There are songs you’ve done–“Yesterday,” “Take Me Home Country Roads” or “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma”–that people might be surprised to hear you sing. Where did you find these songs?
“Look What They Done” was a big record, and I heard it on the radio. “Country Roads” I heard on the radio, and I liked them–I liked the songs, not necessarily the way they were done.
Would that also be the case with “Yesterday”?
You could hear yourself singing it in your style immediately?
Yeah, right away. When I heard “Yesterday,” I could hear myself singin’ it the way the record came out. That’s the way I judge a song. It’s not always a question of whether a song is good or bad, it’s a question of whether or not it’s somethin’ that I can handle, whether I can feel it in my own way. The song may be a marvelous song, like, say, for instance, “Stardust.” I love that song, but I’ll never record it, because I just can’t hear myself into it. And I love the song, now.
Now, I take any song–if you wrote a song right now, you don’t have to be a good pianist or good guitarist; as long as you can somehow give me the idea… sometimes I get songs from people, and they try to sing them the way they think I would sing them. Bad mistake. Really bad. The main thing is that–just give me the song period. Because in the end, I’m going to do it the way I hear it. So it’s better for the guy–just like the guys who for instance wrote a lot of songs that I do–years ago. But–take ‘Georgia.” That wasn’t written for me. The thing is write the song, and then if I like it, I’ll find out what I want to do to it.
So it’s the lyrics that you watch for that strike you in music.
First of all, I guess I lean toward the lyrics. I guess. If I had to be pinned down–I guess it would be like 5l-49, there’s not no big gap between the lyrics and the music. But if somebody said, Ray, you can’t be even. You gotta pick one. I would probably go with the lyrics, because, you know, in lyrics, you can say the whole thing in two sentences. For instance, I’ll just give you an example. I think that just the thought, I can’t stop loving you–boom. I mean, that’s said a lot for people. It’s like Aretha singin’ “What you want, baby? I got it.” I mean, she can say doo doo doo doo–anything after that. Every woman in the world, whether she admits it or not, knows that she wants to say this to her man–What you want, baby. I got it. You understand me? That’s–you see, it’s little things like that that affect people. “What’d I Say” was–had a good rhythm pattern to it, but if you want to take any lyrics outta that, you know–during those days, it’s like a guy says, *See the girl with the red dress.” People can be synonymous with that, you know. “See the girl with the diamond ring. She knows how to shake that thing.” It wasn’t the diamond ring that got ’em.
Writing your songs, you were in the mainstream of blues and jazz, but in picking music, I find you doing kind of a schmaltzy song like “Breathless,” comparing a person to a bird or an angel. You’ve always done Broadway showtunes along with blues, jazz, and country, so you’ve never allowed yourself to get categorized.
I heard somebody one time say that all black people got rhythm. Bullshit. Ain’t no such thing as that. You cannot generalize with people. You can say if you want that maybe the bulk of the people go a certain way. You understand?
Have you heard much about the new black movies?
No, not really. I haven’t really delved into it.
Some people have charged that movies like ‘Super Fly’ romanticize those things in the black culture that are romanticized by, say ‘Godfather’ or by cowboy movies.
Well, see, you gotta remember that you have the same thing going on in every culture. People may do it a little different, but see, as I read the Bible, I find things in there–all I gotta do is read the Bible and I read the news today. So people kill in every culture. People rape in every culture. People steal in every culture.
I would have to say that I think if I was gonna make a movie of that kind, I would do it in a different way and still say the same thing. I don’t think it’s so much of what you’re saying, it’s the way it was being said to make it seem like it’s quite glamorous, and I don’t think I would have went that far. You see, you should also show in that movie, yeah, you can go out and be a coke dealer, too, but you gotta remember you’re gonna wind up killin’ a few of your brothers, too, dealin’ in that kinda stuff and you’re gonna wind up sendin’ quite a few people to jail, and you’re gonna wind up breakin’ a lotta people’s hearts, too, when you’re doin’ that. ‘Cause believe me, man, there’s nothin’ worse than seein’ a l2-year-old kid hooked. I mean, you know when you got coke, you got some heroin around. C’mon now.
Did your own involvement in drugs almost knock you out in music?
No. No. No. Nope. I can’t say that.
Heights in music were reached during that stage?
Exactly. So I mean, obviously, I couldn’t say that, could I? You know, like I say, I ain’t never gonna lie to you. It didn’t knock me out or wasn’t about to knock me out. My thing was that when my kids started growin’ up–I remember one day my oldest son, he was one of the baseball players, they were havin’ a little reception Thursday night and they were giving out these little trophies, and I was supposed to go, and what happened, I had a recordin’ session that night. I was doing the sound track for The Cincinnati Kid, and I did the singin’ on that, as you remember, but what I did, I went by there with him to this banquet, and I had to leave before the thing was over, and he cried. And that hurt me. I started thinkin’, here’s a child. It means so much to him for his father to be at this banquet. And I started thinkin’ that suppose that somethin’ happened, I get put in jail and somebody comes along and says, ‘Oh, your daddy’s a jailbird.” Remember now, he’s gettin’ up there in age, now. He’s a little man, you know, and he gonna cry about that, I figure the next thing he’ll do is haul up and knock hell out of ’em, and now he’s gonna be in trouble all over me, when you break it down. That was my decision then. I said, look, I mean, that ain’t it for me. And I said, OK, I’ve had enough–it’s a risky business, it’s a dangerous business, anybody knockin’ on your door, you gotta double-check to see who it is.
When was this?
This was like in ’64 or ‘5 or somethin’, give or take, I don’t know, back in there, anyhow.
That all came to a head right around ’65.
That’s right. Right then.
Are you still suspect today?
Not that I know of. I think everybody knows that I’m deadly serious about that. I am sure, though, that maybe for the first four or five years, I was probably watched very closely. I have seen no evidence of this, don’t misunderstand me.
See, I do a lot of travelin’, you know, and I don’t know what’s in a hotel, they may have microphones, all kinda things, you know. And see, I’m always by myself, so I don’t know what may be in a place, but I do know this, that I figure it doesn’t matter as long as what I said is a fact and I meant it, and from that day to this one, I just felt that it was a bad scene, and really it just was a bad scene. I got involved in it–my situation is, I was young. I was about maybe 17, 18 years old or somethin’ like that, and it always, you know, like, it was a thing where I wanted to be among the big fellas, like cats in the band, and these guys would always go and leave the kid ’till we come back,” you know. And I wanted to be a part, so I begged and pleaded until somebody said, “OK, man, goddamn it, come on all right.” And they took me, and there I was, so they were doin’ it and I wanted to belong, you know. I mean, this is really how it started, and once it started, there it was, you know. But I never got so involved in it to the point where I was out of my mind or didn’t know what the hell I was doin’, you know. Like, I heard of people havin’ habits of $60 a day or $100 a day. I never had nothin’ like that.
How much did you take per day?
Oh, I probably spent about $20. Never got above that.
And you started right with the hardest stuff.
No, I–before I let you put me into that bag, I wanna tell you somethin’. I disagree sorely with people who say that people who smoke pot leads them to usin’ heroin. That’s bullshit. That’s crummy. That’s just somebody don’t know what they’re talkin’ about. ‘Cause I know far too many people who have never done nothin’ but tried to find some good reefer to smoke.
I remember the Man askin’ me one time, he said, “Look, if you tell us who the guy was that sold you the stuff and maybe we’ll make it easy for you.” I said, “Well, I guess you won’t make it easy for me, because I’m not gonna tell you nothin’. The man didn’t make me buy nothin’. I bought it ’cause I wanted to, and that’s not protecting anybody.” I searched ’em out to buy it. So they wasn’t solicitin’ me, I was solicitin’ them, seducin’ them to sell it to me. It’s just that I feel if the officials are going to blackmail me, then that don’t make them no better than the people who are out there sellin’ it.
What did you learn through the Viennese psychoanalyst?
The psychoanalyst that you were supposed to have seen for a couple of years?
What did we talk about? Nothin’. Like, and he’s not a psychoanalyst. I mean, what he was was a psychiatrist. He had no influence, say, as far as my doing or not doing anything. As a matter of fact, we didn’t even get into–I told him one thing. I went there and said, “First of all we’re gonna get one thing straight. You don’t have to convince me not to do anything. I’ve already made up my mind, I ain’t gonna do it, and it’s finished. Fine. That’s it.” And so, when we saw each other we just talked in general about just whatever popped up, and hell, I think I probably talked to him more about his practice, what the hell he was doin’ than about myself.
Was that year off hard for you?
I’m basically a lazy person. It’s never hard for me to relax. But I do enjoy doin’ things. The work I’m doin’ is not work to me. It’s fun. See, it’s like a hobby that I’m gettin’ paid for, and truly is part of my relaxation. This is really it for me.
Then why did you take a year off?
Well, I felt that I should do it just because I wanted to. Now, it was necessary, of course. I hired a psychiatrist so that when we went into court, I thought it might be beneficial. You tell a judge somethin’ like a cat been usin’ somethin’ for 15 years, and he all of a sudden the man say he ain’t gonna do it no more, and the cat gonna say, “Sure, come on now, Iet’s get down to the facts.” But if a psychiatrist says it, for some reason, at least the judge will kinda lean towards believin’ the cat. So that was the whole purpose of the whole thing. Because, let’s face it, man, if a guy doesn’t want to stop doin’ somethin’, the judge, the psychiatrist, thejailer, ain’t nobody gonna–the people stay in jail five years and come out on the street one day right back at it. So obviously jailin’ ain’t the answer to it, right? And it’s a made-up mind of what you want to do with yourself. It’s just like people who’s smokin’, and I felt about that as I think I would feel–let’s say the doctor told you, hey, man, you smoke one more cigarette, you be dead in six months. Now if you can make yourself stop under those conditions, you can also make yourself stop if you see somethin’ happenin’ to your children or somethin’ happenin’ to your life or whatever. You just tell yourself, look, OK, that’s a bad scene. I’m gonna quit. Just stop, you know. And once your mind is made up, that’s it. That’s all it is, man. I know I’m over-simplifying it, but I swear to you, this is the truth. I believe–I’ll tell you somethin’, now, I had the psychiatrist, and the man had a legal right to what you call trim me down a little less each day until I got down to nothin’. I didn’t do that. OK? Now, that’s somethin’. The doctor didn’t believe this himself, that I have never in all my years, I’ve never seen nothin’ like this in my life. They even tested me, man. They thought somebody must be slippin’ me somethin’. Then, so they cut my visitation off, just to make sure, and I still was the same way, so they said, no, it can’t be that. And then, another thing surprised him. Not only was I not doing anything, but they try to say do you want anything to help you sleep? You want any sleepin’ pills? I said well,’ I ain’t been takin’ sleepin’ pills. I don’t figure I need to take ’em now. So and that was kind of a shocker. Because the hospital didn’t believe it, the doctor didn’t believe it. And man, they sent me in–they tested me two or three times, the usual testin’ that they do on you. They sent me up here to I think it’s Maclaine’s Hospital in Boston, because this was ordered by the court. Like, they called me up one day and I’m workin’ like hell, you know? Doin’ my concerts, and they called me up one day and said, “Hey, we want you to go to Maclaine’s Hospital and check in tomorrow. “Now that meant one thing. If I was doin’ it, they ain’t no way in the world I could get it outta my system in a day. So they sent me up there. Not only did they send me there, but what they did, they waited until the weather got kinda cool. Now they know if you usin’ any kinda drugs, you can’t stand that cold. You just can’t take it. So, man, they cut off the heat on me. Made me mad as hell. I went up and told the nurse I’m gonna sue the goddamn hospital if I catch cold. I know what y’all been doin’. I want some heat put back in my room. I mean, I’m not stupid. But, I’m literally freezin’. So you put the heat back in there. I’ll be damned if I–once I leave here, I got to go back to work, and I refuse to have pneumonia behind some bull. I guess the woman must have said they can’t be nothin’ wrong with this man, after all the testin’ we done and everything else, and all he can do is get mad, you know. So after a while they got to believe me, but it took an awful-lot of doin’, because it was unusual, quite unusual.
This came after your stay at St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood, California?
Yeah, well, this was somethin’ ordered by the court. This was part of my thing. They didn’t tell me I couldn’t work or nothin’, they just said, look, any day we might call you, you know, and say this to you. What they did, they watched my schedule and knew I was workin’, so they knew of a day when I wasn’t workin’. They knew my schedule better than me, and all of a sudden they just bam–you just got to go, man. So they did test me a couple of times just to make sure.
I didn’t have a wind-down program. I just stopped, period. You hear about people who bite the sheets and eat up the pillow, and I didn’t do none of that. So that worried people. They took all my clothes. They searched them. And they came in my room one day, they looked under the mattress, shit. I said “I don’t know what the hell you all lookin’ for, but they ain’t any way in the world I can get anything. Nobody’s comin’ here, and I don’t know where I could find it.” And you know they watched me like a hawk.
You were once asked about the messages in your songs; or, rather, the lack of messages. Only last year, in fact did you devote an album, ‘Message from the People,’ to anything but love song. Was there a particular moment that you thought was right for such an album?
No, it was a matter of getting material I could handle. Believe it or not, it is very difficult to make an album like that, unless you’re just tryin’ to throw somethin’ together. Remember I got to first feel the music, do somethin’ with the song. And that’s why in that album you have a song like “America.” I wasn’t tryin’ to just say the country is all bad, because it ain’t all bad. I love this country, man. And I wouldn’t live in no place else. You understand. My family was born here. My great-grandparents were born here. I think I got as much roots in this country as anybody else. So I think when somethin’s wrong, it’s up to me to try to change it. I was sayin’ that America is a beautiful country. It’s just some of our policies that people don’t dig. That’s what ‘Hey Mister” is all about. How can you live in the richest country in the world–I can see havin’ po’ people, don’t misunderstand me, you always gonna have the po’. But ain’t no need to have no hungry people, because if you got a million dollars, and I ain’t got say $30,000, I’m po’ compared to you. But the difference is that in a country with so much, where we pay people not to grow food, ain’t no reason for us to have hungry people.
When did you see Nixon?
How did that happen?
He had heard about–somehow he found out about my work with sickle cell, you know, and that’s what it is. Of course, his daughter is very interested in sickle cell, also… what’s her name, Julie? Yeah. That’s her name. Eisenhower? Yeah. Her. And evidently, somebody told her or he heard it some kinda way, you know. Anyway, we went over there yesterday mornin’. We were supposed to be there like 15 minutes, and we talked for 30 minutes.
Did you go into his office?
Right in the office. I was quite honored. I mean, after all, he is the President of the United States. It’s just–my thing is that I know that somebody–many times when you’re workin’ hard and you run into all kinds of difficult situations and irritations and things like that, and sometimes, you know, you feel that maybe nobody out there hears you, if you know what I mean. It’s nice to know once in a while that somebody did.
Who did the talking?
I think it was, believe it or not, 50-50. The conversation never lagged.
Did you feel inside that you wanted to say several things that you’ve been saying onstage; “Hey Mister”?
Uh, no, because first place, I got the assurance before I went there–because the one thing I did not want–now, see, the way they explained it to me was that the President wanted to speak to me about sickle cell. Now, well, first it came off like this, well, the President would like to see you at the White House, you know. Well, the first thing come into my mind, well, you know, like, I’m not–first of all I’m not, I may not necessarily be a McGovernite, but on the other hand, I’m certainly not a Republican, either. So, therefore, I had no interest in politics whatsoever. But they said, “No, the President really wants to congratu–thank you for your work in sickle cell, and that’s really all he wants.” Sure enough, we didn’t get into politics. If I like a person who is a politician I will contribute to the cause, because they do have to have money. I’m not gonna go out and stomp for this person or that, but I do the same thing as I was doing for Martin Luther. I would go out and do concerts and help raise money, because as I told him, I’m never goin’ to get in none of your picket lines, I’m not about to go an’ march with you, you understand. And if I can help it, I ain’t goin’ to jail, you see? And that is not because I didn’t want what they wanted. I figured, as I told him, everybody in this movement ought to have a function. They oughtta do what they can do best to support it. Well, I figure what I can do best is help raise money to buy the food for these people that are marchin’, to help pay the attorneys’ fees, because you got to have money to hire good lawyers to fight this. And you ain’t gonna get the money marchin’.
Or if you’re in jail.
Right, plus I can’t see how to at least duck if somebody throw somethin’.
-BEN FONG-TORRES INTERVIEWING RAY CHARLES FOR ROLLING STONE, JANUARY ’73