Five years ago, when he was still working the lounges, second-billed to such acts as Mongo Santamaria, Flip Wilson had an album out that had this skit about Christopher Columbus. Columbus is telling Queen Isabella about his wanting to journey off to a new land, “to discover America.”
“America?!” the queen exclaims, in a high, throaty black voice. “You goin’ to America? You gonna find Ray Charles?
Ray Charles is one of the great ones, a genius, as he’s been called for some 13 years, or, as Sinatra put it, “the only genius in the business.” He is the major influence on dozens of blues, jazz, R&8, pop, and rock & roll musicians. Joe Cocker idolized him, from faraway England, to the point of imitation. So did Billy Preston, who would show up at Ray’s doorstep in L.A. to audition. Aretha . Franklin called him “the Right Reverend,” and Georgia legislator Julian Bond picked up the beat, in a poem called “The Bishop of Atlanta:
Throbbing from the gutter
On Saturday night
Silver offering only
The Right Reverend’s back in town
Don’t it make you feel all right?
Ray Charles’ 26 years in the business are represented by some 40 albums. He got his first gold record with “What’d I Say” for Atlantic Records in the summer of 1959, seven years after he’d joined that label. Charles then switched to ABC and began a streak with “Georgia on My Mind,” “Ruby,” and “Hit the Road Jack.” He topped them all with a country & western album that gave him a three-million-selling single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” along with criticism from fans who didn’t want to hear the Genius kicking shit. Others, like Gladys Knight, listened: “Ray Charles,” she said, “hipped a lot of the black people to country & western bands . . . we was kind of listening before, but he made it even more down- to-earth where you could dig it.” And Quincy Jones, long-time friend and arranger with Charles, appreciated his pioneer sense of eclecticism: “Ray Charles was responsible,” he said, “for us opening our ears to all kinds of music.”
Born September 23rd, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, Ray first jumped onto a piano bench, for fun, at age five in Greensville, Florida, where his parents had moved into what he remembered as a “shotgun house”–“If you stood on the porch and shot a gun you’d go right through it”. Over the next two years, he lost his sight (he had been stricken with glaucoma, doctors determined years later); his parents, Bailey and Araetha, were laborers who couldn’t afford medical help. “When I woke up in the mornings,” Charles recalled, “I’d have to pry my eyes open.” Blinded, he learned to work to help out, washing clothes, scrubbing floors, even chopping wood, until he went to blind school in Orlando, Florida. He studied music there–he’d begun to pick out tunes on a neighbor’s piano by age seven–and by 15 was writing arrangements for big bands he heard in his imagination. Then his mother died, following his father by five years, and Charles left school to go to work, playing in combos around Georgia and Florida. He was “crawling,” he said, until he split to Seattle and got a record contract from Swingtime, a small label. He cut “Confession Blues,” then had his first success, “Ba- by, Let Me Hold Your Hand,” done in the style of one of his main influences–or, as Johnny Otis put it, ‘It was a wonderful thing, but he definitely was aping Charles Brown.” Ray would soon develop his own fusion of blues, jazz and gospel, touring with Lowell Fulson, then forming a backup group for Ruth Brown in New York. He returned to Seattle and formed the Maxim Trio, worked at the Rocking Chair club and on local TV, and found himself signed to Atlantic Records when Swingtime sold his contract. First sessions were done with studio musicians (and, one time, with a pickup band including a Mexican dominated horn section at a radio studio in New Orleans). At Atlantic, Ray began to write arrangements and compose his own great songs, blended gospel with a rocking R&B sound, formed a septet, cut “I Got a Woman,” and moved into the first of many heights.
And all the time, he was on junk. He’d been using heroin since 1948, when he was 18, and he’d been busted before, around 1956, but it had all been kept hushed. Then, in 1965, Charles was arrested in Boston, reportedly in possession of a planeload of heroin, and entered a hospital in Lynwood, California. According to published stories, he spent three months undergoing medical and psychiatric help, followed by a year off. He saw a Viennese psychoanalyst regularly.
Charles has his own version of his involvement with drugs, but over the years, he has refused to discuss it. When Playboy asked him, in 1970, how he started, he begged off the question. Asked if he might not be an influence to stop potential drug-users, he replied: “Bullshit. Everybody’s aware that cigarettes probably cause cancer, but how many people do you think would give them up just because Ray Charles stopped smoking?’ And, he continued, “I’m fed up with talking about that aspect of my life. Jesus Christ couldn’t get me to say another word on the subject to anybody.” Downbeat, in fact, must have had the devil on retainer; an article on Charles in the jazz publication took the form of an apologetic memo to future interviewers of Ray Charles, warning them not to ask him about narcotics. Instead, they were advised, accentuate the positive! Write about him knowing how to produce his own records! In his own studios! For his own label! How he plays chess and repairs radios and TVs! How he could even fly his own plane if he had to! How he helps fight Sickle Cell Anemia! How he’s gotten all these Grammies and awards! Let the good times roll!
But when you call him the epitome of the American Dream, as Whitney Balliett did in the New Yorker, that’s pretty positive. And yet, you’ve got to know that there were some nightmares along the way.
In two short sessions with Ray Charles, in a dressing room in San Francisco and in his recording studio in Los Angeles, I found him an articulate man, sometimes volatile in defense of his pride, deep-steeped to the point of repetition in telling what to him was the truth, and seemingly inclined to halve that “truth” sometimes, in discussing the beatdown aspects of his life. Example: He says, in the interview, he has maintained sales figures between 300,000 and 800,000 per album through the years. Fact, from ABC, which distributes his Tangerine Records: His best record in recent years, Message from the People, sold 250,000. Volcanic Action of My Soul, released in 1971, sold about 200,000. And the three albums before Volcanic “did even less.” His most recent pop chart single, said the ABC executive, was “Don’t Change on Me,” in June, 1970.
Example: The sudden shift from Atlantic to ABC. Charles says it was for a big money deal, and that he gave Atlantic a chance to match the offer. Sources at Atlantic insist that Charles had people around him who got him to sign the ABC deal before Atlantic even learned about it.
So when we got the conversation around to dope, to his l9-year addiction to heroin, it was a surprise to hear Ray’ plunge into his hooking and kicking, and it was no surprise that the stories sometimes seemed, in at least two definitions of that word, fantastic. Example: Ray says he took that year off the road, after his bust in ’65, to make the courts happy (he continued to produce records, including “Crying Time” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned”). He’d kicked even before the bust, he hinted in our talk. But Ron Granger, who was director of Tangerine for three years and knew Charles from long ago, told us: “He took that year off to kick it. It took a year.”
But the man is clean, a nonstop worker, a perfectionist/taskmaster devoted to his music. He moves around his office building with ease, with no cane, still missing a stairstep now and then as he moves between control room and main studio, instructing musicians, running the console, re-doing his vocals. He is a gentleman as I toss in questions over an 11-hour mixing session. Sometimes, ego challenged, there’s volcanic action, as he stands up, all dressed in black, and shouts a reply, punctuating it with a “Hel-lo” before he sits again. In his hotel room, with milk in the refrigerator and coffee and toast on the table, he writhes on the couch, sits forward pensively, falls almost onto his knee to find another restful position. He’s just returned from a visit to President Nixon at the White House, where he accepted praise for his work as honorary chairman of the sickle cell foundation. (“It was a gas!” he would tell reporters; to me, he said he might even vote for Nixon, given his record of hiring Negroes and given McGovern’s strange changes.)
We accentuated the positive for a bit, talked about how he plays chess with a specially carved set, how he admired Bobby Fischer for insisting on championship playing conditions, how he “saw” baseball games by going to the stadium with a transistor at his ear, how he chose the songs for the new album, Through the Eyes of Love.
We began by asking him to recall himself as a five year-old, when his eyes began to run, to hurt.
It didn’t happen like one day I could see 100 miles and the next day I couldn’t see an inch. It was, each day for two years my sight was less and less. My mother was always real with me, and bein’ poor, you got to pretty much be honest with your children. couldn’t afford no specialists. I was lucky I could get a doctor–that’s a specialist.
When you were losing your sight, did you try to take in as much as possible, to remember things?
I guess I was too small to really care that much. I knew there were things I liked to watch. I used to love to look at the sun. That’s a bad thing for my eyes, but I liked that. I used to love to look at the moon at night. I would go out in the back yard and stare at it. It just fascinated the hell out of me. And another thing that fascinated me that would scare most people is lightnin’. When I was a kid, I thought that was pretty. Anything like brightness, any kind of lights. I probably would’ve been a firebug or somethin’.
And there were colors. I was crazy about red. Always thought it was a beautiful color. I remember the basic colors. I don’t know nothin’ about chartreuse and all–I don’t know what the hell that is. But I know the black, green, yellow, brown and stuff like that. And naturally I remember my mother, who was pretty. God, she was pretty. She was a little woman. She must have been about 4’11”, I guess, and when I was 12 or 13, I was taller and bigger than my mother, and she had this long pretty black hair, used to come way down her back. Pretty good-lookin’ chick, man [laughter]
A lot of people have asked you to define soul. I’d like to get a definition of beauty.
If you’re talkin’ about physical beauty, I would have to say that to me beauty is probably about the same thing that it means to most people. You look at them and the structure of their face, the way their skin is, and say like, a woman, the contour of her body, you know what I mean? The same way as I would walk out and feel the car. Put my hands on the lines of a car, and I’d know whether I’d like it or not from the way the designs of the lines are. As I said, I was fortunate enough to see until I was about seven, and I remember the things that I heard people calling beautiful.
How about beauty in music?
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.
Did you try to catch up with high school or college after you left school?
No. When I left school, I had to get out and really tough it, as you know, because my mother passed away when I was 15. I didn’t have no brothers or sisters. But my mama always taught me, “Look, you got to learn how to get along by yourself,” and she’s always tellin’ me, “Son, one of these days I’m gonna be dead, and you’re gonna need to know how to survive, because even your best friends. although they may want to do things for you; after all, they will have their own lives.” So at that point I started tryin’ to help myself. So what do I do to help myself? The thing I can do best, or figure I can do best, anyway. And that is sing or play the piano or both.
What else did they teach you in school that could have been applied to a career?
Well, I don’t know where I would have used it, but I can probably type as fast as any secretary. Well, not any, I can type about 60-65 words a minute, somethin’ like that when I wanna. Then I can make all kinds of things with my hands. I can make chairs and brooms and mops and rugs and pocketbooks and belts and all kinds of things like that. So guess if I had to, I would go and buy me some leather. I love to work with my hands, and I’m sure that’s what I would do had I not played music, you see, because it’s the kind of a thing that you can use plenty of imagination in it, you know what I mean? And so I know how to do various kinds of stitchin’. Mexican stitchin’ and regular stitchin’ overlappin’ it and stuff. So I guess I would have–although it would have been a very meek livin’, I suppose. You can’t turn out a lot by hand.
Music was a meek living for a long time, too.
Yeah, it was really crawlin’. I became very ill a couple times. I suffered from malnutrition, you know. I was really messed up because I wasn’t eatin’ nothin’, and I wouldn’t beg. I refused to beg. I’d say hell, I’d starve first. I mean, this is just embedded in me as a child. You don’t beg. You go and try to offer your services or somethin’, but if you ask somebody for somethin’ and they don’t give it to you, you don’t beg them for it. Two things you don’t do, you don’t beg and you don’t steal. And I don’t do neither right now. That’s right.
Did you get to the point where you actually did steal?
No. No. Those are the two things I would not do, and I don’t do it now.
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.
But, say, Joe Cocker is a white man, and British; you were emulating a fellow black.
That’s right, but man, look, I want you to–please, if you can ever put this into words, ’cause I can’t say it, but if you can ever find a way to say this–I wish to hell that people could do one thing. We don’t have to lose our identity. Nobody does, because they happen to do a certain thing. I feel that you’ve got great basketball players–white and black ones. You got great musicians–white and black ones. I’ve heard where a person says, “Well, damn, you know one thing, man, I didn’t realize that guy was white until…” or, “I didn’t realize that this person was black until…” You understand what I’m sayin? I’m not the kind of a guy that wants to generalize and say that you can’t do this if you’re black or you can’t do that if you’re white. I think that if a man has had the kicking around and the abuse and the scorn, I think that if he has talent, he can put that some way or another so that the people can hear him. I remember one time a guy asked me, hey, man, do you think a white cat could ever sing the blues? Which is a legitimate question. It didn’t hurt my feelings. I feel that anybody, if you ever have the blues bad enough, with the background that dictates to the horror and the sufferin’ of the blues, I don’t give a damn if he’s green, purple--he can give it to ya.
It was said that Joe Cocker, or his people, were picking out more of the contemporary rock and roll material that was popular with a large segment of the young audience…
When you say he has a bigger what-ever-it-was with the “young audience”–what young audience? All right now. Come on, now. I guarantee you [shouting] you got far more people who know… you’re talkin’ about the overall white audience. Let’s call a spade a spade or whatever.
Young, white audience…
Well, I don’t care what you call it, I don’t care whether it’s two years old, five, I don’t care what you call it–the fact–you can never get away from it, man, it’s just no way to get away from this. I am not saying it out of bitterness. I’m just telling you the truth of the matter and I’m old enough. Hell, I’m 42 years old. I never joke with Ray about realism, and the fact of the matter is here’s Joe Cocker, here’s a guy–listen, l’ll tell you somethin’–I guess about 10, well, it’s back there more than that– maybe 13-14 years ago, they had ads in the paper where they were tryin’ to find anybody to sing like me. You think about that for a minute. You see?
I guarantee Joe Cocker ain’t never appealed more to the young people who raised me up. He appeals to the young white because he’s white. Shit, man. That ain’t a mad statement, that’s just the truth. [Laughter.] You don’t fool around with the truth. When you get a guy who come up and say, like an Elvis Presley, let’s face it, man, you had more people goin’ out shakin’ their behinds and stuff like that. You know where Elvis got, that from–he used to be down on Beale Street in Memphis. That’s where he saw the black people doin’ that. Ain’t no way they’d let anybody like us get on TV and do that, but he could ’cause he’s white. Now, see, I don’t like to bring the racial thing in this, but unfortunately, the way we are set up, the whole thing is man, I guarantee you, Nat “King” Cole go down there in Alabama and sing these love songs and they’d beat him up. You understand what I mean? Why? Not because he’s doin’ a bad job, but because the young white girls run up and say “Oh, Nat!” and they say, “No, we can’t have that.” Come on, man, shit, that’s where it is.
I don’t have time to be bitter. What I have time for is to try to see what I can do to help the guy that’s comin’ up and maybe he can make it better if I can help him. You see? I done seen all this, man. I know all about the places where I couldn’t drink outta the fountain. I know all about the places I couldn’t go to the bathroom when I had to pee–somethin’ that’s natural for every human bein’. You understand me? And if I do it on the highway and the cop see me, he gonna put me in jail for it and maybe beat my head, too. Depend on where I am. See, I know all about that, but I don’t want to let that get into what I’m doin’. I figure that, OK, I’m in this business because I love music. So I can’t afford to let bitterness get into me, but if when you ask me what’s really happenin’, if you get people and sit them down and say, hey, man, let’s cut all the fat outta this. Get down to the real thing. What is it? This is the real thing I’m tellin’ you now. That’s without bitterness and I ain’t mad. I can afford to tell you that for one reason; you see, thank the Lord, I’m fairly cool about it. My kids ain’t gonna starve unless they bomb the country or somethin’. Man, I’m pretty straight, and I can tell you all about both ends of it. I know how it is when you have to use a piece of like cardboard to put your shoes on when you don’t have a slipper spoon, and I know how it is to live in a $200,000 house.
What keeps me from being bitter ‘about this–the reason that this happens is because people who are in power tend to lean toward themselves. It’s the same as a guy who is in a house. He has his own house, he’s got his own, whatever it is, his own family. Well, let’s face it, he may love you, but if it’s somethin’ comin’ up, he’s gonna tend to lean towards–if he can get his own kids in there, he tends. to go that way, you understand? I think this is basically what happens in the structure of our society. It’s a capitalistic country, and it’s a white society, and they control. They got the money. They got the airplanes, the bombs, every goddamn thing. You name it, they got it. So therefore, naturally you have, what is it?–15-20 percent black, you got 80-85 percent white. Fine. So, as a result of that, if you’re not careful, you can become very bitter, because you’ll say, well, why in the world–here I am, and here’s a guy who’ll spend millions of dollars to find a white cat just to imitate me, and he’ll do far better than me. Well, the only thing that I can say that sort of helps me a little bit, that keeps me goin’–I say two things. First of all, in order for that guy to copy me, he gotta wait ’til I do it first. Now [laughter], the second thing I feel, well, if this is the case. if you take this guy over me and he’s just an imitation of me, then that says to me that I must be pretty damn good. Because I don’t know nobody that you wanna copy that ain’t worth a damn. All right, hello. [Laughter.]
That says it?
That say it all, man. I mean, that’s your salvation, ’cause if you don’t think like that, you’ll be bitter. You really would be bitter.
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.
There was also criticism that you were coasting on your name, your past success.
Well, let me tell you somethin’, honey, I never coast. Never. I want to say this to you so if you can dramatize or use any kind of exclamation points–I never coast on nothin’. Before I coast, I quit. Because remember one thing, man. I owe somethin’ to Ray first. It’s to me. I ain’t ever gonna lie to Ray. I can’t bull me.
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.
How long did you stay with Swingtime?
I was there until Atlantic bought the contract. I think it was ’51 or so. About three or four years.
That was Ahmet and Herb Abramson and Miriam, I think, at that time. I don’t know how that was done. I met with the people at Atlantic, and they said, “Well, we’d like to record you,” so I said, “Well, I’m under contract to somebody.” They said, “Well, look, we’ll buy the contract.” So I said, “Fine, buy it.” And that’s it. Finished.
Why did you leave Atlantic? Jerry Wexler told me it was a “shock” to him.
Well, you know the people at Atlantic–Jerry, Ahmet, Nesuhi… I love all the people over there. It was the kind of thing where ABC came up with a contract. And I think they were trying to lure somebody there, and I hate to say this, because it makes me sound like I’m blowin’ my own horn, but you know, I was with Atlantic and we had this big hit “What’d I Say” and a couple other things, so they came up with a contract and I let Jerry and them know about it. The contract was so unreal. I mean, the thing was that, well, if ABC was really seriously gonna do it, Atlantic just couldn’t match it, based on the original contract I had with them. But I let them know, because, you know–and that’s why today I have to tell you, Ben, that Jerry and I are the best of friends, because I didn’t do anything sneaky, in the dark, or nothin’ like that. They knew the whole bit, and my thing was, look, I’m not asking you to better ABC’s deal, I’m just saying if you can match it, I’ll stay with you. And it was the kind of thing where they said, “Look, Ray, it’s awfully heavy for us.” But you gotta understand from ABC’s point of view, they didn’t think that the contract was gonna work out that well either, because, remember now, I had been with Atlantic a long time, and most artists, let’s face it, they get cold after about four or five years, you know, with any company. And so, the thought is, for Christ’s sake, it might be the situation where, well, you know, ABC is searching, they are hunting for an artist that is hot, and Atlantic is feeling, well, groovy, our hearts go out to this guy, but still, they’re based upon what our situation is now. It would be rather difficult for us to meet a contract similar to this, so they said, “Look, Ray, we wish you the best.”
You gotta understand the position of each party, and of course, ABC at the time was offering me the kind of a contract that, believe me, in those days, in 1959, was unheard of. Now, as a result of that, I tell you, I don’t even think that they figured that I would do as well, because, like I say, I’ve been out there for a while. So what they were basically after was the name and to stimulate other names.
To sign with ABC.
Right. And so I was like a pawn, but as it turned out we were so lucky, because right after I went with ABC, we came up with “Georgia,” and then the country-western stuff, see? But I did a country-western song with Atlantic before I went to ABC, but the other side of it sold, the song “I Believe to My Soul.” Well, on the back of that was a song called “Keep Movin’ On.”
That’s right. There’s where I first get the idea. But it just turn out that once I changed contracts, I followed that idea. Now, with ABC we had people saying, “Hey, man, gee whiz, Ray, you got all these fans, you can’t do no country-western things. Your fans–you gonna lose all your fans.” Well, I said, “For Christ sake, I’ll do it anyway.” Not to be–don’t misunderstand me–I didn’t want to be a Charlie Pride, now. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just saying that was not my intent. I didn’t want to be a country-western singer. I just wanted to take country-western songs. When I sing “l Can’t Stop Loving You,” I’m not singin’ it country-western. I’m singin’ it like me. But I think the words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down. They’re not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, “Look, I miss you, darlin’, so I went out and I got drunk in this bar.” That’s the way you say it. Wherein Tin Pan Alley will say, “Oh, I missed you darling, so I went to this restaurant and I sat down and I had dinner for one.” That’s cleaned up now. you see? But country songs and the blues is like it is.
I did two albums of country-western, you gotta remember I did Volume I, and hell, if you get an album to sell well over a million, you almost gotta do–that’s almost forcing you to do one more, But that’s all I did with country-western was two albums.
Atlantic gave you musical independence and built a reputation for R&B and jazz. ABC, on the other hand, wasn’t known for a sound. Did you have a feeling of trepidation about moving from one to the other?
No, ’cause my thing was that it was a record company, and I thought I could sell records for ABC as well as I could sell records for Atlantic or anybody else. Plus, after all, you gotta understand, man, I had been workin’ a long time, strugglin’a mighty long time with nothin’, and this was a helluva chance for me to really better myself, if I really had any kind of luck, I really was gonna wind up bein’ all right. I made an awful lot of money fast, real fast. I mean, almost too fast. Because I could have had a terrific tax problem–fortunately I didn’t–’cause soon as we got over there, we started havin’ some fantastic success right away, and I made a tremendous amount of money quick, and, now, of course, like I told you, I guess I have a little conceit about me. I feel I can do almost anything if I wanna, so I felt, sure, I sold records for Atlantic records. I sold records for Swingtime, and I felt if I did that, sure, I could sell records for ABC, and since this company is gonna guarantee me so much money and along with producin’, wow, why fight it, baby?
What was the production deal?
I was producin’ myself, you see? In other words, it was a contract within a contract. I got paid the regular top artist scale as an artist, but also the producin’ end of it was where the extra money came from. That was where, out of every dime I got seven and a half cents, and that’s pretty damn good, man. That’s besides the artist contract, you know. You see a cat gonna give you seven and a half cents out of every dime profit, now I don’t know… [laughter] unbelievable contract, so it’s pretty hard to ask a company to pay a cat five percent royalties, whatever it is, and then also give him seven and a half cents out of every dime profit, as a producer of my own records. And so you know the records were successful, you can imagine the amount of money I made so fast, quick. Sorry about that, man. I didn’t mean to do it. [Laughter.] What can I tell you?
After Swingtime, when you began searching around for your own voice, did you find it naturally or did you get help from Ahmet or Jerry?
I gotta tell you the truth, man, about Ahmet and Nesuhi and Herb Abramson and Jerry when he came in, these people never at any time told me what to sing or how to sing it. OK? I have to be honest with you. I think if they had told me that, I woulda told them where to take the contract. I figured that whatever I’m doin’, I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability. Now you have a right to say you don’t want it, but you can’t tell me how to do it. I won’t allow that, I guess I’ve always been very firm about that. I didn’t have that with Atlantic. I didn’t have it with ABC.
All I did, and Jerry can tell you–he never put any pressure on me. I would call him up and say, “Hey, Jerry, I’m ready to record.” That’s how we did “I Got a Woman.” I was on the road, workin’ every day. I called him up in New York and said, hey, I’m ready to record. So he said, where are you, where are you gonna be? I said I’d be in Atlanta in a few days. He flew down to Atlanta, Georgia. That’s where we made “I Got a Woman.” Little studio. Just a little bit–l think it was WGST or somethin’. Little bitty, and they weren’t equipped for recording. But we went in there and we struggled and we managed it. That’s the way we did it. I mean, I didn’t have no pressure on me about doing anything, and I didn’t have no pressure on me at ABC neither.
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.
Has Aretha ever told you why she would record songs you had done before?
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.
Why don’t you write any more?
I just don’t have time… I’m sorry but…
Did you used to have to find time to write?
Well, I had, I didn’t have to find. I had a lot of time, because I wasn’t workin’, and I didn’t have the obligations then. Shit, I was starvin’. So what happens with a thing like that is you got plenty of time, so you utilize it. As Jerry can tell you, they used to send me many, many dubs, and I’d play all of them, and if I didn’t like anything, I’d say, “OK, well, I know I gotta do a session,” so I’d sit down and write one. It’s just that I was lucky at it. That’s why….
More on that
[Laughter.] No, it’s the truth.
Were there times back then when songs would just come to you anyway whether you were looking for them or not?
Well, you know, you might hear somebody say something that would give you an idea.
And that doesn’t happen anymore.
Well, it not so much doesn’t happen, like I said, I don’t have time to really–it’s a question of how your life is, man, really. There are other things–I think it’s a thing of a man spreadin’ himself out too thin. Now, I love writing. But I am not a writer. I think it’s fair for you to understand that. I am not a true writer. I wrote because maybe I heard an idea or somebody said something or I needed some material and I couldn’t find none that suited me, so I sat down and wrote my own. It took weeks.
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?
How would you explain the current success of black artists and music on the pop charts?
I’ll tell you, I’m probably the worst person in the world to comment on that. Now, if you ask about my music, that’s a different situation. But I think the kids that are coming up in the pop field, they are saying, “Look, we want to know about great artists, because it’s a part of our culture.” So they want to know about the people who play the blues, who play the gospel music, the real music that we have–which is not a putdown for your classical music, you know–it’s just to say that our roots in music… America really only has, as far as I know, jazz. And whether jazz–where you’re gonna find, really, the roots of jazz, you’re gonna find it among the black people–the blues and the gospel music and everything else.
Was Tangerine Records part of the ABC deal? That you would have your own company?
Yeah, you could say that. First, when I started out with ABC as an artist, I also was a producer there, and when it was time for renewing my contract, I said, “Well, look, you’ll have to come up with somethin’ more to my liking.” You know, it’s not always a question of money, it’s a question of the things that I want done, and so this was integrated in the contract.
Has Tangerine generally done well?
We lost quite a bit of money in the beginning of it, and so naturally, when you open up shop, you lose money, you stay in the red for quite a while, and here lately we’re not makin’ a lot of money. We have gotten out of the red. So that is progress.
How many artists are there in the personal management firm? At on time, you were doing Billy Preston.
We’re just not managing anymore. I tried that, and I found in tryin’ to manage cats, man, I can’t stay with the hassling of it. So I just decided what I’d do, if anything, is get an artist, and I just sign him up and have him to record, and that’s about it. Just let him do his own managing, get his own manager or whatever. It’s too much of headache, and entertainers, I must say, we tend to be very difficult, and I just feel that it’s a little more than I can handle.
Are you a really difficult person to work with?
Well, that depends on how you look at it. I would say no, and then there are people who would say yes. You have to ask someone who works for me. I’m not a difficult person, I don’t think, but I do insist that since wi are pros, we oughtta act like it. I don’t like to play. I love to have fun in my work, but if it’s somethin’ wrong, let’s clean that up and get that right. Let’s not play about that, ’cause it ain’t funny when it’s wrong. It’s funny and beautiful and lovable and everything when it’s right, you know what I mean. And I’ll go along with you.
What is the “fine” system with the band?
We always gonna have that, man. I don’t mean to have it, but unfortunately you can’t just fire a man all the time. My fine system works this way: I may fine a guy once. Never over twice. After that he’s fired, period. Because I figure, if I gotta be finin’ you, then we don’t need each other. I don’t need the fine money; I don’t even want it. What I do, I take the fine and maybe later in the year give a party or somethin’ for the musicians. So they really get it back.
It’s not finin’, it’s a dock in pay. The union says that I can’t fine a person, but I can dock them. For the man who’s not getting the money, it’s the same thing. $25 is $25 or $50 is $50.
Do you plan any further extension of Ray Charles Enterprises into other media? Say, buying a radio station?
No. I’ll tell you, I have thought of lookin’ around, and I haven’t really proceeded, but I’ve sort of left a couple of small hints around. I’m not so much tryin’ to make more money. I figure I pretty much got enough money to last me the rest of my life.
Leonard Feather once called you “a nervous, restless millionaire.”
Well, I guess if you were talkin’ about my, you know, with the assets and so forth–I guess if you wanted to you could call me a millionaire. I wouldn’t say that. I figure I got everything it takes me to live. I got a home that’s paid for, hell, and my kids are straight for the rest of their life. I got a little studio here and I can do my work in. Well, you know, I got a car, a couple of airplanes. What the hell more you want? Shit, you can sleep in but one bed at a time. And according to the law, you ain’t supposed to have but one woman at a time or at least under the same conditions. [Laughter.] So I got everything I need.
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 oflice?
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’.
You said onstage that “I Gotta Do Wrong” is “the story of my life,” that “I gotta do wrong before they notice me.”
Well, I kind of think that what I meant was is that it seems that out of all the pleading that a people can do, all the crying out and all the conversations, you know, we’ve had that for years and years and years, and nothin’ really happened. They said, well those people are happy, and they’re smiling and dancing, and so they must be cool. And nobody paid them the mind, until the people began to do wrong things. And, of course, what I was really saying is not that this was anything to be proud about. I was saying that it’s something to be ashamed of, that you got to do wrong before a country as rich as we are–we’re the richest country in the world. We got more money and we got more of everything. I don’t care what any other country’s got for the most part, we got that, and the chances are, nine times out of ten, we got more of it on top of it. And it’s a shame that in order for our leaders to really pay us some attention, we gotta go and burn this down. and we gotta go picket this, and we gotta go and stand on this lawn–that’s pitiful.
On the other hand, you take the Indian. What has he got? We found him here when we got here. But I guarantee you–well, hopefully this doesn’t happen. This may be bad for me to say this, because I don’t wanna start anything, but you know, the chances are the Indian’s never gonna get a damn thing until he go out and scalp a few people, you understand, and do a little wrong. And then, he’ll have the same questions we used to have. “Well, what’s wrong with him? I cant understand. What’s he asking for? What does he want?” Everybody knows what is needed or what is desired, what it is to help a man lead a decent life. Everybody who’s in power–the leaders know this, but they’re not–unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like they want to do anything unless they’re forced to it, unless they are made to feel shame about it. And when I sing this song–I gotta do wrong before people notice me–I’m not braggin’ about that. I’m saying that that’s a pity. It is, it’s sad, man. So when the Indian goes out and he kills off or scalps a couple of people, and they go and burn down a couple of buildings, or whatever it is that’s necessary, and when our officials begin to notice, then he’ll get a little more, too. I feel bad to have to say that. Now he’s gotta go and destroy somethin’. Get out the National Guard and the federal troops and everything else, you know, to quiet the people down. There’s a man, I understand, who was asking for something that we wanted to throw away. This was Alcatraz or somethin’. We said we don’t want the place out there no more, and the man said, “OK, this belongs to us anyway, let us have it.” We wouldn’t even give him that, somethin’ we don’t want, we wouldn’t give it to ‘im. That’s sick. Sick! I’m gonna get mad now. -BEN FONG-TORRES INTERVIEWING RAY CHARLES FOR ROLLING STONE, JANUARY ’73