JJ 12/60: Ray Charles, interviewed

Sixty years ago, Brother Ray told Allan Morrison of his journey from small-town boy to international fame, $1000 a night, a house in Los Angeles and his own Cessna. First published in Jazz Journal December 1960


The opening notes of the boogie floated from the musty cafe, filtering across the yard to the dark little boy playing in the hot sun. The child cocked an ear toward the sound, then scam­pered into the building, listening as the melody rolled like magic from the piano. He stood quietly until the song died, then:

“Can I play?” he begged. “Lemme do it. hunh, Mr. Pittman?”

Pretending to weigh the matter gravely, Wiley Pittman thought a while, grunted his approval. He watched as the boy’s four-year-old fingers and fists raised a chorus of angry noises from the old upright. “Ray Charles,” he thought, “just might turn into a musician some day.”

For the boy, the race to the cafe was an everyday ritual, sometimes made more exciting when Pittman got up from the piano and asked him to play. “He was a kind man,” Charles recalls of the café owner who provided his first musical experience. “I guess he felt that if I was interested, he would let me bam on that piano even though I couldn’t play anything. But you know, people in small towns were nice like that. I guess they were more human because all of us were so poor to be­gin with.”

From “bamming” on the piano in the little town of Greenville, Fla., to a place where his name is the synonym for “soul” was a long road for Ray Charles. Blindness and the loss of his parents, frustrations and hard times helped “make him” what he is today, he concedes. So, as he considers himself and from whence he came, he declares easily:

By the age of 15, when his mother died, Charles was determined not to stand on a corner with a cup and cane. “I looked around,” he recalls, “and I told myself, ‘Nobody owes you a thing.'”

“Man, I’m not greedy. I don’t want to be a millionaire like Howard Hughes, or make as much money as Frank Sinatra. Success is something you should look upon as a blessing and try to appreciate. And you should sit down, kneel down, or whatever you do, and give thanks for what you’ve got.”

To his large following, the appeal of Charles lies basically in his “funk,” the jazzman’s term for that mixture of raw emotional in­gredients with which Charles can send the listener to the dizzy heights of joy, or mire him in the pit of despair.

Among musicians, he is generally spoken of with the kind of reverence reserved for the late Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday; for Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and a select few others who are touched with musical genius. Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton probably comes as close as anyone to the heart of the matter when he declares fervently:

“Ray Charles is the earth, the thing that everybody has contact with. He’s really saying something.”

Although he was born in Albany, Ga., Charles calls “home” the little Florida town where he grew up and where “there weren’t enough people to fill a good-sized dance hall.” An only child, he remembers little of his early youth except that his family was poor but religious, and that he was raised, principally, by his grandmother.

Losing his sight is one of his faintest memories. The trouble with his eyes started when he was six (“whatever I had I couldn’t be cured”) and within two years he was blind.

“It didn’t make a hell of an impres­sion on me,” he protests. “I don’t re­member much about it because I don’t want to remember much. It’s not the kind of thing you keep turning over in your mind.” While sightlessness is a sufficiently unhappy memory that he doesn’t choose to dwell on it, he ration­alizes that “it might not be such a bad thing.”

“I might not have turned out like I have if I could see,” he says.

At a state school for the blind in St. Augustine. Fla., his talent for piano was discovered and nurtured by a succession of women teachers. Music be­came his best subject, and before long there seemed little doubt that it would eventually be his life.

“You might think that learning the way I had to was hard,” he says, “but that’s because you never had to learn that way. We would feel the notes in Braille, learn two bars and play the two from memory. Then, we’d learn maybe 10 more bars and play the 12 … then learn 20 more and play the 32. The roughest things were classics. Some of them might have 2,000 bars, and since you couldn’t follow along with your eyes, man, you really had to memorize that stuff.”

By the age of 15, when his mother died, Charles was determined not to stand on a corner with a cup and cane. “I looked around,” he recalls, “and I told myself, ‘Nobody owes you a thing.'”

When his father died two years later, Ray was already a professional, playing with small combos around Tallahassee, Orlando, and Jacksonville, Fla., polish­ing his technique, and soaking up musical experience.

“There were days,” he chuckles, “when I didn’t have a thing to eat but a can of sardines, a box of crackers, and a pitcher of ice water: when I had no valet and had to do everything for myself. I could have given it up and gone home, but my mother had told me one thing that stuck with me, and that was that success didn’t come overnight. So, since I was already out there on the road, I figured someone would have to convince me that I wasn’t good enough to stay.”

Playing with small bands around Florida, his early experience was some­thing of a straight jacket. As as sideman for Charlie Brantley, Charles re­calls, “We called ourselves the Honey-dippers, or something like that, and we could play everything Louis Jordan played and sound just like him. He was doing well, and we thought if we imitated him we’d make money.”

Around 1948, when he moved to Seattle, Wash., and formed his own Maxim Trio, playing the Rocking Chair, Washington Social Club, Black and Tan, the 908 Club, and other local night spots, he was a near carbon copy of Nate Cole, who Charles feels is one of today’s most underrated pianists. “Sweet,” he says of Nat, and smiles like he can hear the music, “that man plays some of the sweetest piano you’d ever want to hear. I used to imitate him as a singer until I decided I would have to be like myself instead of like some­body else.” Out of this decision came the discovery of today’s Ray Charles.

“Sweet,” he says of Nat, and smiles like he can hear the music, “that man plays some of the sweetest piano you’d ever want to hear. I used to imitate him as a singer until I decided I would have to be like myself instead of like some­body else.”

“Basically,” he insists, “I’m not a singer.” Humming arrangements to his fellow players, he discovered in himself a different vocal sound and a natural flair for singing the blues. This launched the extension of his musical career which at 28 has brought him sweeping artistic and commercial success, and earned him acclaim from followers of blues singing, pop music and modern jazz. From an obscure pianist and a former accompanist with singer Ruth Brown, since 1948 Charles has gained the status of a major star and made ardent fans of such differing musical stylists as Patti Page and Dizzy Gil­lespie. The influence exerted through his booming record sales and trium­phant personal appearances has become enormous. And the Ray Charles cult, once a tiny minority movement of discriminating hipsters, now embraces millions of people.

For Atlantic Records, with whom he was under contract until last year, he recorded 82 tunes, including some 25 singles which were eventually incor­porated in the eight albums he made under that label. Now with ABC-Paramount, he has already released one 10-tune album, The Genius Hits The Road. Of the songs he has on wax, 32 are his own compositions.

On one-nighters, he commands from $800 to $1,000, getting 50 per cent of the gross for all over double his initial fee. From theaters, his earnings have ranged from $7,000 to $10,000 a week, with the same arrangement for a per­centage of the gross. He puts together his own show, paying the package on a salary basis. Last year, one of his big­gest, his estimated gross was well over $100,000.

To Charles, his present status was principally a matter of sticking it out until he could hit big. “I came the slow way,” he says. “People see your name on the juke box and say, ‘There’s an­other Ray Charles.’ or they walk into a record store and they remember you. You’ve got things going even though you haven’t had a smash hit and people are as familiar with you as their own telephone number.”

His versatility makes him a phenome­non in the music business. His reper­toire is so broad and rich that he can excite the emotions of people who have nothing more in common than a musi­cal allegiance to him. While he is basi­cally a pianist, the album Soul Brothers, with Milt Jackson, proved him also an accomplished alto man. He has studied the clarinet (“that’s how I learned to play the sax”), and he plays “a little” trumpet. He composes and arranges as well.

Many things contributed to his sing­ing style. Probably the strongest in­fluence was the Baptist church which he attended during his youth. And though many people believe to the contrary, his blindness, aside from “giving me some extra drive,” has no part in his sometimes wildly uninhibited perform­ances. “Church,” says Charles, “had its place. Everyone in a small town went to church, and I mean you had to go, too. Sunday school in the morning, then regular services, home for dinner and back for BYPU. Then there were even­ing services, and you’d get home about 10 at night.” Against this background, though he never sang in the choir, he absorbed the gospel feel which domi­nates a good deal of his work, and is as much a part of his singing heritage as are the labor and folk songs of the Negro people.

“The things I write and sing about concern the general Joe and his general problems. There are about four basic things: love, some­body running his mouth too much, having fun, and jobs are hard to get.”

The only other musical member of his family, his wife, Delia was a profes­sional with Cecil Shaw’s Union Spiritualist Singers when he met her about eight years ago in Houston. “She was pretty good, too,” he says.

Probably Charles’ own statement of philosophy explains his universal audience appeal.

“The things I write and sing about,” he explains, “concern the general Joe and his general problems. There are about four basic things: love, some­body running his mouth too much, having fun, and jobs are hard to get.

“You know, the general Joe’s prob­lems are the problems of everyone. He fools around, falls in love, would give the woman his right arm, then she leaves him but he loves her just the same.

“Or, a guy works hard, brings the old lady all his money, and she’s out all day while he’s gone, doubletiming on him. There are things like people talk­ing, trying to break us up … songs that make sense – that mean some­thing.”

That blindness affects his singing, is the cause of his style, or affects his re­lationships with people, is a misconcep­tion he quickly dispatches.

“Seeing people or not seeing them,” he says, “life is still life. The same match that burns you burns me. When I put myself in the place of the guy, the general Joe I’m singing about, I want to feel that his problem is real. So I sing with all the feeling I can put into it, so that I can feel it myself. I sing the songs for what they mean to me.”

Every shout, moan, raucous cry, or sustained or suddenly ended passage, say his musically hipped listeners, “is the truth.” When Charles shouts the blues he expresses his soul in startling ways. He will often prolong a note to extract the utmost feeling from it. At times his voice is harsh and husky, at times, soft and tender. Interspersed with the lyrics are the often strange sounds which some people label “insin­cere showmanship.” But they represent, instead, the deeply felt expression of a man who regards the blues as a religion.

The famous, late blues singer, Big Bill Broonzy, once objected to Charles’ mixing the blues with spirituals. “He should be singin’ in a church,” Broonzy declared. To Charles, however, Negro religious music and jazz are intercon­nected.

His two biggest hits to date are I Got A Woman, which he recorded in 1955, and the fabulous What’d I Say, released in 1958, and still a strong seller, par­ticularly in the South. Two recording performances which he personally rates highest in quality, A Fool For You, and Come Rain Or Come Shine, never be­came hits.

It is possible to get an emotional answer from him more quickly by ac­cusing rock ‘n’ roll of contributing to today’s evils than in a discussion of his own music. “It’s ridiculous,” he shouts when asked about the bad influence of the music. “People are always trying to blame juvenile deliquency on something besides the home where it really starts. When modern jazz was first catching on, they called it be-bop; every time something happened, they said the be-boppers did it.

“It’s ridiculous,” he shouts when asked about the bad influence of the music. “People are always trying to blame juvenile delinquency on something besides the home where it really starts. When modern jazz was first catching on, they called it be-bop; every time something happened, they said the be-boppers did it.”

“Music is wholesome, all kinds of it, and there’s enough of it to go around – to reach all kinds of people. It even makes friends across language barriers. Now how can something that great be the cause of delinquency? It’s like say­ing that operas are the cause of mur­ders.”

Like many entertainers, he has had a taste of unfavourable publicity. In 1955, he was arrested during the closing min­utes of his show at Philadelphia’s Town Hall in a dope raid which included eight members of his band, and a girl singer. The charges were dismissed after he ex­plained to the magistrate that he thought he was getting anti-flu shots.

Four years later, an Atlanta woman claimed he was the father of her seven-year-old child, conceived during a 1951 date. He was freed of that charge when the judge declared there was no clear evidence against Charles after the woman admitted intimacies with two other men during the same period.

These two incidents probably account for his reluctance to discuss anything but his professional career.

“I hope you don’t misunderstand me,” he apologized, “but my family life is one thing I don’t talk about. I figure an entertainer may be public, but at least his family life should be private. Just say that I’m an extremely happily married man and proud of it. The thing I regret most about my kind of job is that it keeps me away from my family more than I like. I could take them and what I have now and be happy the rest of my days. Like I can be happy with small things like contentment and being surrounded by love. I can’t think of anything that means more to me than to go home and have the kids hug me around the neck and call me, ‘Daddy.'”

Last year he bought a home in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and two sons, Ray Jr., 5, and David James, 2. Of their future, he is content for them to decide what they will be “as long as they are professionals.” Musically, “they bam on that piano like I did when I was a kid, but I don’t know if anything will come of it.”

Greenville, Fla., seems to be the happiest little island in his memory. Talking about the place, he shucks off his seriousness and is a little boy again. “I went back a couple of years ago,” he said, “not because I had any rela­tives there, but just for kicks, to see what the place was like.”

A laugh started ’way down and worked its way up until he threw back his head and roared: “You know, they had electric ice boxes and gas stoves. Whadda you think of that?

“We had those wood burning stoves when I grew up.” Then he halted, re­membering something else that he ex­pressed in a chanted half-song.

“The iceman would come around, calling out: ‘I-i-i-i-iceman, i-i-i-i-ice-man.’ And the people would answer him, ‘Give me ten pounds.’

“And he’d say, ‘Lady, it’s the week­end you know; you’d better get fifty’.

“And she’d say, ‘All right, iceman; give me fifty.'”

“Man, that’s the way it was, a nice town, nice people. If those country folks heard you were sick there’d be somebody who would come stay with you all night and never expect a buck. Folks aren’t like that these days.”

A man with no driving interests outside his music and his family, he collects records ranging from his favorite in classics, Beethoven (“I think his Moonlight Sonata is beautiful”), to Miles Davis. His principal pleasure in life is “rest, rest, rest. I don’t have time for much else.” He spends hours of his non-working time listening to recordings and tapes, sometimes tunes in on baseball and football games, and occasionally plays dominos and whist.

Hoping to lighten the burden of travel, he recently paid $40,000 for a Cessna T-10, a twin-engined plane which he plans to use getting around to engagements, so “I can get a little more rest between dates.”

Of his future, he has no major plans. He has been to Mexico and Cuba, and would like to go to Europe, “but not during the cold season since I don’t understand the climate there.”

Getting up from a relaxed seat in a chair, and going into the nervous jiggling and aimless walking that seems to seize him when he is on his feet, he popped a marshmallow into his mouth and thought for a minute.

“I don’t know where I’ll go from here,” he said. “I guess I’ll keep on trying to make records as good as I can.

“About the future, I guess you can say that I believe in a Supreme Being, I know right from wrong, and that is what keeps me going. I believe you should treat your fellow man right, and if you do, you’re doing as much as you can to make something of yourself. I can make more money or less; it won’t matter. I don’t believe in getting busy trying to live beyond your means.

“I’m really satisfied with what I’ve got, and that’s enough for me!”

(Originally reprinted in Jazz Journal from Ebony by kind permission of the author and the Johnson Publishing Company.)