SECTION ONE

sm
COLUMN 107, JULY 1, 2004
(Copyright 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist) 

RETROPOP SCENE:
THE GREAT RAY CHARLES NEEDED NO JUSTIFYING

Ronald Reagan arrived at the Pearly Gates this week, and was met by St. Peter.  Reagan was stunned for a moment.

"You mean, I---I'm in?" he asked.

"That's right" said St. Peter.  "Come on, man. I'll show you around."  He tossed the keys to a brand new Lincoln Town Car at Reagan, and said, "You drive. This is your car, for the rest of eternity."

Reagan was buoyant as they drove along the streets of Heaven, through sunny neighborhoods.  Finally they came to a fancy part of town, with big lawns and swimming pools.  St. Peter told Reagan that this is where he would be living.

"That's Franklin Roosevelt's house over there," St. Peter pointed out as they drove, "And that's where Albert Einstein lives, next to Madame Curie.   Pope John Paul XXIII lives here....and here's your house."  They pulled into the driveway, and got out.

As Reagan was looking around, he noticed up in the hills a palace made of shimmering, white granite.  He could see it was enormous, with room after room, and terraces with dozens of gold fountains. "That must be where the Lord lives," said Reagan. St. Peter shook his head.

"No, that's Ray Charles's place," he said. Reagan's smile faltered for a moment.

"Ray Charles lives there? How come all the presidents, scientists and popes live here, and Ray Charles lives up in that palace?  I don't get it."

St. Peter chuckled. "Ronnie," he said, "Presidents and Popes are a dime a dozen.  But baby, there's only one Ray Charles."

---From an email from Ron Martinetti at Amlegends@aol.com

My most poignant memory of Ray Charles is my glimpse of him as his valet rolled up his sleeve in a rear seat of his band bus, which had just pulled up to the stage door of the Concord Hotel, the most expensive vacation summer paradise in the Catskills' legendary Borscht Belt. Only Ray and his valet were left aboard the bus as I started down the steps to the ground. I waited outside the bus until Ray emerged a short time later. He was happy and smiling as he walked with his entourage along the corridor to his dressing room while running his hand against the wall.

"Man!"he said. 'this sure is a fine looking place!"

New York City's wealthier Jewry was not at all acquainted with Ray's music and Ray's engagement at the Concord at what was possibly that resort Hotel's busiest time of the season---the Labor Day Weekend---was entirely experimental.

"If you don't like me at first, just listen a while.  I'll find you," Ray had told me. We'd see.

"Who is this blind schvartze?? wondered the thousand-strong audience, which included many elderly white-haired vacationers.

Unacquainted with Ray's magic, the yentas in the audience started leaving the showroom as soon as Ray began his show. The yentas figured they'd have a better time social climbing and gossiping in the lobby. During Ray's first four numbers, the move to the doors turned into an exodus. It was when Ray started singing You Don't Know Me that the rush for the doors suddenly stopped.  Slowly, the outwardly flow turned inwardly. By the time Ray ended his show with his sexy, rhythmic, What'd I Say? the audience was banging on tables, standing on chairs, and joining in the shrieks of Ooooh and Ahhhh. Even the most stubborn of yentas rushed back in from the lobby, They wanted to see what all the excitement was all about.

Ray Charles was one of those giants who furnished the soundtrack for a good part of America's lives. He certainly furnished the soundtrack for one of most euphoric turning points of my own life. The Brigitte Bardot look-alike next door---she said she couldn't get along with her husband---was coming onto me. I asked my best friend what should I do? My best friend was my wife.

"Go for it!" my best friend said. Ray's music also fueled the conjugal fucking enjoyed by my wife and me. I remember telling everybody that What?d I Say? was nothing but fucking set to music! A musical orgasm!

Except that's not the whole What'd I Say? I'm listening to right now. The back cover of the CD says I'm listening to What'd I Say (Part I). What a gyp! Is this some kind of censorship? They cut out the Oooohs and Ahhhhs---the sexy part. I'd like to talk to Ahmet Ertegun about this, but I haven't seen much of him since I sank into the Sea of Oblivion. Ahmet is the producer of the CD, The Best of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years. Ahmet and his brother Neshui---the hip, pot-smoking sons of the then-Turkish ambassador---started out a couple of teenage jazz freaks who ended up founding Atlantic Records.

Neshui died some years back but he was one of the greatest raconteurs ever to keep me spellbound. So is Ahmet, whom I watched on TV the other night as he was telling stories about Ray. I began enjoying a friendship with Ahmet long before I started writing my POP SCENE column. for The New York Post, but we haven't seen much of each other the past few years. The last time I saw Ahmet in person was in L.A. at a dinner held in his honor at the House of Blues. I said hello, but he didn't even recognize me. Ray performed at that function in Ahmet's honor also, but I couldn't get backstage to say hello.

Still, listening to this CD, The Best of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years---I?m struck by the same thunderbolts that electrified me years ago. Especially when (Night Time Is) The Right Time reaches out from the speakers to grab me with the delightfully shrill voice of that little keg of dynamite of a singer---Margie Hendricks---screaming: "Baay-by, Baay-be!" Margie not only was the leader of the Raelettes---Ray's chick backup singers---but she also overpowered the other Raelettes. She certainly helped make hanging out with the troupe so much fun for me. Margie could sing her ass off. She later went on to have a solo career.

Yeah, I hung out with Ray and his troupe for about a month back in the early "60s. I rode on his band bus, sat down with him for interviews, attended his band rehearsals, traveled with him from gig to gig and even flew on his private plane with him. I forget whether profiling Ray Charles was my idea or whether it was the Saturday Evening Post's editors who assigned me to write it. The point is I once got close enough to Ray to feel especially bereaved by his death.

As I reread the manuscript of what I wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, I'm dismayed by the stiffness forced by the handcuffs the editors put on me. As a contract writer for the Saturday Evening Post, I had to follow a strict formula that precluded my use of the first person singular. I was supposed to be an invisible eye that never intruded itself as an "I? into the story. I couldn't let the story tell itself. The Saturday Evening Post formula also tethered my writing in other ways. According to Saturday Evening Post rules, my second paragraph had to justify the existence of what the reader was about to read. Ultimately, I found myself spending not only the second paragraph but the next 19 pages justifying why this black man with a tiny, unexplained scar engraved high on his forehead and an equally inexplicable goatee on his face---he always shaved alone in front of a mirror---why he should be acclaimed by so many record company executives as "the hottest property in the music business" at the same time he was one of the most unknown.

"?Listen,?? I wrote, "'there's no doubt, about it," a man high in the business of show business told me, "Frank Sinatra is on the way out.  But do you realize who's replacing him?  Do you realize that the new, emergent sex symbol of this country is a blind, Negro junkie??"

The piece I wrote got so bogged down in justifying itself to the reader, it took me too long to make my case. Obviously, it was the worst piece I ever wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. And so I'm going to edit it for you. I entitled it Ray Charles: The Man Behind The Shades and this is how it started out:

In the secret imagery of jazz, the word for sunglasses is shades.  They are worn not to look out on the world but rather to keep the world from looking in.  On Ray Charles, the shades are always drawn."

Drugs have always been an occupational hazard for musicians?and for artists in general. Ray's friends say that a part of the secret torture behind his shades has been his almost lifelong effort to avoid a drug habit. 

"You don't take drugs, drugs take you," one of them told me.  "When you lose an arm, they give you morphine, don't they?  But what do they give you when you got a big open wound in your soul?  For Ray, there's no relief for the kind of pain that Ray has had to live through."

Whether narcotics have eased or added to that pain, Ray denies that he was ever addicted. 

"As far as I'm concerned." he says, "any amount of drugs that I might have taken at any time was just a case of a kid wantin' to try somethin' for the first time, and that's about the size of it.  The only thing is that if people find you use drugs, they want to shame you and say you're the worst person that ever lived, regardless of how it happened to you."

How it happened to Charles is something that he is reluctant to talk about, but the evidence of it remains on both his arms. 

"He had some of the worst tracks I've ever seen," says Narcotics Bureau, Sergeant Robert Keithly, who arrested Charles in Indianapolis in the early '60s.  Charles, in fact, always wears long-sleeved shirts.

One of the first persons to see Charles after his Indianapolis arrest was Rick Johnson, a police reporter for the Indianapolis Times. 

"He appeared very disturbed and lonely," Johnson told me.  "I then identified myself to him and asked him if he cared to talk to me.  Charles said, 'Yes, I want to talk to someone." He sat down on a bench in city jail and began to cry softly and then lost all control of himself.  I waited until he regained control and offered him a cigarette.  The tears had rolled down both of his cheeks and could not be concealed by the dark glasses he always wears.  I asked him how he got started on narcotics.  'I started using stuff when I was sixteen and first started in show business.' he told me.  'Then I had to have more and more. . .'

"Charles broke off and began to cry again and sobbed out the words, 'I don't know what to do about my wife and kids.  I've got a month's work to do and I have to do it. I really need help.  Charles then took several drags from the cigarette and said profoundly, 'No one can lick 'this thing by himself.' I asked him, 'Have you ever thought of going to the federal hospital at Lexington?' Charles tossed the cigarette away and pointed his head my way.  'Yes,' he said, "I've thought of it.  A lot of times.  But do you know what that would mean? The world would have. . ." 

"He didn't finish his statement and he stopped talking for several minutes.  Then he said, 'I've never taken the cure, But I'd like to go to Lexington now.  It might do me some good. I guess I've always wanted to go but it was easier the other way. A guy like me has to have something to keep going.' Forlornly, Charles raised his voice.  'The grind is just too much."'

In Indianapolis, the charges against Charles were dismissed on the grounds that the police posing as Western Union messengers, had entered his hotel room without a warrant.  Charles has been in other unhappy encounters with various narcotics squads, but he has never been convicted.  In 1955, for example, similar charges against him were dismissed by a Philadelphia court after he testified that he thought he had been receiving anti-flu shots. 

"Really, how can you blame Ray?" says the Reverend Henry Griffin, the blind pastor of the Convent Baptist Church in Harlem and a man who knew Charles in Seattle.  "This guy is a blind man.  He can't get it by himself and he can't stick it into his arm by himself."

Columnist George Pitts of the Pittsburgh Courier, a widely read Negro newspaper was even more emphatic. 

"To me," wrote Pitts, "it seems that, after numerous arrests for being a narcotics user, Ray Charles is more of a medical problem than a criminal case.  Many in the trade are asking why don't those around him, such as the Shaw Agency, which handles his bookings, or his many aides such as road manager, personal manager and so on try to help him.  Or is it a case of too many people depending on the loot that Charles' voice brings in to help support themselves?"

Narcotics, in fact, is one of the reasons why Charles has tried to so desperately' to avoid the fame to which his artistry has brought. His insularity behind what jazz critic Nat Hentoff has described as "concentric circles of isolation" has been a retreat to the security of friends he needs. Charles' inner circle is largely one of persons to whom Charles was a leader long before he had a purse that could buy any leadership. 

"The best thing that could happen to Ray," Quincy Jones once said, "is to get rid of everybody around him on the road." But on the other hand, Jones also told me: "Ray is a dictator.  I guess he has weak people around him because he wants it that way."

"Did he ever hit on you for bread to buy junk?? I asked Quincy.

"Man!" Quincy replied. "If I had to lay out bread for every junkie that hit on me, I'd have to have me a National Debt!"

Charles himself says that his narcotics problem is his own business. 

"Now, as far as any bout that I might have had with the police as far as drugs are concerned," he told me, "my theory is that whatever I did or didn't do was a matter that actually concerned me. And as far as the public is concerned, I feel that I do not, at any time, advocate or recommend that anybody should go out into the world using drugs.  I think that drugs is --- I don't know any word to describe it, except to say it's one of the worst things that anybody could ever attempt to do. .  . It's nothin? to be proud of and nothin? to feel great over and it's not goin' to make you intelligent or make you a genius.

"In fact, since it's against the law, the only thing you can do is get yourself in a lot of unnecessary trouble. But even so I still feel that as far as myself is concerned, I feel that whatever I've done, I did it only to me and I didn't hurt anybody but myself.  Everything I did, I did to me.  I didn't harm anybody.  I didn't go out and hold up nobody.  I didn't hijack anybody, didn't take nothin' from nobody, so I didn't harm anybody but myself.  And it's strictly my own problem."

Both Charles' record and reputation 'nevertheless, have left him vulnerable to shakedowns, When he was arrested in Indianapolis, for example, the story he told police was that narcotics had been delivered to his room by a man he didn't know. 

"He said he had received a telephone call from a man who told him, 'I believe I have something you'd be interested in,?? says the aforementioned Indianapolis Police Sergeant Robert Keithly.


Ray's significance in  America's culture has transcended
any drug stigma


"Then he said this fellow came up to his room, but he said he had no way of knowing who this fellow was."

A short time later Indianapolis Police Captain Anthony Watkins received a tip from a paid informant instructing him to raid Charles' room.

Charles' friends say that his Indianapolis arrest was, for Charles, one of the most unbearable ordeals of his life. 

"I saw him right after it happened," one of his associates told me.  "He talked to me about going up to Canada and getting rid of it, once and for all. I don't think Ray has been near anything since then."

Whether Charles is on or off narcotics, part of his significance in American culture is that it has allowed his artistry to transcend any societal stigma.

"Oh, that arrest in Indianapolis hurt for a while," says Hal Zeiger, the concert manager who has promoted all of Charles' major tours. "The immediate effect was to drive his grosses down to four or five thousand a night.  Nowadays, he will gross as much as thirty thousand or forty thousand a night.  And then, too, Ed Sullivan canceled Ray off of his TV show.  But it wasn't long before Ray started coming back again.  I think this.  I think the audience understood.  They take Ray Charles on his own terms.  Aside from any other consideration, the fact remains that he is truly one of the great musical giants of our time, and people know it."

Some promoters consider Charles more addicted to lateness than anything else.  He has many times kept both the audience and his band waiting an hour or more and on a number of occasions theater managers were on the verge of refunding tickets when Charles finally put in his appearance.  At a recent date in New Jersey's Asbury Park, he conducted a recording session in Los Angeles in the morning and was still aboard a jet bound for New York when the concert was supposed to begin.  Another time the owners of the Music Inn in Lenox Massachusetts, filed suit against him for missing totally missing his engagement.

In 1963, Charles, demanding a four-thousand-dollar guarantee against fifty per cent of the gross, averaged thirty thousand dollars a week from his concerts alone. He had an apartment in New York and a house in Los Angeles, where his wife, Della Antwine, a former member of Cecil Shaw's Union Spiritualist Singers, lived with their three children.

"They're his only love," said Duke Wade.  "Nightlife? Ray's got no nightlife, He's an entertainer. He's a part of somebody else's nightlife. And when he finishes, he goes home.  That's all he's got to do is get two days off in a row, and he'll grab a taxi for the airport and take a jet to L.A."

Ray's organization includes two full-time pilots, a manager, a valet, three production men, a bus driver his band and the Raelettes---who, many critics think, could be a headline act themselves but who have turned down repeated offers of separate bookings. 

"If I had to leave Ray," says Darlene McCrea, the contralto of the group, "I'd quit show business."

Well aware of his blackness, Ray refused to play before segregated audiences and made the South accept his conditions.  He owned a record company, a music publishing firm, a travel agency, several apartment houses and---when I interviewed him in 1963---was thinking of building a chain of motels.  He also had the reputation of being a businessman with a sharp sense for fine print---although he never practiced business at the expense of his musical integrity.  In 1963, Ahmet and other officials at Atlantic Records were at a loss to explain how he slipped through their fingers and negotiated a contract to put him within the more commercial embrace of ABC-Paramount. 

"We didn't even know about it until we asked him to sign,"' said Ahmet. "And yet I'm not even mad at him."

Ray's record royalties from ABC-Paramount totaled four hundred thousand dollars for the first eight months of 1962 and three years after he left Atlantic he still received a hundred thousand dollars a year in royalties from that firm. In 1963, when Ray booked concert tours of Europe, other parts of the world were bidding furiously for his personal appearance. But despite all this, Ray Charles was essentially doing what he'd done ten years earlier---one night stands. The best offer he received for a television booking was sixty-five hundred dollars. Elvis Presley had been offered as much as one hundred thousand.  The most anyone in Las Vegas was willing to pay Ray in 1963 was seventeen thousand dollars a week.  Eddie Fisher got forty thousand.

"Ray," said his road manager, Jeff Brown, "has to work five times as hard as Frank Sinatra to make his first million.  Why? You tell me why."

To Charles, the money he earned was "just addin' a dollar on top of the pile every day."

"I don't want to make as much money as Frank Sinatra," he once said.  When I interviewed him, he told me he simply wanted to sing as well as Sinatra, an ambition that many critics thought he already had achieved, if not surpassed.  In any event, Charles in 1963 was still without a press agent and still without the feeling that he lacked one.  As his fame overtook the barriers he built about him, he retreated behind new ones. His final barrier, of course, was his blindness.

"A vast amount of people say I'm a genius," he told me as we sat one evening in the office of the Ocean Beach Amusement Park at New London, Connecticut.  "They may say it, but I don't believe I'm in that category.; I believe a genius is a higher category."

He was waiting to perform at what had been advertised as a dance but which, by the time some two thousand persons had bought their tickets, had crashed the gate or had stormed in through a fire exit, left little room for anything else in the hall but frenzied vertical motion. Another eight hundred persons were trying to listen through the windows outside.  When the Glen Miller orchestra played at the same hall several weeks previous, the audience numbered only five hundred.

"Do you believe a poor man with no education can become a genius?" Ray said.  "Do you believe a humble man who can't read or write can become a genius?  Do you believe a blind man can become a genius?"

He was smoking the remains of a mentholated cigarette and he reached down and carefully placed it on the floor beneath his foot and stepped on it.  Then he took out another.  I quickly fished into my pocket for matches, but he just as quickly produced a lighter and snapped it to life.  Then, holding the cigarette in his mouth with his other hand, he raised the flame until he could feel the heat on his fingers.  I watched them---short, stubby, gnarled, almost arthritic-looking---and, as he drew in his first puffs, I wondered how many times he had burned them.

II.

As I continue editing what I wrote about Ray Charles for the Saturday Evening Post more than 40 years ago, it becomes clear to me how inconsequential Ray's romance with heroin was in the construction of his shimmering, white granite palace in heaven. Junk left not a stain on Ray's career but actually enhanced his legacy by filling him with the euphoria he implanted in his music. Which transmitted the euphoria to listeners like me. Artists use mind-expanders to reach for epiphanies that would otherwise escape their grasps. But they pay dearly for their use of such substances and so do those around them. With every higher high comes a lower low. The point is that to reach the heights they seek, artists are willing to pay literally with their lives. Or their freedom. It's only people with the mentality of the pope that made Galileo eat his words---it's only dumb fucks like that---who put artists in jail for the crime of reaching for greater dazzle to thrill the rest of us.

As his hair grew whiter, Ray grew more venerable. With perhaps the most diversified audience ever to be captivated by a singer; he was claimed as exclusive property by fans from every music genre. Ahmet Ertegun at first claimed him for the avant-garde because Ray's music was a cutting edge that sliced open the envelope. Jazz musicians considered him to be one of their own. Fans of the blues said he's theirs. And, in 1963, Ray became the first Negro to be named among the top ten performers by the Country and Western Association, a polite name for the proponents of what detractors considered hillbilly twang. 

But to Ray, what he produced was always "soul music." Ray's stature imposed on others an acceptance that soul music essentially differed from black rhythm-and-blues. And from R&B's white commercial counterpart, rock-and-roll.  In soul music, Charles took R&B and endowed it with the revivalist spirit of Negro Baptist gospel music, complete with shouts, chants and exhortations. Ray's lyrics, of course, are something less than liturgical.  A number of gospel singers, in fact, considered such Charles classics as I Got A Woman and What'd I Say to be exercises in blasphemy.  And the late Big Bill Broonsy, a preacher before he became a blues singer, once complained:  

"He's got the blues, he's cryin' sanctified.  He's mixin' the blues with the spirituals.  I know that's wrong.  He should be singin' in a church."

"That's all right," answered Charles with some sarcasm.  "You know when I sing, 'Baby, shake that thing," and "It makes me feel so good,' I figured it would fit most people---even the ones that say it shouldn't be played on the air. The people in this country, there's only two things they do, and that's kiss and hug---accordin' to all the songs that are written here. Now, you don't have to have to say a word in the flesh, but I don't feel there's anythin? wrong with implyin? somethin? natural."

I remember the torrents of sweat that poured from Ray's rough, blemished face as he performed to exhaustion, slapping the outside of his thigh in synapses of rhythm, stamping on the floor in the up-tempo of his life and times, commandeering the piano keys as if they were extensions of his fingers, shouting into the microphone with a hoarse, happy, melancholy voice that was to cut through to the very soul of a billion listeners. And he became very rich.

I remember the look of pain and the look of joy that shared his face---and his music?as he sang. He was a giant who seemed to go out of his way to keep from being noticed.  He was a jazz pianist who sold half a million records in a single day, a blues singer who played to standing-room-only crowds in concert halls around the world, a balladeer whose voice became a paradigm, a composer who became an  inspiration to music making.

To Ray Charles, blind at seven, an orphan at fifteen, a narcotics addict at sixteen, a millionaire at thirty-two, the world was an enigma, Behind his shades, Ray Charles was more of an enigma to the world.

I remember my good friend Amiri Baraka telling me---this was when Amiri was still LeRoi Jones---that Ray was an artist:

"He's an artist," Amiri insisted, "just the same as Van Gogh was an artist or Beethoven was an artist or, for that matter, Frank Sinatra was an artist. But he has even other dimensions.  For one thing, he's already one of the greatest Negro folk figures in American history. For another thing, and what is even more significant, he's the first Negro folk figure to cross over and become a hero, a true hero, of white society."

This was in the "60s, an age of Fabians, the Monster Mash and other mass-produced sensations. The fact that Ray accomplished this crossing without ever having had so much as a press agent was, to jazz critic Ralph Gleason, something like Moses' crossing the Red Sea. 

"Ray is symbolically something," said Gleason. "I mean not just in the way he does religious songs with secular lyrics, not just in the way he talks about 'soul' and sings it, but in the way that, no matter where he goes, the crowd rushes up to touch him, the laying on of the hands as if he is giving miracles.  And I suppose that, symbolically, there is something religious to him. Maybe it's because he has so successfully transgressed all the bounds of white society and survived. Maybe it's because there's a trinity to him---his narcotics, his blindness---and the fact that he's a Negro. That's his crucifixion."

The only visible scars of Ray Charles' crucifixion, of course, were on his arms.  His other hurts could only be heard.  A prerequisite to singing the blues is living them, and if Ray drew the shades on the torture within him, his audience had only to stand outside and listen to the sounds.  Part of the gift of being able to convey deep emotions to other people is the curse of having to feel them so deeply first. 

"Ray has the kindness and the gentleness of a saint," one of his closest friends told me.  "He can laugh and sing and knock you apart with his jokes.  But inside he's a haunted man.  Haunted, that's the only word for it."

Success came neither as a great surprise nor a great comfort to Charles.  In 1963, he commanded the best contract in the record business, with a royalty of about twelve and a half cents a single, some three times more than that paid the usual performer. But he still talked with a stammer that haltered his speech since he was a child.  In 1963, the orders for his most recent album, Volume II of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, amounted to the staggering total of three hundred and seventy-one thousand two weeks before its release. But he still answered the telephone with a growling "YEAH?" or "What do you want?"

He?d sold out Paris? Olympia Theater on ten successive nights, a feat never before accomplished by an American entertainer, but he still chain-smoked a daily, deadly cloud of mentholated nervousness.  In 1963, he stood to earn a gross income well over two million dollars, but I found he still jiggled when he sat and paced when he stood, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as if keeping some distant time.

He could sit for hours splitting the sides of his companions with blow after blow of iron humor or he could spend those same hours in a deep, distraught silence, ignoring everyone around him.  He could damn an associate with a sour outburst of sarcasm, but then he'd toss and turn in his sleep with unspoken remorse.  He could sit reading passages from a Braille Bible that he carried with him everywhere, or he could just as easily ask someone to read him a pornographic tract that might be circulating among his band members.  He could dun a friend unmercifully for the return of a ten-dollar loan and then lend him another hundred out of feeling that he needs it.  He could earn thirty thousand dollars in a single night and afterwards sit down to a breakfast of salted tomatoes.

"What's so great about Ray Charles?" he told an associate one day in 1963.  "Why does everybody say, 'That's Pay Charles!' I'm goin' to change my name to John Kinsey."

To the eighteen men in his band, he was a tyrant of perfection, calling seven-hour rehearsals on what might have been days off, memorizing all eighteen parts with an indelible ear, shouting acid counterpoints in response to wrong notes, requiring instant recognition of arrangements he invented on the spot, demanding a musical mastery equal to his own. Ray was gifted with perfect pitch. Sometimes at his concerts, Ray would halt his eighteen-piece orchestra right in the middle of a number simply because the sound of it was out of tune with the sound he heard behind his shades.

"Ray's a leader," John Hunt said when I interviewed him in 1963. John'd been Ray's second trumpeter since 1954.  "Ray's always been a leader.  Sometimes we'll be playing and that's all he's got to do is look up at us and smile and say, 'All right, children," and wow!"---and Hunt touched his chest---"you feel it right here."

"Ray has a fantastic ear," according to Sid Feller, head of artists and repertoire at ABC-Paramount Records, "What God has taken away from Ray on one side, He has given back tenfold on another side."

Ray would hire the highest-priced arrangers in the music business and then he turn them into mere secretaries. When Ray finished telling them what he wanted, it was already arranged..

"Then you bring it back to him," Gerald Wilson, then one of the best-known of popular arrangers, told me in 1963. "And he rearranges it again."

Once, while recording I Believe To My Soul, Ray became so dissatisfied with the sound of his choral group, the Raelettes, that he sent them home.

"Then he sat down with earphones," said Jerry Wexler, executive vice president of Atlantic Records "and proceeded to dub in each of the four girl's parts, one at a time, in his own falsetto.  He didn't even listen to the harmony, just the master track.  When he finished, it was perfectly tight four-part harmony, it was amazing, it sounded just like a sensational girl's group."

"All these stories you hear about Ray being led around by the nose because he's blind, they're just not true," Larry Newton, vice president of ABC-Paramount Records, told me.  "Nobody tells Ray what to do.  For instance, when he wanted to record his first Country and Western album, we said to him, 'Don't do it.'  Even when the distributors got it, they said, 'What is this?  A joke?' They didn't know what to make of it.  But do I have to tell you what happened?  It was fantastic.  The album itself sold over a million, the first million-album our company ever had.  One of the songs from the album, You Don't-Know Me, as a single, it sold eight hundred and fifty thousand.  And another song, I Can't Stop Loving You---?Listen, do you want to hear something fantastic?  

"One day before the album was released, Sam Clark, the president of the company, he's going on vacation and he calls me up from the airport and tells me he had a dream.  He dreamed that somebody covered I Can't Stop Loving You.  So I spend the whole day checking and sure


Ray's death almost ranked
with that of Reagan
as TV news


enough, at 11 o'clock that night, I find out there's a single out by Tab Hunter, same song, same arrangement.  So right away, I call Ray at his home in L.A., I call him from New York and I tell him we've got to release I Can't Stop Loving You as a single.  But he says no, it would ruin the album sales. So we argued.  

"I'm telling you, we had a shouting, screaming argument on the telephone for two and a half hours.  The phone bill alone came to more than two hundred dollars.  Finally he said, 'OK, do what you want.' So that next day, we worked twenty-four hours, we worked around the clock. we got the factory to work around the clock.  The next day we started shipping.  We shipped initial orders, in one day---they totaled five hundred thousand records.  By now, the record has sold way over two million.  I'm telling you, with this record, Ray single-?handedly revived the record business.  It was at a time when you couldn't sell a thing, nobody was buying records, and then Ray, with this record, started bringing them into the stores.  People from other record companies started calling me up to thank me."

Dish-jockey housewives stop their work for sweet moments of daydreams when his songs came on the radio. Back in 1963, sometimes those housewives didn't even know who he was. Today, Ray Charles? voice is unmistakable. He didn't get a state funeral but his death almost ranked with that of Ronnie Reagan as TV news.

Yes, I remember White Southerners sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with blacks in municipal auditoriums to witness a Ray Charles concert. I remember jailed sit-in students mixing Ray's songs with the spirituals they sang behind their bars. Yes, in 1963, I knew Ray Charles was here to stay.

"Let me tell you about Ray," said C. B. Atkins, then Sarah Vaughn's husband and a friend of Charles.  "One day I went to see him at his home in L.A., and his wife told me he was outside in front of the house.  I went outside, but there was nobody there.  Then all of a sudden, in the twilight, I heard a noise up the street, and here comes two motor scooters, one after the other.  It was Ray riding alone on a motor scooter following the one in front of him by the sound of its muffler.  When he got to his house, he hollered good night to the guy in front of him and then he turned up onto his driveway.  There was a car parked in the driveway, and I started to yell, 'Look out, Ray!' but before I could get the words out of my mouth, he had turned off the driveway, ridden onto the lawn, passed the car, turned back onto the driveway, and pulled the motor scooter into the garage.  Then he got off the motor scooter, kicked the kick'stand, closed the garage door, walked to his back door, stuck the key right in the lock and opened the door.  I said 'Hello Ray," and he said, "Hi, C. B. Come on into the house.' I tell you, when you're with Ray, it's as if you're blind and he can see.

When I was hanging out with Ray in 1963, he played whist, dice and dominoes and he was most times a winner.  He could also take apart his tape recorder and put it back together again, and when his television set broke down,, he fixed that, too.  He got a new Cadillac every year and test drove it with someone tapping him on the shoulders to tell him which way to turn.  He owned two aircraft, one a twin-engine Cessna T-10 for his personal use and the other a forty-four-passenger Martin 404 to transport his band on concert dates. And he knew how to fly both planes. 

"Once, last August, the big plane was forced down with engine trouble in Marysville, California," his valet, Roy Duke Wade told me.  "The mechanics worked all night trying to fix it, trying to fit a new part in the manifold, but they just couldn't get it right.  So finally, Ray got impatient, he said, 'Let me try it." They thought he was crazy, but they let him.  I'm not exaggerating.  Ray took the part and put it in place inside of five minutes."

Wade said his predecessor as Ray's valet quit after having had to sit behind Ray on a motorcycle, guiding him on a two-wheeled roar through the streets of New Orleans. 

"He had me doing the same thing," says Wade.  "Then one day, the damn machine had two blowouts in both tires at the same time.  Ray jumped off. He was all right, but there I was sitting alone on it and it turned over.  I got a big gash in my leg.  We don't do it any more."

Quincy Jones, a longtime friend of Ray, told me:

"Ray never wanted to act like he was blind.  He'd meet a girl, like, and then he'd tell you, 'Man, you shoulda seen that fine-looking chick I met today."'

Ray was born on September twenty-third, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, a city that since has become a landmark for other reasons.  Out of a poverty that even the Depression couldn't worsen, his parents moved two weeks later to Greenville, Florida, a lumber town with a population that Ray said "wouldn't fill a good-sized dance hall."

Ray's father, Bailey Robinson, worked as a mechanic and handyman.  His mother, Reather Robinson, worked stacking boards in a sawmill. 

"I had a pretty normal childhood, I guess," Ray told me. "Except I was considered sort of an oddball because I was the only child in the whole city who was blind."

By the time he was five, Ray had developed glaucoma, an eye disease which for him proved incurable.  By the time he was seven, his right eye had to be removed. A short time later, he had lost his sight completely.

"I think I took it in stride," he told me, "I don't think it bothered me too much because it was a gradual thing.  It wasn't like today I'm seein' and then---boom!---tomorrow I'm blind."

He has said that as a child he remembered spending long moments in his backyard looking up at the moon.  He remembered having a red wagon and he remembered the yellow of flowers and he remembered the greenness of trees.  He remembered attending regular evening services in a clapboard Baptist church and he remembered the programs of the Baptist Young Peoples' Union and he remembered chanting in a tiny, lost voice among the shrieks at revival meetings.  He remembered a fist fight with an adversary he knew only by voice.  He remembered his mother baking corn pudding on a wood stove.  He remembered the call of the iceman---"I-i-i-iceman, i-i-i-iceman," and he sang it out of his memory.  He remembered neighbors handing him down clothes that had been handed down to them by other neighbors and he remembered making his own toys out of tin cans.

"My mother," he told me, "she saw the handwritin' on the wall, God rest her soul.  Before I lost my sight, she started teaching me how to do a lot of things without seeing.  She wanted me to be as independent as anybody else, and I think I am." 

She taught him, among other necessities, to cook his meals, to wash his clothes, to scrub his floor and to take the bus to town and back, a problem that he solved by counting the bumps in the road, She even taught him to chop wood, despite the howls of neighbors. 

"She told them," Ray said, 'she told them, 'Well, look, he only lost his eyesight, he didn't lose his mind.' In fact, the only time I got hit by a car was when somebody offered to help me cross a street.  That was when I was a boy in Saint Augustine."

It was in Saint Augustine, at a Florida state school for the blind, that he learned how to read Braille, took up the piano and the clarinet and began the tedious, note-by-note task of studying music by touch. 

"As far back as I can remember, I was interested in music," Ray told me.  "Music was always my first love.  When I was four, five years old, we lived back of a fellow named Wiley Pittman who had a little cafe with a piano in it.  And I would go to listen to him play boogie-woogie and little popular songs. He'd play them just for me.  And then he would help me get up on the piano stool and tell me to play, and of course I wasn't doin' nothin but just hittin' the keys, but he'd call in his friends and say, 'Come on and hear what my boy is doin'," and they would applaud me."

When Ray was ten years old his father died.  His mother died when he was fifteen. 

"She was only thirty-one, thirty-two at the time," he told me.  "I was in school in Saint Augustine and a neighbor sent a telegram and they read it to me the next morning.  It's very hard to explain how I felt unless a person loved their mother the way I loved my mother.  After they buried her, I couldn't eat and I had to go to the hospital for about six days.  They had to feed me through my veins because I never was able to cry, you know it hurt me so bad.  And they kept sayin' if I could just cry I would be all right, if I could just break down and cry, but I couldn't, it was all up in my throat. . ."

An only child,' Charles refused to return to a tin-cup existence among his neighbors in Greenville. 

"My mother might pass," he told me, "and so I figured I had to take care of Ray."

Armed with a high school diploma, a pocketful of change and the reputation of being able to play any piece of music after hearing it only once, the sixteen-year-old Charles headed for Jacksonville to try to get a job with a band.  Even then, one of the measures of his self-confidence was his decision to drop his last name---Robinson---just to avoid any confusion between him and another celebrity of the time, a professional boxer named Sugar Ray.

He played with hillbilly combos, he played singles and he played as a sideman to Charlie Brantley in a group called the Honeydippers, imitating the style bf Louis Jordan. 

"Ray knew the worst kind of despair," one of his associates told me.  "He said once he was paid with a tin of jam and when he tried to open it in his little hotel room, he was so hungry that he opened it in too much of a hurry and everything fell on the floor." 

But with all his discouragement, Ray never lost his drive.  He never lost his sense of humor, either.  Once, he told me, he was on a beach, paddling in the ocean on a tire tube, when all of a sudden his friends started calling, 'Come back, Ray, hurry up, come back.' He paddled back for all he was worth, thinking there was a shark out there or something, and his friends told him, "Wow., Ray, we caught you in the nick of time.  You nearly passed that For Whites Only sign."

By the time he was eighteen, he had saved up almost nine hundred dollars, and he decided to buy a bus ticket. 

"I was in Tampa," he explained, "and I wanted to go to some town that wasn't a small town but still wasn't a huge town, you know, like New York.  And I wanted to get as far away from Florida as I could get, not because I had anything against Florida, but I figured I needed to go someplace where I stood a chance of gettin' a break.  So I took a bus and rode alone all the way from Tampa to Seattle."

In Seattle, a city which presumed itself to be shut down tight but which actually was wide open, Ray worked at many of the best and worst known Negro speakeasies. 

"He called his act R.C. and the Maxim Trio," remembered Quincy Jones, a native of Seattle who has achieved no little fame himself.  "Nobody called him Ray in those days. It was just R.C. After a while, he worked out a system where he gave everybody numbers.  You know, it got to be a drag when you were with a bunch "of people and you had to try to identify yourself every time you wanted to talk to Ray.  He was Number Six-Nine.  I was Number Seven-Oh.  Even when I see him now, I holler out, 'Six-Nine!' And he comes right back, 'Seven-oh!'

"I met Ray when I was about fifteen and he was about eighteen, and even then he was always so damn positive, like he could listen to a record of Billy Eckstine's Blowin' The Blues Away, and he could tell you what everybody in the band was doing.  We had a little bunch of musicians, professional musicians, in fact a lot of them are pretty well known today, and we used to meet over at Bumps Blackwell's apartment, and Ray was somewhat the leader of the bunch.  Ray used to analyze the functions of a band, like the orchestration, and he was doing some pretty advanced arrangements himself, even at that time.  It was Ray that taught me how to voice brass, and after he showed me how, man, I was wasted.  From then on I was hooked, I mean with writing music."

Charles by this time was a practitioner of the alto saxophone as well as the piano, and he was entertaining himself and his companions by playing bebop. For the customers, however, he was singing in blatant imitation of Nat King Cole. 

"I was just in my teens," Ray explained, "At the time Nat King Cole was hot and I was tryin' to make some money, so I figured if I could sing like him, that would help keep me workin',"

For a while he toured as a member of the group accompanying blues singer Ruth Brown.  For another while, he traveled the Southwest with Lowell Fulson's blues band. Finally, he decided to go it alone, journeying as a single through a timetable of Northern and Southern cities carrying his own portable electric organ, playing a circuit of Negro clubs, and earning up to a hundred and fifty dollars a night on the nights that his booking agency could find him a job. 

"Ray doesn't like to act like he's blind but other people didn't overlook it." another of his friends told me.  "The leeches were hanging on to him even then.  They took him every chance they got. I mean there were girls--- well, I would call them tramps---but the trouble is that Ray, once he gets past the natural suspicion of a blind man, he gives his heart so freely.  I mean he's so sensitive.  And when he was on the road., many's the time that Ray was stranded in some godforsaken town without even a dime for a cup of coffee, and when he'd wire the agency for a train ticket, just a train ticket, he'd have to wait for them to mail it to him.  I tell you, Ray's really paid his dues.  The trouble is, he's not through paying them."

It wasn't until 1952, when Atlantic Records purchased his contract from a fading West Coast label called Swingtime, that Ray's fortune took a turn.  Atlantic's catalogue was so varied it included Bobby Darin, John Coltrane and Mr. Acker Bilk.  At Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun and his executive vice president, Jerry Wexler, quickly realized that they had a potential giant on their hands. Despite the fact that Ray was still singing like Nat King Cole.  But King Cole's reign was about to end.

"It was just a case," Ray told me, "of one day I heard somebody say to me, 'Ray, you sound just like Nat King Cole." And I said, 'Thanks." I thought that was a great compliment, But then I went home and I started thinkin' to myself, and I said, 'Well, now, that's a great compliment, he said I sound just like Nat King Cole, but then the name of Ray Charles was not mentioned at all, so this is not really helpin' me, this is betterin' him.'

"And then I thought, 'Well, why can't I develop my own style and let somebody sound like me instead of me tryin' to sound like somebody else?' That may seem a little arrogant but that was the way I felt about it.  So I started thinkin' that way and I said, 'Well, from now on win, lose or draw, when I record, whatever company I'm with, they're goin' to have to accept me the way I sound myself,' and then a strange thing happened to me. 

"I remember when I first went over to Atlantic, one of the fellows over there said to me, 'Ray, why don't you play like Fats Domino?'---because Fats Domino was real hot at the time and he was sellin' a lot.6f records. And I, in turn, said, 'We'll, I think you have the wrong contract because from this day forward whatever way I sound, If I can't sound like myself then l just give up, because there's no point in me tryin' to be like somebody else. I've done enough of that already and I don't care to do that any more."

Since then, Ray's musical declaration of independence has remained inviolate, and soon there were more singers trying to sound like him than ever tried to sound like Nat King Cole.

When Twentieth-Century-Fox offered him twenty thousand dollars to record a three-minute song as background for a movie, he turned the offer down.  The picture was A Walk On The Wild Side," recalled C. B. Atkins. "Ray listened to a tape of the music for a week straight, then he said 'No, man, I can't do it. I just don't feel the music.' Fox hired Brooke Benton and the song was a hit."

"Whatever I say or whatever I play, I do it natural," Ray told me. "It's just natural.  Whatever way I feel the song, that's the way I sing it. When I'm sittin' playin' a song, I play the notes the way that they come to me in my head.  It's never a case of puttin? on or tryin? to make anything the way somebody else does it or wants it done."

At the time of his death, Ray's impact on America is self-evident. He'd become one of those eternals that rule the history of music, entertainment, art and culture. In other words, he was one of the rulers of our dreams. At this late date, there's no need to justify anything about Ray Charles.  ##


FOR AS LONG AS PEOPLE KEEP LISTENING TO BOB DYLAN AND THE BEATLES, PEOPLE WILL WANT THIS BOOK!

IN THIS 615-PAGE PAPERBACK, AL ARONOWITZ, ACCLAIMED AS THE "GODFATHER OF ROCK JOURNALISM", TELLS YOU MORE ABOUT BOB DYLAN AND THE BEATLES THAN ANY OTHER WRITER CAN TELL YOU BECAUSE NO OTHER WRITER WAS THERE AT THE TIME. AS THE MAN WHO INTRODUCED ALLEN GINSBERG TO BOB DYLAN, BOB DYLAN TO THE BEATLES AND THE BEATLES TO MARIJUANA, ARONOWITZ BOASTS, "THE '60S WOULDN'T HAVE BEEN THE SAME WITHOUT ME."

 


CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMNS

The Blacklisted Journalist can be contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address:
info@blacklistedjournalist.com
 
 

THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ