Playboy or Reader's Digest, playing chess and listening to his favorite singers."I usually want something soft. When I don't want my motor going so fast, I listen to Sinatra. Or, I've got some records on Aretha she did back for Columbia. Anything that's soft," he says. Suddenly he laughs, his knees jerking upward. "I might even listen to myself if I can bring myself to it."
Ultimately the picture Brother Ray wants to leave is of a man at peace. "I guess I am content. I work as much as I like. I have a big band," he says. As an aside he explains why the band is now predominantly white. "It just goes to show you," he says. "I hire who can play. The good thing about it, though, I don't have to look at none of them."
But back to satisfaction. "I have the Raeletts. The traveling -- now I have my own plane," he says. "I'm just not trying to reach any goals."