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Ray Charles Keeps On Keepin’ On : At age 58, the blues king is touring again

It seems as if Ray Charles, who kicks off yet another national tour Monday at Santa Ana’s Crazy Horse, has been with us forever.

Part of that, of course, has to do with the way time has accelerated in America, so that last month’s news might as well have broken 10 years ago. In a career that began in a big way with the 1953 release “I Got a Woman"--and considering the radical changes in pop music styles and technology that have occurred since--it seems as if Brother Ray could have fronted the house band on the Ark.

Too, a major artist exercises a kind of cultural eminent domain in which certain things belong that can’t be relocated, or re-assumed by someone else. Just as “Stormy Weather” belongs to Lena Horne, “Georgia on My Mind” belongs to Charles. As does “What’d I Say.” As does “Hit the Road, Jack,” and “Busted,” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Born to Lose.” And an amazing number of other songs.

Charles is also a gifted takeover artist. He was far from the first to come upon “Ruby,” for example, but his rendition places it smack where it belongs, echoing through the 3 o’clock in the morning of the soul. “Makin’ Whoopee” was about flirty fun when Eddie Cantor sang it with a wink and a tap dance flourish. With Charles, it’s about low, slow, toasty full-time sex.

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Virtually every major pop standards singer has had a go at “Blues in the Night,” but when Charles comes up to the lyric, From Natchez to Mobile, / From Memphis to St. Joe., / Wherever the four winds blow, / I been in some big towns / And heard me some big talk, you get the distinct feeling that he’s singing what he knows, and that his memory is nicked with impressions too numerous to tell of hard drives to tough gigs, a high in one place, the voice and touch of a woman somewhere else, gunplay, characters, discoveries of new musical licks, and heavy jammin’ everywhere.

That’s the thing about Charles that lends his music its authority. His big handsome head and generous smile, the sleekness of his dark glasses, his powerful jaw line and shoulders--and his driving energy--altogether combine into an image of masculine force, of easy Centurion strength and the privilege it assumes. But the voice is something else. David Ritz, the co-author of Charles’ autobiography, “Brother Ray,” says Charles was born with the voice of a 50-year-old, and remembers a blistering concert in Ft. Worth that concluded with “What’d I Say": “He is grotesque and beautiful. He cannot stop moving. He screams, and the scream lasts for 10, 20, 30 seconds. The scream is the breaking point.”

Charles’ voice burns like skin scraped over concrete; that’s why, when he’s not singing of pain but of pleasure or beauty or grace, his sentiments still have an epic scale--they’ve been so punishingly earned . No one sings naked pain and pleasure like Charles; most of the rest of us have spent our lives looking for ways to ameliorate their intensity, which seems too much to bear over time. Even Charles himself wishes he could find some way to cauterize his emotions with a little philosophy.

“There’s such a thing as too much happiness and sadness,” he said last week. “What I’m after is contentment. I realize I’ll always be happy or sad, but if I can keep my life on an even keel with contentment, just to keep it balanced. . . . You shouldn’t allow things to get to you that’re meaningless a lot of times. Hell, by the time you’re 63, three-quarters of the things you worried about never happened. I realized a lot of this stuff at 40.”

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At 58, Charles is surprisingly young for the time he’s spent on top and the musical places he’s gotten to first. He once said: “Trouble comes to your life when you’re young, or in the middle, or when you’re old. But it comes.”

In his case, it was early.

Ray Charles Robinson (he dropped the last name at the outset of his career so as not to be confused with the boxer Sugar Ray) was born in Albany, Ga., Sept. 23, 1930, the son of an itinerant railroad worker who didn’t take much interest in him and was gone most of the time (the family moved to Greenville, Fla., shortly after Ray’s birth).

The elder Robinson’s first wife and Ray’s mother more than compensated for his father’s indifference. They doted on Ray and his gifted older brother (by two years) George. The family was poor, even by small-town country standards (Charles decribes their house as a “shotgun shack”), but he was happy and well cared-for (in describing how they feasted on pig, he recalls, “We ate everything except the oink”).

One day his 5-year-old brother fell into a washtub and drowned despite Ray’s desperate effort to pull him out. A couple of years later, Ray’s eyes began caking up and burning, and with no adequate medical treatment available nearby and no money to send him to a city hospital, the condition worsened. He was blind (from glaucoma) by the age of 7.

The resilience of youth and the closeness and affection of his real and surrogate mothers quickly enabled him to get around the obstacles of being handicapped--he has maintained an extraordinary, daring independence all his life (“no cane, no dog, no guitar” is his motto), and has always preferred the company of women.

Too, there was music, which he’s described at various times as “magic,” “something that’s always been with me,” and “one of my parts, like my ribs, my liver, my kidneys, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene.” A local saloon proprietor and boogie-woogie player named Wylie Pitman would hoist the child onto his lap and let him pound on the keys. Charles recalls Mr. Pit with utmost fondness, and in his interview last week turned to his piano and plinked a few awkward notes, a child again for a few seconds.

Growing up, Charles listened to Boogie-Woogie, to Tampa Red, Blind Boy Phillips, Washboard Sam and Big Boy Crudup, and to the big bands on the radio. And as he made his way up through gigs from Florida (where at one impoverished point he lived on sardines, soda crackers and water) to Seattle, his career was fairly typical of any number of other musicians struggling to make it--his early days in fact were characterized by how uncannily he could approximate the playing and vocal technique of Nat King Cole.

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But one experience set him apart that had nothing overtly to do with music: the death of his mother. Charles was 15 and a student at a Florida school for the blind and deaf called St. Augustine when he got the news. It was devastating. Think of it: To be alive in the middle of a sea of unremitting darkness, but calmed and nourished by the circumambient loving warmth of one’s mother, as all-encompassing as a tropical atmosphere. And then to lose it.

“When a boy has just one parent--a mama--he’ll cling to her like she’s life itself,” Charles said in “Brother Ray.” “And he’ll never even start thinking about what life would be like without her. The thought’s too terrible. . . . I was unable to deal with the facts of death; I was unable to deal with the reality of death.”

He took the news like a toxic dose, and it changed him. “Those summer months after Mama’s death were a turning point for me,” he wrote. “I had to make up my own mind, my own way, in my own time. . . . That week of silence and suffering made me harder, and that hardness has stayed with me the rest of my life.”

Last week, while he dutifully conducted his pre-tour interviews in his Washington Boulevard studio (he struck photogenic poses for CNN’s camera), he mentioned his mother in passing again after the crew left.

“The worst thing I ever went through was when my mother died,” he said. “You don’t get over it. You just learn to live with it.” This is, of course, 43 years later.

He had been talking about being independent. “I’m a survivor, that’s the key,” he said. “My mama had this strong thing about being independent. You’re never sure about these things, but I think there’s something to be said for parenting. If you’re raised a certain way, if you’re taught to have faith in yourself, and you’re encouraged, it does build confidence in you so that when you run into tragedy or divorce or my old lady is leaving, there’s an attitude you can take.

“You can’t lie to yourself. When I’m lying to me, I know it. If I’m saying something just to please you, I know that too. When I said to (his manager) Joe Adams ‘No more drugs,’ he said ‘Hm.’ But my thing has always been ‘If you want to do it, do it.’ ”

Charles was referring to the years in which he’d been a heroin user and then decided in 1965 to kick, not only because he was facing a jail term in Boston, but because--according to him--the habit meant he was failing his son, Ray Jr.

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(A postscript to this chapter: He detoxified in St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood and returned for sentencing in Boston. The previous judge in the case, who had died, wrote a deathbed letter to the presiding judge, which Charles quotes: “I know this case is no longer in my jurisdiction. But I have to tell you--just as a fellow human being--that society would be better off with Ray Charles free, serving as a good example of a guy who kicked drugs, rather than being put away in prison.”)

“Whatever you do,” Charles said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not going to suffer.”

He was dressed in a maraschino red shirt and dark slacks. On stage and in photos he looks to be about 6-foot-2 and a solid 200 pounds, but in fact he’s about 5-9 and as trim as a welterweight, with muscular shoulders tapering into a tap dancer’s slender waist and legs.

He spoke about his upcoming tour, and whether it would contain anything new.

“I like to do new things, but I find that, for me, since I been around so long, people young and old know of the music and expect it. I don’t want to do a nostalgia trip--the show is about 65% to 35 of old and new. We don’t lose ‘Georgia’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You.’ ”

As for what it is about a new song that strikes him (Quincy Jones, Billy Preston and Jimmy Lewis are among the composers who have written for him): “I’m very much into lyrics. I start with what the words are saying, what the story line is saying, like a good script. It should really capture me, do something for me. If I don’t get it, it’s not going to move the people, and if it’s not going to move the people, it’s not going to happen.”

Charles considers himself in a somewhat privileged position (though he’s insisted on it) to have been able to work without interference from his record company employers--he’s had his own labels, but he’s also worked for Atlantic and ABC.

“I think that’s one of the things that’s hurting the kids today. You hear, ‘Gimme something that sounds like Michael Jackson.’ The sound of the week. I don’t see the originality I’d like to see. I listen to FM radio and half an hour later it all sounds the same. My ears can’t take it anymore. The record companies give their artists three chances and then it’s over. I had five records out on Atlantic before I hit.”

Contrastingly, he isn’t disdainful of commercialism.

“I don’t buy that word. The point about music is to make it enjoyable. I’m not going to lie to you. I’m vain. I like my music to be like Coca-Cola--I want everybody in the world to dig it.” Too, he understands how difficult self-discovery can be. After all, he spent his early career imitating Nat King Cole and Charles Brown.

“I’d eat, sleep and drink Nat King Cole. What stopped me was that I was so good that people’d say, ‘He sounds just like Nat King Cole.’ But I woke up one morning and said: ‘What’s your name? Where’s Ray Charles? People don’t know your name, boy.’ It was frightening.”

Charles was in an expansive mood this day. Normally he uses his laughter and exuberance to conceal a fairly calculating approach to interviews, which he recognizes as a career necessity. To their intrusiveness, their unpredictability, and the idea that they siphon away psychic pressure that may better serve one’s work, he offers his Ray rap, a fairly standard glossary of responses. He’s been giving the same or similar answers to most questions for decades. Any time spent in his company leaves no doubt that he’s a complex, sensitive, mercurial man. But it’s his way of remaining private and free.

Today he talked a bit of his postwar period in Seattle, when it had the energy of a boom town and stayed up all night (he worked at a joint called The Rocking Chair, which didn’t open until 1 a.m.). “It was wide open in those days, easy come, easy go. A lot of clubs and musicians. You could go in and get your ass kicked--there was always someone a little better than you.” His fortune took a turn for the better when a gambler named Jack Lauderdale came down one night and asked Charles if he’d like to make an album for Lauderdale’s label, which was then called Down Beat (later changed to Swingtime). “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” was the happy outcome of that partnership.

Of the fate some of those other great musicians, he said: “Some people are very good, but they don’t want to fight. Others who’re not so good have plenty of fight in them and wind up making it. A lot of people say, ‘I don’t want to be famous. I just want to be good.’ But I believe talent will always come through.”

The subject switched to women, who, next to music, have always been the major objects of his attentions--in “Brother Ray” he tells us no day is worth starting without a love. He has nine children--all of whom he supports--by two marriages and a variety of liaisons, and he’s never made a secret of his pleasures of the flesh.

“The fact of the matter is, you don’t give up what’s natural,” he said. “Anything I’ve fantasized about, I’ve done. But it’s been a complete turnaround. When I came up, if you got into trouble, 20 or 30 dollars’d take care of it. Now, you’re dead. You’ve got to have some apprehension now. With what’s happening in society, you can’t be free and loose. I feel for the kids today. Me, I’m--what do you call it--monogamous. Yeah!” He laughed at the eccentricity of the idea.

He spoke of America’s drug problem: “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but let’s start with the regular stuff you see in a medicine cabinet. You got stuff for your feet, for your head, for your navel. If you feel like crying, you say ‘I’ll have a martini.’ If you’re uptight, ‘I’ll have a tranquilizer.’ Kids see that. I think a lot of this should be left alone; a lot of people do things they don’t like to be told not to do. What you should do is tell the man about the traumas and hurts to his family, about what he can expect. If you tell someone what to expect and he goes ahead and does it, you’re not responsible.”

On politics: “There’s too many laws on the books already. I can respect laws that deal with me and you, like if I run into your car. As for individuals, what people need to make decisions is the best information. One of the reasons we have so much fighting is the people in charge, who try and make you do what they want you to do while they’re guilty too--beginning with preachers on down, or ‘I am not a crook.’ ” He jumped with indignation. “People get tired of people saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, and give me all your money!’ ”

On being 58: “If I didn’t know how old I was, I’d think I was in my early 30s. I feel good, which is scary as hell. I’ll be proud to make 59. It’s like Lucille Ball. They say, ‘Hey, she’s doing good. She’s looking good.’ The next day she’s dead. It’s like the comedian said, ‘When I die, I want to be sick.’ ”

What’s the most important thing in life? “Get your act together and don’t let the b.s. get to you. I just can tell you that I’m my own man.”

He rose from his piano bench and flashed his famous always-keep-'em-coming-back-for-more smile. Then he was gone. He left the impression that here was a man who had not yet outlived his pain but had made it point him toward a certain heroism.

It’s been a life.


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