Editors note: This interview has been condensed for clarity and, frankly, because there were some boring parts. Chalk it up to a fat and happy print magazine industry, but 14,000 words is more than I want to read about anyone. Even after cutting it down we split it into two parts, but if you’re one of the brave oddballs that wants to read the full interview you can find it here.
A lot of people have asked you to define soul. I’d like to get a definition of beauty.
…I guess you could call me a sentimentalist, man, really. I like Chopin or Sibelius. People who write softness, you know, and although Beethoven to me was quite heavy, he wrote some really touching songs, and I think that Moonlight Sonata–in spite of the fact that it wound up being very popular–it’s somethin’ about that, man, you could just feel the pain that this man was goin’ through. Somethin’ had to be happenin’ in that man. You know, he was very, very lonesome when he wrote that. Anyway, I thought that with the exception of just two or three compositions, he was a little bit heavy for me. Just like from a technical point of view, I think Bach, if you really want to learn technique, that was the cat, ’cause he had all them fugues and things, your hands doin’ all kinda different things. Personally, outside of technique, I didn’t care for Bach, but I must say, in order for you to make your hands be able to do different things from each other, he was the greatest in the world for that.
What kind of music education did you have in Florida?
They taught you how to read the music, and I had to play Chopin, Beethoven, you know, the normal thing. Just music lessons. Not really theory. I don’t know what that is. It’s just, they taught me how to read music, and naturally how to use correct fingerin’, and once you’ve learned that you go from the exercises into little compositions into things like Chopin. That’s the way it went, although I was tryin’ to play boogie-woogie, man, ’cause I could always just about play anything I heard. My ear was always pretty good, but I did have a few music teachers, and so I do know music quite well, if you don’t mind my saying so. I was never taught to write music, but when I was l2 years old I was writing arrangements for a big band. Hell, if you can read music, you can write it, and I think certainly what helped me is that I’m a piano player, so I know chords. Naturally, I can hear chords, and I could always play just about anything I could hear. It was just a question of learning how to put it down on paper. I just studied how to write for horns on my own. Like, understanding that the saxophone is in different keys, and also, when I was goin’ to school I took up clarinet. See, I was a great fan of Artie Shaw. I used to think, “Man, ooh, he had the prettiest sound,” and he had so much feelin’ in his playin’. I always felt that, still feel it today. I mean, it’s amazing, I don’t know why he stopped playin’, but I always thought he was one of the best clarinet players around, bar none. So I took up clarinet as well as piano, but piano was the first thing I took up
Where were you hearing this boogie-woogie?
We lived next door for some years to a little general store, that’s what it was, ’cause this is a country town, remember, Greensville, Florida, and it had a little store there where the kids could come in and buy soda pop and candy and the people could buy kerosene for their lamps, you know. And they had a jukebox in there. And the guy who owned it also had a piano. Wylie Pittman is the guy, even when I was three and four years old, if I was out in the yard playin’, and if he started playin’ that piano, I would stop playin’ and run in there and jump on the stool. Normally, you figure a kid run in there like that and jump on the stool and start bangin’ on the piano, the guy would throw him off. “Say, get away from here, don’t you see me” . . but he didn’t do that. I always loved that man for that. I was about five years old, and on my birthday he had some people there. He said, “RC”–This is what they called me then–“look, I want you to get up on the stool, and I want you to play for these people.” Now, let’s face it. I was five years old. They know damn well I wasn’t playin’. I’m just bangin’ on the keys, you understand. But that was encouragement that got me like that, and I think that the man felt that any time a child is willin’ to stop playin’, you know, out in the yard and havin’ fun, to come in and hear somebody play the piano, evidently this child has music in his bones, you know. And he didn’t discourage me, which he could have, you know what I mean? Maybe I wouldn’t have been a musician at all, because I didn’t have a musical family, now remember that.
You were also able to hear ‘The Grand Ole Opry’ when you were a kid?
Yep, yeah, I always–every Saturday night, I never did miss it. I don’t know why I liked the music. I really thought that it was somethin’ about country music, even as a youngster–I couldn’t -figure out what it was then, but I know what it is now. But then I don’t know why I liked it and I used to just love to hear Minnie Pearl, because I thought she was so funny.
How old were you then?
Oh, I guess I was about seven, eight, and I remember Roy Acuff and Gene Austin. Although I was bred in and around the blues, I always did have interest in other music, and I felt the closest music, really, to the blues–they’d make them steel guitars cry and whine, and it really attracted me. I don’t know what it is. Gospel and the blues are really, if you break it down, almost the same thing. It’s just a question of whether you’re talkin’ about a woman or God. I come out of the Baptist church, and naturally whatever happened to me in that church is gonna spill over. So I think the blues and gospel music is quite synonymous to each other.
Big Bill Broonzy once said that “Ray Charles has got the blues he’s cryin’ sanctified. He’s mixin’ the blues with the spirituals… He should be singin’ in a church.”
I personally feel that it was not a question of mixing gospel with the blues. It was a question of singin’ the only way I knew how to sing. This was not a thing where I was tryin’ to take the church music and make the blues out of it or vice versa. All I was tryin’ to do was sing the only way I knew how, period. I was raised in the church. I went to the Sunday school. I went to the morning service,. and that’s ‘where they had the young people doin’ their performin’, and I went to night service, and I went to all the revival meetings. My parents said, “You will go to church.” I mean they ain’t no if about that. So singin’ in the church and hearin’ this good singin’ in the church and also hearin’ the blues, I guess this was the only way I could sing, outside. of loving Nat Cole so well, and I tried to imitate him very much. When I was starting out, I loved the man so much until I really–that’s why I can understand a lot of other artists who come up and try to imitate me. You know, when you love somebody so much and you feel what they’re doin’ is close to what you feel, some of that rubs off on you–so I did that.
Other critics have said that when Aretha moved from Columbia to Atlantic, she enjoyed immense success, while you moved to ABC and in the mid-Sixties, you were on kind of a downhill critical slide with records.
Now, how did you feel about that?
Oh, I don’t know. I guess that’s probably some cat who didn’t see my financial sheet. I don’t really worry about that, you know. Fortunately for me, throughout my career–now it’s true, I haven’t had a million seller every time I put out a record, but what has happened with me has been a very simple thing. I’ve had those 400,000, 700,000, 300,000, 800,000, and that’s been constantly goin’ on all through my career. I’ll tell you what my answer is: When I can walk into an airport and you get little kids sayin’, [whispering] “Mama that’s Ray Charles,” I’m raisin’ them. That’s where I’m at, man. As long as the people keep doin’ that, as long as I can walk anywhere and as I’m walkin’ all I can hear is [whispering] “That’s Ray Charles!” I don’t figure I need to worry too much.
Now, you say this is in the mid-Sixties, right? I just wanna ask you a dumb question. Tell me, what was wrong with “Crying Time”? That was in the mid-Sixties. “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” I didn’t find nothin’ wrong with these songs; I mean, they seemed to sell all right.
First of all, I don’t tell myself what some people say: “Well, Ray, the genius” I never called myself a genius. I’m not the one to do that, brother. I think that’s up to the people to decide, and if they give me the impression, well, Ray, you been out here a long time now, but we want to turn you out to pasture now, you know, that would be all right with me, because hell, I figure whatever I ain’t got in 27 years, I don’t deserve to have it. Because I’ve had every opportunity to do what I need.
We were talking about when you started out. You played what was called “cocktail music,” playing piano and singing songs like “If I Give You My Love.” But were you always looking to form your own big band?
Well, when I was doing what you’re talkin’ about right now, my only thing, my goal was, “Wow, if I could only just get to make records, too.” That’s why, in 1948, when they had the union ban on musicians so they weren’t allowed to record, I recorded anyway–first of all I didn’t know about the ban, and of course, later I had to pay a fine for it–I didn’t care. I was only about 17 or somethin’ like that. I was workin’ in Seattle, then, and a fellow came up from Los Angeles, Jack Lauderdale, and he had a little record company [Swingtime], and I was workin’ at the Rockin’ Chair. He, came and one night he was in there and heard me playing and he said to me, “Listen, I have a record company. I would like to record you.” Man, I was so glad, I didn’t ask him how much money I was gonna get. I didn’t care. I would have done it for nothin’. So he said, “Look, I’m gonna take you down to Los Angeles.” And wow, Los Angeles, you know. Ooh, yeah, yeah. And I’m gonna be recorded, man. You know, wow, my own voice on a record. [Laughter]
I went down there and we made a song called “Confession Blues.” That was my first record. Sold pretty good. Then, about a year later, because 1949 we made a song called “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.” Now that really was a big hit. “Confession Blues” sold mediocre–it sold well enough to suit me, because I was hearing it where I went. But when I was out on the road workin’ with Lowell Fulson, he had a big record called “Every Day I Have the Blues.” We were on the same label. I had “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand,” and he was singin’ “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and we were packin’ ’em in. This is really where I started touring the country.
By this time you were away from Maxim Trio.
I had left Seattle–and, see, once I went to California, I liked the weather and the way it felt–there was somethin’ about the way Los Angeles felt to me, and I wanted to come back there and live. I’ve always been the kind of guy, strangely enough, if I like somethin’, I try to take hold of it. I’ve always been that way, and I guess, as I say, it goes back to my mother again, you know. I think that-you know, my mother, she was not a well-educated woman. I think she went to about the fifth grade or somethin’ like that in school, but she had, I think this woman had more–I don’t know what kind of sense you would call it. We used to call it horse sense, common sense, mother wit, you know. She had, I think, as much of that as God could possibly stick in anybody’s brain. She taught me everything that I feel, like she always said, “If you feel somethin’, if you like somethin’, try to take hold of it, get ahold of it.” I’ve always lived that way.
When you left Florida, why did you choose to go to the other corner of the country?
It was just–New York I was frightful of ’cause I just couldn’t imagine myself goin’ to New York or, Chicago or even Los Angeles. They sounded so big, man. I guess I always felt that I was pretty good, but I wasn’t sure of myself to want to jump out into a big city like New York. I was too scared for that. So what I wanted to do was pick a town that was far away from Florida, but not huge, and Seattle really was about as far away as I could get. All across the US, and of course, it wasn’t a huge town, half a million people or somethin’ like that.
The gospel, call-and-responses in your songs–“Drown in My Own Tears,” “What’d I Say,” and “Hit the Road Jack”–I’d say, were tremendous influences on Motown’s sound. How did that develop?
Well, I don’t know how anything… I just hear things in my head. That’s the simplest answer I can give you, man. What I hear is what comes out, and I’m very instantaneous, I guess. I feel somethin’, I get an idea how I want to do it, and I just do it. I don’t have no special ways about it. Anything I do, good or bad, it’s very, very natural. That’s it. So, that’s why I can’t do anything twice the same way. I sing “Georgia” every night, just about, not because I want it to be different or I’m trying to make it different, it’s just that when I’m bein’ natural, it just comes out, because I don’t always hear the same thing. I don’t hear the same thing every time I sing a song. So, I guess it is a good thing, because the song never gets dull to me.
Sometimes you cry onstage.
That’s true, that’s true. I’m not embarrassed about that. It’s just that some nights, man, I guess my mood, you know. And I don’t know what happens in my soul, but I can be singin’ a song, and for some reason it’ll get to me, you know. I’ll feel sorry, feel sad. It’ll just hurt me or somethin’, I don’t know. So I cry. Can’t hep it.
Do you listen to a lot of today’s artists? Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone…
Oh, yeah, well, I like these people’s music. I like Marvin Gaye. I like some of the things that Sly’s done. I like, you know I’m a great fan of Aretha. I like Stevie Wonder. I like Sinatra. I like Ella Fitzgerald. I like many people, just like I like many varieties of music. On the other hand, say, like here’s a guy like–many times, I may go and get out my old Art Tatum records, ’cause I still think that he’s the greatest piano player ever lived, bar none. I’m speakin’ about playin’ jazz music, as we call it. I’ve never heard nobody before or since this man that could do to a piano what he could do. I’ve seen some people come fairly close. I mean, a fellow by the name of Peter Nero and Oscar Peterson. Oscar Peterson plays hard like Art Tatum. He’s probably about the closest, I guess. The man really was, I don’t think he had any competition.
How about Aretha? Do you find that she’s been consistent in her music the past five years?
I think so. I think basically Aretha in a great sense is very much like myself. She’s right outta the church and she can’t help what she sounds like. No more than I can help what I sound like. We both, really, were very devoted to the church, and this is just us. I think there may be some records come out that you may not necessarily care for, but it’s still Aretha, and just like the records that come out of me that you might not care for, it’s still me.
No, I don’t–we never talk about things like that, man. When I see Aretha, we just talk about everything in the world. When we see each other, if they have a piano, we play, sing to each other and have a ball. The only thing that we’ve actually talked about doing is maybe one day, if we, get lucky, we might get to do some concerts together or maybe record an album together. I mean a full album, instead–because that was an accident in San Francisco. It wasn’t even supposed to happen. I just happened to be up in Frisco. I didn’t go up there to do this. I was just up there on some other business, and somebody said, “Hey, man, Aretha’s playing at Fillmore West,” and I said, “Oh, yeah? Well, say, let’s go over and catch her.” And somebody told her I was there. Now I have her record of “Spirit in the Dark,” you know, but I swear to you, I never bothered to try to learn it, because Aretha was singin’ it, and I figured after she got through with it, that was the end of it [laughter]. So, actually, she said come up and do somethin’. I said I don’t know what to do. She said, “Well, we’ll do ‘Spirit in the Dark.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know ‘spirit in the Dark.'” If you listen to the record, you can tell I don’t know it. The only thing I can say in the whole record is, “Do you feel it?” [Laughter.] That’s all I could think of was do you feel it. And it just turned out that the silly record sold over a million records.
Where did you first meet Quincy Jones?
In Seattle. Quincy was wantin’ to learn how to write, and he used to come over to my apartment and get me up early in the mornin’, you know, and I’d show him how to voice and put the chord structure for a band together. He’ll be the first cat to tell you, man, that in comin’ up–he feels, I don’t, but he feels he owes an awful lot to me for that. You know, I’m not a teacher, but if I find somebody who really wants to learn, and if they have the basic idea of what they want to learn, I will help them do it. I can’t start a kid off from scratch, ’cause I don’t have that kind of patience.
-BEN FONG-TORRES INTERVIEWING RAY CHARLES FOR ROLLING STONE, JANUARY ’73