You need only hear a note or two of one of his vocals to recognize Ray Charles. Like the late Louis Armstrong, he’s an artist who so dominates his form that he displaces everyone around him.
He’s instant public domain, which is as good a reason as any for his being honored in Friday’s telecast of the Kennedy Center Awards (others on the list are Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Yehudi Menuhin, Antony Tudor and Lucille Ball). It airs at 9 p.m. Friday on CBS.
Charles has roots in gospel; he’s played jazz (alto sax as well as piano); he was one of the principals who moved R&B; into the American musical mainstream, and he pumps new life into whatever pop standards he decides to take under his wing. He’s written a great deal, if not most, of his own music. He’s led his own band--which on occasion has swelled to orchestral proportion--for a large portion of his career, and he’s quietly experimented with ways to make it a glossy entertainment.
What sets Charles apart, though, is his voice, which is deeply rooted in a down-home blues cast. It isn’t quite gut-bucket--it has too many escapes. But it’s muscular, a touch harsh and full of loamy sensual sweets and good-natured lifts. It’s also laced with rough plaintiveness and rooted in sorrow. The classic blues voice.
At his studio on Washington Boulevard recently, Charles stood at the controls of a synthesizer. It was late morning. He hadn’t stoked up his energies yet, answering a salutation with a distracted, self-contained, “I’m doin’ all right.”
He moved to his piano bench, holding a big mug of coffee, and reflected on his career.
“What makes my approach special is that I do different things,” he said. “I do jazz, blues, country music and so forth. I do them all, like a good utility man. I’m proud people say I’m a legend. But everything has its side effects. The greater the pluses, the greater the minuses.
“I never was a specialist. I’ve been more of a general practitioner. What I look for first in a song is the lyric. Oh, there are exceptions.”
He wheeled around to the piano and played a jumpy measure of “What’d I Say?” With his elbows tucked in, his whole body did a bounce. He stopped and turned back. “There’s nothin’ I wrote about that song that I can talk about. There was something about that rhythm--people couldn’t keep still. But I’m like an actor. I need the lyrics. Nobody ever expected me to do ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ It was ‘Come on, Ray!’ But the song has meaning. And it doesn’t have to be a love song. Like that song--what is it--'She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft.’ Yeah, that’s good!” He burst into rocking laughter.
Charles is smaller and somewhat slighter than you might expect (he photographs big, like an NFL linebacker, and his sound suggests a larger man).
He likes to get his conversation on a roll, as if it were an extension of his music. He plumps it up with laughter to gauge his listener’s response; when he feels he’s gone too deeply into soliloquizing, he’ll say “Boom” or “I’m through,” like King Pleasure signing off a song.
“With things like the Kennedy Award, or the State of Georgia relinquishing its song for ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ I’m extremely honored,” he said. You feel you’ve come a long way. You think of what it was like wearing short pants and going barefoot, and what problems the South used to have.
“It’s a wonderful thing that music can really touch people. I get worried when I hear people say music is responsible for this or that. I find it strange when people say my kid was driven to do this or that because of music. That’s stupid.”
Sensitive to the point of exacerbation, Charles sometimes grows heated recalling a slight or an injustice. But he was careful never to be too specific. At 56, he still harbors the deep circumspection of the Southern black, whose racial memory warns “to be conspicuous can be fatal.”
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Ga., and raised in Greenville, Fla., by his real mother and his father’s first wife, both of whom he remembers with deep affection. In fact, the death of his mother when he was a teen-ager was shattering. Like most precocious kids, Charles’ early experiences were his most indelible. As a small child, he was powerless to save his older brother from drowning in a laundry tub. At 5, he began losing his sight.
“It was never diagnosed,” he said of the cause of his blindness. “If there’d been a specialist in that town, we couldn’t have afforded him. We’ve speculated that I might have had glaucoma, but we’ll never know. In Florida, I went to a state school for the blind and the deaf. When I was separated from my mom, I was nearly destroyed. But kids’ll get you out of that.”
As a youngster, Charles had been taught some piano rudiments by a local saloon player, and later joined the school band. “I was a classical pianist first. Come on! You think they taught jazz in that school? You played Bach and Beethoven. But that was good. It taught you to play what you think, even though I always wanted to play it some other way than it was written.”
Charles also played clarinet (he remains an ardent admirer of Artie Shaw) and arranged for the school band. After his mother’s death he left school and began a long career of scuffling that took him around the country. “There was a lot of days when I had nothin’ to eat, but you do learn how to take care of yourself, even when you’re too proud and you don’t wanna ask nobody for nothin’.
“I was fortunate in that I met some wonderful musicians who took me in and taught me. It’s not the greatest thing in the world to lose your sight, no sir. It’s not the greatest thing to watch your brother drown. It’s hard to get over thinkin’ it was your fault. Leavin’ home. Mother dyin’. When she went, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t swallow. Couldn’t cry. I was completely out of it. But this lady, a religious lady, said I oughta be ashamed. I broke. I’d been all balled up. (Elsewhere, Charles has said that in some ways he’s never stopped crying.) These are not pleasant things to happen. It sort of set the tone for what was to come.
“When I left school, I didn’t know what a career was. I just wanted to play music, anywhere, and maybe make a few bucks. I never set my stakes past gettin’ food for the next week. Back in those days, people in the neighborhood helped each other out. We had gardens. I guess tough times bring people together. Good times pull them apart.”
Occasionally, Charles referred to himself as an old man. When told that 56 is considered by many to be relatively young, he said, “I may be young chronologically, but 40 years in the music business is a long time. I’m a--what do you call it when you’ve been in the big leagues a long time?--a veteran. Yeah, I’m a veteran. I think 95% of my life has been documented somewhere. Everything, with the exception of when I was nobody, is known.
“You ask me what I’d like to do that I haven’t done, and I say ‘Nothin’!’ I haven’t any mountains to climb or oceans to swim. I’ve been an extremely blessed individual. I’ve had Grammys, keys, awards. What I’d like to do is, first, to be healthy, and second, to help some people refine their talent. I’m not clamorin’ for more trinkets. If I were to die tomorrow, I could say I’ve had a good life. It’s never a question of how long you live. If I’m not productive, if I’m dependent on others for my functions, let me go. That ain’t livin’ for me.”
Ray Charles first recorded when he was 17 (David Ritz, who co-authored Charles’ biography “Brother Ray,” notes in the appendix that even then Charles had the voice of a 50-year-old).
Before Charles joined Atlantic Records, he had already recorded more than 40 singles. He made 34 albums with Atlantic, 24 with ABC, three with Tangerine and four with Crossover. He’s heard on at least 90 singles altogether. A number of his tunes, “I Got a Woman,” “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” “Hit the Road, Jack,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Born to Lose,” “Ruby” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” are sealed firmly with Charles’ imprimatur.
Charles wasn’t just thinking of himself when he worried aloud that the commercial music industry is losing its tolerance for the innovative (he prides himself on having elicited faith from his record company owners in his ability to make his own albums without supervision).
“I think a lot of the creative forces in music are leaving and there are no replacements,” he said. “You aren’t gonna have an abundance of Duke Ellington in the near future. I think these things run in 100-year cycles. I watch the kids now; one or two people come up with an idea and the whole industry jumps on it. When I was coming up, the artist grew out of the company. Now it’s the other way around. When Michael Jackson does ‘Thriller,’ everybody starts usin’ the synthesizer.
“I have nothin’ against the new music. It’s what’s behind it. You can’t have people makin’ musical decisions who can’t tap their feet. Nothin’s wrong with being an accountant. Nothing’s wrong with bein’ a lawyer. But they can’t groove. All they can do is say, ‘Gimme the financial report.’ If you don’t make money right away, you’re gone! G-O-N-E. When I was comin’ up, nobody told me what to do. Never! I made less money, but I had the leverage. Let the artist be creative. Let the company handle the marketing. When you’re dealing with somebody who can’t read a quarter note as large as a piano (he half-sang), I’m through. . . .
“As for how I keep fresh, well, every day of my life is different. As many times as I’ve sung ‘Georgia,’ I’ve never done it the same way twice. When I’m workin’, if the music is groovin’ I can block everything out that bothers me. If I have a problem with you before or after that, look out! Boom. When I’m home, I do my interviews, recordings, TV. What I really enjoy is chess. You could wake me up out of a sound sleep to play chess, and dig it, I love my sleep. I’m not Spassky, but I’ll make it interesting for you.
“I’m not a party person. Four people to me is a crowd. I like a quiet evening with close friends where nobody tries to outshine anybody else. I like sincerity in people. We all know where we’re at. I’m still a country kid.”