ABILITY Magazine | Ray Charles Interview
   
      If you're looking for Ray Charles on an evening where he plays two 55 
      minute shows, you can probably find him in one of two places: seated in 
      front of a piano or chessboard, In fact, the trim, 5'9" legendary "Genius 
      of Soul" feels at home in front of either board, regardless of how many 
      people are watching. Most people can picture Ray with his black sunglasses 
      and captivating smile sitting in front of a piano, yet the image of this 
      blind musician looking with his hands at a chess board may raise a few 
      questions. Like, how? 

      In a game where skill and determination weed out the more proficient 
      players, chess can be easily adapted to the needs of the visually 
      impaired. For instance, Ray plays on a board where each square is the same 
      color but the depth of the squares are altered-- the "black" squares are 
      raised while the "white" squares are lowered. In addition, the black 
      pieces may have sharper tops, whereas the white ones are flat, and all 
      pieces include a peg on the bottom that fit into any hole drilled into the 
      squares on the board. In order to make the game a bit more user-friendly, 
      you will probably hear Ray Charles and his partner calling out moves as 
      the game progresses, making this type of chess a louder, more interactive 
      experience. 

      Ray has managed to recruit a few of his band members, friends, and even 
      interviewers to play a chess game in between gigs on tour. As he sips warm 
      coffee with Bols gin, he is comfortably removed from long months on the 
      road promoting his latest album. 

      Brother Ray, as he is affectionately called, has certainly put his time in 
      on the road. In his musical career of over 47 years, Ray has successfully 
      mastered the blues, jazz, gospel, rock, pop, and country music continually 
      airing his soulful heart. He has teamed up with the best of the best in 
      each stylistic genre, including BB King, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Hank 
      Williams, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, and, most recently, Eric Clapton. 
      Ray prefers not to describe himself as a specific kind of singer, just a 
      musician. "I'm not a country singer. I'm a singer who sings country songs. 
      I'm not a blues singer, but I can sing the blues. I'm not really a 
      crooner, but I can sing love songs. I'm not a specialist, but I'm a pretty 
      good utility man. I can play first base, second base, shortstop. I can 
      catch and maybe even pitch a little." 

      Whether it be the blues king or the granddaddy of soul, you get the 
      distinct feeling that Ray is singing what he knows. "His style of singing 
      is born out of his style of talking," explains David Ritz, coauthor of 
      Ray's autobiography, Brother Ray. "There are two moods which he exibits: 
      extreme highs and extreme lows...When he is excited, he is an obsessive 
      and poetic talker; he will chew your ear off until you are exhausted and 
      beat. When he is down, he becomes non-verbal-- his responses are 
      monosyllabic...Both moods are strong, and his sullen look will grip him as 
      suddenly as his smile." But his wry sense of humor is enduring-- and 
      endearing. Once, when booked into a glamorous Las Vegas hotel suite with a 
      bed two steps up, he said: "You know, I think these people are trying to 
      kill me." On the ceiling, above the bed, was a mirror. "Oh great!" he shot 
      back when informed of the extra. 

      Ray Charles Robinsons' autobiography, Brother Ray, details Ray's life, 
      which began on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia. He recounts his 
      days as a country boy in Greenville, Florida (about 30 miles from the 
      Georgia boarder) as the older of two boys cared for by his biological 
      mother, ŚRetha, whom he called "Mama." ŚRetha and the boys treated one of 
      his father's first wives, Mary Jane, like family, and Ray was known to 
      refer to her as "Mother." Mary Jane lived nearby and occasionally cared 
      for the boys as if they were her own. His father, Bailey Robinson, was 
      rarely seen by Ray or his brother George. Bailey worked driving spikes on 
      the railroad crossities in Florida and Georgia, hardly ever coming around 
      to see the family. It was ŚRetha who brought home whatever pennies she 
      could, doing chores for the local people in the neighborhood. 

      Ray speaks highly of his mama. To this day, he can clearly describe her 
      looks and continues to praise her wisdom, love, and discipline. His 
      experiences as a child were of complete love and acceptance, mixed with 
      periods of loss and suffering. Early childhood memories include adventures 
      in the colorful country with his brother George, and Sundays at the local 
      Baptist Church-- Ray's first introduction to religion and music. And then 
      he'll recall watching his four-year-old brother George accidentally drown 
      in a washtub as he desperately tried to pull him out. Ray was only five 
      then, and the most he could manage to do was scream for his mama to help. 

      Up until he was about six, Ray's vision was normal. Over a period of time, 
      images began to blur and he would spend five or ten minutes each morning 
      wiping the mucas from his eyes as they adjusted to the light. During that 
      year, ŚRetha has taken him to numerous doctors in the area, all of which 
      concluded that Ray would be blind and there was nothing to be done about 
      it. By the age of seven, with his mama's insistence, he reluctantly left 
      home for a state-supported boarding school-- the nearest one being St. 
      Augustine's for the blind and deaf, 160 miles away from home. 

      "Mama was a country woman with a whole lot of common sense. She understood 
      what most of our neighbor's didn't-- that I shouldn't grow dependent on 
      anyone except myself," Ray explains. "ŚOne of these days, I ain't gonna be 
      here,' she kept hammering inside my head. Meanwhile, she had me scrub 
      floors, chop wood, wash clothes, and play outside like all the other 
      kids...And her discipline didn't stop just Ścause I was blind. She wasn't 
      about to let me get away with any foolishness." 

      Ray's new school separated the deaf from the blind, the black from the 
      white, and the boys from the girls from ages six through eighteen. "It's 
      awfully strange thinking about separating small children-- black from 
      white-- when most of Śem can't even make out the difference between the 
      two colors," Ray said. 

      It was a tough move for him to be so far from home at the time and he 
      openly admits his crying. "I suppose I've always done my share of crying, 
      especially when there's no other way to contain my feelings. I know that 
      men ain't supposed to cry, but I think that's wrong. Crying's always been 
      a way for me to get things out which are buried deep, deep down. When I 
      sing, I often cry. Crying is feeling and feeling is being human. Oh yes, I 
      cry." 
      He learned Braille and eventually sign language so the deaf kids could 
      "speak" to him in the palms of his hands as he read their lips. It wasn't 
      long before he was able to read books and work with his hands weaving and 
      carving. The second part of the school year, Ray was taken to the hospital 
      to have his right eye removed. It had been aching him badly, throbbing 
      from morning to night. To this day, doctors can only speculate as to what 
      the problem was, some saying perhaps glaucoma. 

      Brother Ray was always into music, whether it was pounding on Mr. Wylie 
      Pittman's piano in the neighborhood store or simply listening to the 
      jukebox. It was no surprise that his favorite subject in school was music 
      instruction, which he started at the age of eight. The formal instruction 
      began with exercises and classical pieces on the piano and, two years 
      later, on the clarinet. 

      Being constantly attracted, and distracted, by music of all sorts, Ray 
      discovered a variety of role models and musical styles. His keen sense of 
      hearing and rhythm enabled him to pick up not only the instruments and 
      melodies, but the arrangements­ how the horns, the reeds, and the rhythm 
      were arranged in different sections. During the early forties, Ray was 
      listening to the big bands with the rest of America, along with the middy 
      Mississippi blues that were only avaiable on "race records." Determined 
      and strong-willed, Ray would always find some way to sneak into the 
      practice rooms at school after hours to practce. 

      Ray Charles' mama warned him over and over again that one day, she 
      wouldn't be around, but nothing prepared Ray for the time when she passed 
      away. He was only fifteen when he had to return home from school for his 
      mother's funeral. 

      "When a boy has just one parent­ a mama­ he'll cling to her like she's 
      life itself," expresses Charles 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 accept the reality of death." 

      After his brother George had died, there was just mama. Now he was alone. 
      "I had to make up my own mind, my own way, in my own time," explained Ray. 
      "Never really had to do that before, and in many ways, I found the 
      situation frightening. But that week of silence and suffering also made me 
      harder, and that hardness has stayed with me the rest of my life." 
      Shortly thereafter, Ray dropped out of high school and moved to 
      Jacksonville, Florida. His intention in scuffling through Jacksonville was 
      to get some live musical experience in the big city. Ray responded to his 
      new surroundings by seeking out any piano he could find. "it was music 
      which drove me; it was my greatest pleasure and my greatest release. It 
      was how I expressed myself." 

      It was about this time Ray Charles Robinson ended up shortening his name, 
      so he wouldn't be confused with "Sugar Ray" Robinson, the popular boxer of 
      the time. Staying downtown with some friends of Mary Jane, Ray would jam 
      at any gig he could get. He would manage to memorize his way around town, 
      paying little attention to things like drainage pipes, sewers, or cracks 
      in the sidewalk. 

      Ray was always pretty courageous. When he was ten or eleven, he rode a 
      bicycle on practucally every dirt road and path in Greenville. During a 
      summer in Tallahassee, the fifteeen-year-old daredevil learned how to ride 
      a motorcycle. He loved the feeling of motion and just like getting around 
      Jacksonvile or any other town, "being blind wasn't gonna stop 
      me...somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn't going to hurt 
      myself­I always had a lot of faith in my ability not to break my neck." 

      Ray's hearing is exceptional, and his instincts are sharp. "I suppose that 
      one proof of the rightness of my attitude is that as a kid, I was never 
      seriously hurt and there were only a few close calls," he comments. 
      Ray's acute hearing proved to be quite an asset to his career as well. 
      Though the ability to sing, play, write music and network his way around 
      the clubs barely put food on the table at first, nothing could contain 
      Ray's passion for music. After Jacksonville, it was Orlando, then Seattle, 
      and by 1948, his first album was released. At the time, Ray Charles was 
      most influenced by his idols, Nat Cole and Charles Brown. Ray recalls, 
      "But as I was shaving one morning, I thought, ŚWho knows your name?'" 
      Gradually, his own style developed. 

      It wasn't long before Ray Charles was forging the gospel with the blues. 
      His earliest tangible result of that was "I Got a Woman" for Ahmet Ertegun 
      and Atlantic Records in 1954. Record producer Jerry Wexler described 
      Brother Ray's voice then: "The emerging sound was unmistakable, brand-new, 
      yet ancient as the woods, the country church of Ray's childhood. The 
      breakthrough was close at hand." 

      And so began the "Genius of Soul," a hybrid sound that introduces God's 
      voice to man's feelings, which certainly raised a few eyebrows for a 
      while. Ray continued to experiment with his new style. Big bands, small 
      bands, solo, and a variety of backup choruses have spotted his long 
      career. He has also been fortunate enough to work without interference 
      from record companies through the years and be able to choose his own 
      songs. 

      "I am very into lyrics," Ray explains. "I start with what the words are 
      saying, what the storyline 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 
      people, and if it's not going to move people, it's not going to happen. I 
      don't think I'm good because I'm blind, I think I'm good because I'm 
      good." 

      At one point, stage manager Carl Hunter explained that "he'd [Charles] 
      know it if the band missed a note, a single note. He'd know it if the 
      drummer's left shoelace was flapping. You be with us long enough, you'll 
      swear the man can see." In a performance, Ray's body moves to a different 
      part of the music, but his feet provide the most deft, airbone 
      accompaniment. It's his feet that give the backbeat, the downbeat, the 
      accents, and the tempo; it's the way Ray conducts. In fact, this way of 
      conducting is so powerful that "in rehearsal, if you walk between the band 
      and his feet, they all start cursing you," said Carl. 

      Ray's publicist, Bob Abrams, says, "You know you're getting a good show 
      when Ray's socks fall down...his feet are going up over the piano. One 
      sock falls half-mast. It's because of all the energy he expands. That's 
      his exercise." 

      Brother Ray's latest album/CD, "My World," is yet another example of his 
      timeless musical talent. His mix of socially conscious songs with pop 
      standards display a very contemporary side of Ray. There are songs about 
      concern for families and children, as well as peace and unity on the 
      planet. 

      "Music is powerful," Ray says. "As people listen to it, they can be 
      affected. They respond. But when I was doing this album, I wasn't trying 
      to create an overall message. It just turned out that we got some songs 
      that had something to say." And Ray, along with his all-star cast for some 
      of his songs (like Billy Preston, Mavis Staples, and Eric Clapton), 
      continues his musical experiments­ this time using synthesizers, sound 
      samplers, and drum machines. 

      This open attitude keeps Ray current with his fans. During the 1980's and 
      90's, he caught the attention of a whole new generation with his popular 
      "California Raisin" and Pepsi ("Uh huh") commercials. In fact, the first 
      Diet Pepsi commercial in the fall of 1990 proved to be so unexpectedly 
      popular that Ray Charles is taking home an estimated $3 million from Pepsi 
      after renegotiating his original one-year contract. And for those that 
      missed it, photo "opportunities" were available with life-size cutout 
      figures of Ray Charles and the Raeletts at selected supermarkets last 
      year. 

      "I must say, I'm proud of that commercial," explains Ray, in his fifth 
      year as spokesperson for Pepsi. 
      And what about those three sexy background singers dubbed the Reaeletts? 
      Well, Ray has never been one to hold back with women. Next to music, women 
      have always been the major objects of his attention. In Brother Ray, he 
      tells us that no day is worth starting without a love, and many of his 
      songs have been regarded as a sort of report of his fortunes and 
      misfortunes with women. 

      Battling substance abuse for a number of years, Ray finally enrolled in 
      the rehabiltation program at St. Francis hospital near Los Angeles in 
      1965. His decision to go cold turkey is an example of his committment to 
      himself, and after overcoming his physical and psychological addiction in 
      his own way, he left the hospital. It was at St. Francis that Ray learned 
      how to play chess and continued to play cards in Braille. 

      Ray's most recent bout with pain was a serious maddening of inner-ear 
      problems. "I was hearing sound within sounds," he says. For a man that 
      relies so heavily on his hearing, this proved to be quite a scare. 
      Although his problems have since been resolved, Ray felt motivated enough 
      to become involved with groups like Ear International, a Los Angeles-based 
      nonprofit organization for the hearing disabled. His personal donations 
      and fund raising have provided money for research in developing electronic 
      implants, among other devices. 

      In futhering his dedication to the hearing impaired, Ray urged Congress to 
      increase funding for research into hearing loss in 1987. His visit to 
      Washington, D.C. included speaking before the subcommittees for Labor, 
      Health and Human Services, and Education, saying: "Most people take their 
      hearing for granted. I can't. My eyes are my handicap, but my ears are my 
      opportunity. My ears show me what my eyes can't. My ears tell me 99 
      percent of what I need to know about my world." 

      In addition to working with Ear International, Ray Charles has shown a 
      long and active concern and involvement with sickle cell disease programs. 
      In 1975, the National Association for Sickle Cell Disease (NASCD) 
      presented their first "Man of Distinction" Award to Ray, and he continues 
      as the L.A. chapter's Honorary Chairman since 1962. 

      What's next for this multi-talented entertainer? Well, as Ray himself 
      articulates, "music is nothing separate from me. It is me. I can't retire 
      from music any more than I can retire from my liver...I believe the Lord 
      will retire me when He's ready. And then I'll have plenty of time for a 
      long vacation."