It seems the word “genius” is bandied about far too often, but when you’re talking about Ray Charles, no other word will do. As a pianist, singer, songwriter, arranger and band leader, Charles almost single-handedly invented modern R&B music.
Born Ray Charles Robinson on Sept. 23, 1930, he climbed up on a piano bench at the age of three and never left. Though he lost his sight three years later, Charles taught himself to arrange and compose by ear. By the time he was a teenager, he was touring the country with his own trio. His work with Atlantic in the 1950s and ABC in the 1960s produced some of the most soulful recordings of the past century. “What’d I Say,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “Georgia,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Busted,” “Crying Time”—these songs are permanent strands in the tapestry of American music.
On what would have been Ray’s 82nd birthday we decided to pay tribute by revisiting an interview we had with him when he had just turned 72. Thanks for all the music and memories, Ray—we sure do miss you!
In the late 1940s you were singing in the style of two of your heroes—Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. Then when you signed with Atlantic, you left the imitations behind. What was going through your mind, and how did you make the leap into your own style?
One morning I woke up and I was just laying there in the bed with thoughts running through my mind, when all of a sudden it hit me. I began to realize that people would come up to me and say, “Hey, kid, hey, kid, you sound just like Nat Cole!” Or “Hey, kid, you sound like Charles Brown!” It was always “Hey, kid.” And I began to tell myself, “You know one thing? Don’t nobody really know your name. They don’t know who the hell you are. You’re just a ‘Hey, kid.’” And then my thoughts went back to my mom. She used to always tell me, “Boy, be yourself. I don’t care what you are, but be yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not.” So I started telling myself that. Although I was scared to do it because I could get work sounding like Nat Cole. I said, “Oh man, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Suppose I fail?” But I thought, I can’t keep going around imitating. I have to sound like myself, good, bad or indifferent. If I make it, I make it. If I don’t, I don’t.
Did you ever meet Nat Cole?
Oh yeah, I loved him. He was such a mild man—just like his voice sounds to you. He was a very warm person, and he knew I loved him. He was very genuine with me. He said, “You know, I appreciate it, and it’s really really nice that you’ve patterned yourself after me, but I have to tell you, in the end, you’re gonna want to find your own way.” That’s the way he put it. “You’re gonna want to find your own way.” There’s nothing wrong with admiring people. We all admire people. I don’t care what you do in your life. You got it from somebody. That’s why you admire that person. If you’re a writer or a musician or a newspaperman, there’s somebody that made you feel good about what you do. He understood that, Nat Cole.
It seems like you became a songwriter almost out of necessity. Do you feel like it’s something that came naturally to you?
Well, it had to come natural. You used the right words when you said out of necessity, because that’s really what started me writing. Atlantic would send me songs, and I didn’t like them, yet I wanted to record. So I finally said to myself, “If you don’t like what they’re sending you, maybe you should write your own stuff.” And so I just started doing that. But I’m not a genuine writer—I’ve seen guys that could write a song in five minutes. It would take me two or three days to write a song. I’d write it, tear it up, rewrite it, tear it up, until I got it to where I thought I wanted it. But as it turned out, the things I wrote, the majority of them were very successful. Writing is something that I enjoyed doing, but it was not the kind of thing that I wanted to pursue. I was blessed in the sense that I knew how to write. I just sort of put it to good use. But as soon as I got to the point where I could go out and hire people to write good stuff for me, I almost stopped writing completely. Now I may write an arrangement once every year and a half, two years, just to keep in practice. But otherwise, I don’t do any writing anymore.
One of my favorites of your early songs is “Greenbacks.” Was it a tribute to Louis Jordan?
Oh no. What I did in tribute to Louis was “Let the Good Times Roll.” I was crazy about him. He was very unique. He had his own style. That’s what I love about the musicians of the past. They had their own thing. Today you find people and everybody’s trying to sound like who had the last hit. But you know, when I came up, you heard people like Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. All of these people, Nat Cole, Charles Brown, every one of these people, if they sang two notes, just two, you knew who they were. That’s what I don’t see today, and that bothers me. I don’t see creativity like it used to be, where everybody stood on their own.
Talking about your own style, you caught some flak in the 1950s for combining gospel and blues. Did you think youmight be onto something new and revolutionary?
I didn’t even bother about it. I didn’t even think about it when I got the flak. You see, that was one of those things where I said, “If I’m going to be myself, I got to be myself.” If some people don’t like it, I cannot help that. Why wouldn’t I sound like that? That’s the way I grew up: listening to the blues, and I grew up in the church. It came very natural just to sing the way you sing. It wasn’t like something that I created, I was just being myself. I was around the blues and heard Big Boy Crudup, Tampa Red, Big Joe Turner and all those people, and yet I went to all the revival meetings, the Sunday services, Sunday school. All the things that had to do with the church, I was involved with. Naturally, I was influenced by that. So if you’re influenced by something, it’s going to come out in you, isn’t it? There you are.
How do you keep your voice in shape?
I’m very fortunate that my voice has held up over the years. I just made 72. But I don’t do anything special. Of course, as you grow into what you’re doing, you learn how to do things a lot easier. It’s like a ball player, like a pitcher, for instance, you know? When he first gets into the league, he throws the ball. Then after a while, he learns how to pitch. So that’s the same thing. When you’re young, you don’t know how to really use your voice, so you tend to holler instead of sing, if you know what I mean. But as you mature, you learn how to take care of your voice, and you know how to sing the notes without straining yourself. So I just sing very natural and very easy. I don’t put no strain on my voice. I just let it do what it’s gonna do (laughs).
When you’re singing “Hit the Road Jack” or something you’ve done many times, how do you stay emotionally connected?
It’s the easiest thing in the world. You take a song like “Georgia,” I’ve sung it thousands of times. But what happens is when I sing something, I never ever sing it the same way twice. And that’s not because I’m trying to be different, but it’s because I sing according to what I feel that night. Every day of our lives we feel different. You don’t feel the same way today as you felt yesterday —you may come close, but there is a little difference, and what difference there is, makes the difference.
—by Bill DeMain