Hey y'all, tell everybody Ray Charles is in town I got a dollar and a quarter, and I'm just rarin" to clown . . .
-- "Let the Good Times Roll"
IT'S HARD TO look at Ray Charles as an elder statesman, but that is what he is. At 52, a veteran of more than 35 years in show business, he refers to himself as "the old man," and his music has clearly evolved from the house-rocking foot-stomping, storefront flavor that revolutionized American popular music between 1954 and 1959, when "What'd I Say?" was banned on radio stations all across the country, and still became a hit.
And yet his commitment to the music is just the same -- it is a fundamental commitment to a whole panoply of American sounds, ranging from the gospel stylings with which he made his reputation, to the country and western with which he solidified it, to the blues and the show tunes and the jazz and the hard bop. On Wednesday, he'll be among the performers at the Country Music Association's 25th anniversary program at Constitution Hall. He has continued to hear new sounds.
"Look, let's face it, good music is good music," he declares. The statement is made in his tastefully appointed Los Angeles studio/office building, where Charles is mixing a single from his new album for CBS. "Meaning what? Meaning good is always good -- I don't care if it's Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff or one of those cylinders that was made almost 100 years ago; effort went into it, and I can appreciate that. Music's been around a long time, and there's going to be music long after Ray Charles is dead. I just want to make my mark, leave something musically good behind. If it's a big record, that's the frosting on the cake, but music's the main meal."
Ray Charles' proudest boast is not that he is a genius ("Art Tatum -- he was a genius. And Einstein. Not me.") but that he is a good "utility man" ("I don't think I've excelled in any one thing, but I've done a lot of things pretty well.")
In his studio, Charles is surrounded by sound. If it is not pouring out of the giant Rogers speakers cantilevered from the ceiling above the console, he is humming something to himself -- "The Marine March," "Silent Night," "The Theme from Peter Gumn" -- or whistling a snatch of "The Pink Panther," "The Blue Danube Waltz," "Pop Goes the Weasel." Anything, really, but the cutting edge of silence.
He is a trim, energetic man, seemingly untouched by the years save for the flecks of gray in his hair. He is dressed neatly in basic colors -- black beltless slacks, red shirt with white buttons and a white RC monogrammed on the breast pocket, shiny black loafers, a loud red-and-white-checked jacket hung up carefully in the closet, and of course, the wraparound dark glasses that have been his trademark since friends suggested he wear them "for the sake of appearance" more than 30 years ago.
The control room itself is a model of efficiency. Everything is in its place, from Charles' oversized Houston Oilers' coffee mug to the hundreds of cassette demos and boxes of reel-to-reel tape that spill out from the closet. Charles moves about the room with the sure-footed rapidity of a sighted person in a hurry. He doesn't walk, he runs, and he is a man in constant motion.
Ray Charles is a man who loves his work. Over and over he listens to the song, bringing up one track, mixing down another, trying to bring the phase-shifter guitar into focus on both channels without losing the thudding bottom of bass and drums. The studio is dark, the lights in the control room dim as he deftly manipulates the levers, marking the sound level for each passage. In addition to the 24-track console that he is mixing to, there are also a 3-M 16 track, an Ampex 4-track and a Nakamichi 550 portable. The sound booms out first from the studio speakers, then is switched down to a pair of tiny Auratones, then down to a monomix -- "for the lady working in the kitchen listening to her AM radio," says Charles. "I just want to be sure the sound is there, I want to hear the remnants of the bass, I want to know that it can be brought up if you've got the proper equipment. There's lots of gimmickry out there, but what it comes down to is what you can hear. The rest is bull----."
Charles recently released "Wish You Were Here Tonight," the first explicitly country-and-western album that he has made since the classic "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volumes 1 and 2" in the early '60s. Those records represented one of the biggest stylistic turnabouts in contemporary popular music and included such titles as "Born To Lose," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "You Don't Know Me" and "Take These Chains From My Heart (And Set Me Free)" -- among the biggest sellers of his career.
The new album is intended as a kind of sequel, 20 years down the line, but with several differences. For one thing the treatment is much more straightforwardly country. Where the earlier albums were in Ray Charles' words "country songs with a pop sound," the new one is filled with fiddle, mandolin, banjo and steel guitar running all the way through. It is very much a conscious decision ("I wanted to get the actual country and western sound"). While no one would ever mistake Ray Charles' voice for any other, there are some grounds for confusion here since there are so many of Charles' voices. In addition to singing harmony with himself and offering sardonic interpolations, he is also a swelling chorus of at least a dozen voices, from soprano to baritone; all the voices on the album and the two earlier ones, in fact, are Charles".
The biggest difference, though, between this album and the two earlier ones, is that Ray Charles is cutting his new record for CBS" country division, to which he has been signed. He was already making a country album on his own label when Rick Blackburn, head of CBS Nashville, approached him about a year ago about recording for Columbia. After negotiating a contract without lawyers present ("Ray doesn't use an attorney," says Blackburn. "He's his own. The agreement was that I couldn't use one "either""), Charles went back to work on the album in earnest in May, cutting an album that Blackburn hopes will pick up where "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" left off and rejuvenate Charles' recording career.
As for Charles, it is one more step in a career that has developed as logically and arbitrarily as a child's building-block construction, every element in it stable and predictable, with the exception of the core inspiration -- in this case, the music.
RAY CHARLES. The legend. Black. Blind. A heroin addict for nearly two decades. A pioneer in the music of wild abandon that has come to be known as rock "n" roll. The rough outlines of his life are well known. He was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Ga., in 1930, grew up in Greenville, Fla., where at 6 he started to lose his sight because of glaucoma. Earlier, he had seen his brother drown in the washtub his mother used for take-in laundry. At 7, he was enrolled him in the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind, where he learned how to read and write music in Braille, score for the big bands and play piano, alto, organ, clarinet and trumpet. His earliest musical influences were Chopin, Sibelius, Art Tatum, Artie Shaw and Wylie Pitman, operator of Greenville's Red Wing Cafe, who encouraged the young "R.C." on piano. When Charles was 15, his mother died, leaving him alone in the world. He quit school, moved to Jacksonville and began his professional music career.
Charles first played in a Count Basie-style big band, then in a smaller Louis Jordan-type combo. In Tampa he joined a hillbilly group called the Florida Playboys and learned to yodel. Whatever the sound -- classical, jazz, rocking romantic -- he refused to discriminate. At 17 he took his $600 in savings and moved as far away as he could get -- to Seattle. According to Quincy Jones, then a 15-year-old prodigy on the Seattle scene who met Charles shortly after he arrived, he was "like forty years old. He knew everything. He knew about ladies and music and life, because he was so independent."
In Seattle, Charles quickly picked up the life he had led in Florida, gigging at places like the Elks Club, the Rocking Chair, the Black and Tan, and forming a trio with a Florida friend, Gosady McGee, that was modeled on Nat King Cole's. In Seattle, he became Ray Charles, to avoid confusion with the great middleweight boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson, and in 1948 he made his first record, "Confession Blues," for Jack Lauderdale's Down Beat (later renamed Swing Time) label.
He went on to make more than 40 sides for Lauderdale over the next four years, including a couple of fairsized rhythm and blue hits, but there was no recognizable sound, no musical identity. Listen to any one of the records today, and you hear a precise enunciation, a cool, rather brittle presence, a precarious sophistication that is virtually indistiguishable from a Nat King Cole or Charles Brown hit of the period. Charles admired Cole extravagantly for his "soft, sentimental, silky kind of a touch -- and, of course, he could play the hell out of a piano," but there was no sense of direction to his own music, Charles insists.
"I wasn't seeking nothing. I wasn't headed for nothing. All I wanted to do was to play music. All I knew was the music I liked was the music I felt, and how can you explain a feeling? Way before I became, pardon the expression, the Ray Charles, anywhere I could find good music being played, I just wanted to be a part of it."
The records that he made reflected popular taste. The music he made reflected Ray Charles' insatiable appetite for sounds. When Atlantic Records bought his contract in 1952, he had proved his facility in a number of styles, acquired professional seasoning on the road with blues singer Lowell Fulson, shown his technical versatility by doing the charts for Fulson's 8-piece band -- buy by his own admission he still wasn't Ray Charles. By his own admission, too, he was not really knocked out about any aspect of his career.
Over the next couple of years, Altantic allowed him a degree of freedom he had not previously experienced. "I got to give those cats some skin, man," he says enthusiastically. "They let me go in the studio and fool around and do any kind of thing. It was all a workshop. They heard what I was doing, and they let me do it, even though it was three years before we had a hit."
By then, Charles had his own seven-piece band, a factor as critical to the discovery of his own voice as his celebrated embrace of gospel stylings, and one that was dictated as much by necessity as by prudent career planning. "I was going crazy, man. I couldn't take it. Because, you see, you would go into town, and the guy would say he's got the musicians to back you, and the musicians weren't s---! And if you're a very fussy person like I am -- I mean, I'm very fussy about good musicians!"
The direction Charles chose was to make records with his band. In November 1954, he called Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler to Atlanta to hear the group. "We met him at his hotel," recalls Wexter. "He took us across the street to a nightclub called the Royal Peacock -- this was in the afternoon, and his band was sitting there, all ready to play, just sitting there in their chairs, and he went to the piano and counted off and they hit into "I've Got a Woman," and that was it."
That was it. It was the fusion of all the elements that till then had simply failed to coalesee; it was the uninhibited, altogether abandoned sound of the church; it was the keening, ecstatic voicings by which the world has come to know Ray Charles best.
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of that record. Without ever making the pop charts, it exerted a profound influence on the course of American popular music. To Jerry Wexler it was the quintessence of Ray Charles and r&b.
Charles was probably less affected by its impact than anyone -- at least in retrospect. He appreciated the timing, because it allowed him to keep his band. He took the moral condemnations in stride, dismissing philosophically the denunications that came not only from the pulpit but from blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy, who declared, "He's crying sanctified. He's mixing the blues with the spirituals. He should be singing in a church."
"I got a lot of flak because some people felt it was like an abomination to the church, but then people began to realize, "No, that ain't it at all, the man is just singing what he feels. He's got to sing what's in him. He got to sing it the way he feel it." That was when I gave up trying to sound like Nat Cole. I said, "Okay, sound like Ray, be yourself." The minute I started being me, that was all I knew, I couldn't be nothing else but that."
CHARLES BECAME a hero to the black community in a mythic sense. He was the Bishop, the Right Reverend, the High Priest of Soul. He was, in Julian Bond's poem, "seducer of the world with his voice," and he became, in Atlantic's publicity, "The Genius." The next five years were years of unparalleled triumph -- "Drown in My Own Tears," "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," "Lonely Avenue," "This Little Girl of Mine," "Night Time Is the Right Time" -- but he was still a black entertainer suffering the indignities of the chitlin circuit, playing almost exclusively for his own people.
"We left playing to the white folks to Pat Boone. We did dances. Strictly dances. Play 9 to 1: go from 9 to 11:30, take a half hour break, come back and work 12 to 1. Big hall, somebody be frying some chicken over in the corner, some fish maybe -- yeah, some of those dances were rough. These places were very warm, man, I don't have to tell you. You take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing exactly. The same thing, man."
Always the music was different. When Charles played Atlanta's Herndon Stadium, "Drown in My Own Tears" became the blues anthem of a generation. When he played the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, half the set was instrumental, and in fact, of the 10 or so albums he did as a leader for Atlantic, fully half were jazz. The body of work created from 1955 to 1959 is unrivaled for its variety, originality, energy and influence.
Still, things didn't really change in terms of career until 1959 when "What I'd Say?" came out.Born at a dance in Brownsville outside of Pittsburgh with 15 minutes left to fill, the song was little more than a riff that Charles embroidered on and the Raeletts brought to a panting, moaning climax that was definitely a first for the white airwaves. It was a culmination of the style that Ray Charles had virtually created, an altogether secular evocation of an actual church service, complete with moans, groans and a congregation talking in tongues, a joyous celebration of an utterly profane love. The record went gold, Charles's first millon seller. Ray Charles started playing concerts instead of dances.
And it marked another period in his life, too. Six months after the success of "What'd I Say?", Ray Charles left Atlantic, the company that had nurtured him, for a lucrative, multiyear contract with ABC. He was only 29 years old.
Looking back on it today, he has all kinds of thoughts, and perhaps even a few regrets. ABC certainly did not provide the personal attention Atlantic had, but, according to Charles, he no longer needed that. ABC, which had virtually no r&b artists, must have wanted him badly, because, in addition to a good royalty deal, they offered profit-sharing and eventual ownership of his masters. This was virtually unheard of in the music business then and remains a notable rarity today. What it meant was that once Charles was off the label, ABC could not repackage his records or do more than sell off existing stock. Sole ownership of the master recordings today rests with Ray Charles, probably as shrewd an investment as any complicated real estate or financial package he could have put together.
Almost immediately Charles put a wall-like barrier between his ABC and his Atlantic work. His first ABC album was called "The Genius Hits the Road," a string-drenched selection of "place name" standards like "Alabamy Bound," "Mississippi Mud," "Moonlight in Vermont" and, of course, "Georgia," which sold more than any other single to date. His second album, "Dedicated to You," pursued the same thematic and sentimental tack, with romantic standards strung together by the common thread of each number representing a woman's name.
Charles continued to record what became r&b classics for ABC, like "Hit the Road, Jack." But if his creativity never lapsed, it dramatically changed direction. The man who was known for writing nearly all his own hits phased out of writing altogether ("There's absolutely no difference between writing and interpreting," he insists today. "Whatever you do, you can only be yourself"), left the arrangements to Ralph Burns, Sid Feller or Quincy Jones and put together an 18-piece band for his live performances.
"Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" was probably the high point of his ABC period, both artistically and commercially, a new direction, an old enthusiasm ("I always loved country music, you must understand that"), another pathbreaking move toward a racially mixed audience of hitherto undreamt of proportions.
When Charles proposed the album, Sam Clark, then president of ABC, suggested he might lose some fans. "Which I thought was very legitimate, very nice. I said, "Well, Mr. Clark, I feel that you are totally right about that. And I've thought about that." Which I had. "But the reason I want to do this is that I think I can gain more than I can lose." And the rest is history. I had never heard "I Can't Stop Loving You," never heard "Born to Lose." Sid Feller must have sent me about 150 songs, and I picked out the ones I wanted to do, and it worked out pretty good."
Charles stayed with ABC for about 15 years, enjoying one degree of success or another and weathering heroin busts in Philadelphia, in Indianapolis and finally in 1965 a headline-making one in Boston, which took him off the road for a year and led him to quit once and for all. When he left ABC in 1973 he took his master recordings with him. Since then he has released several albums on his own label (Crossover), and in the late '70s, made three or four records for Atlantic. He remains one of the most dependable live draws and popular TV guest stars around.
"I hope I've grown. I hope I don't sound the same at 52 as I did when I was 18. If I do, there's something wrong. You know, people are always saying, "How come you don't do more of the old-type stuff" -- and I understand what they mean, they're talking about the old r&b-type situation. Which I appreciate, and which I enjoy -- in its place. But the way I look at it, a person don't never stay the same -- every day you grown, and five or six years from now, you may be a completely different individual. I think the best way to approach it is to look at your life, to watch yourself grow and enjoy seeing how you progressed in it.
"Some people say, "Oh, Ray Charles is in a country bag now." Not true. I happen to have cut a country album, but I might just turn around tomorrow and cut a jazz album or a blues album -- I don't know. The bottom line is that I must enjoy me -- as egotistical as it sounds, it must knock me out first, because if I dont's feel it, I can't expect you to feel it."
"In my life," he says, "everything I did, I did what I thought was right at the time. In my music, I've always sung music I've liked, and I've always sung it the way I feel tonight; tomorrow it may be something else altogether. Every song represents itself, each song demands its own setting. Everything, as far as I'm concerned, is notes that is Humphrey Bogarted or Bette Davised.
"Instead of talking it, I sing it."