DATE August 27, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Interview: Ray Charles talks about his life and music career
TERRY GROSS, host:
Coming up, our Soul Music Week continues with Ray Charles. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We continue Soul Music Week with the man who virtually invented soul
music, Ray Charles. He was nicknamed The Genius, not just for his great
singing and piano playing, but also for his producing, arranging and choice
songs. Many of the songs he's recorded over the years came from country
music, pop and jazz. I spoke with him in 1998 after the release of a boxed
set collecting his country-and-western recordings. It included this hit.
Mr. RAY CHARLES: Well, as far as losing my sight, I...
Mr. CHARLES: ...was very astute. I mean, I don't know how she managed
GROSS: Well, we're having some problems with the CD player that was
to be playing that song, so maybe we'll hear that a little later.
When I spoke to Ray Charles in 1998, we talked about losing his sight. He
around six when he started gradually losing his sight as a result of
I asked him if he realized what was happening.
Mr. CHARLES: Well, as far as losing my sight, I knew that because my mom
very astute. I mean, I don't know how she managed to come up with the ideas
she did, you know, but--because she didn't have no psychologist to tell her
do this or tell her to do that. But she started--she knew I was going to
my eyesight, and so since she knew I was going to lose my sight, she started
showing me how to get around and how to do things without seeing, like she
would tell me, `OK, I'm going to show you where this chair is, OK? Now
you can't see that chair, you're going to have to teach yourself to remember
that that chair is there, or you've got to teach yourself to remember that
that table is there, or you've got to teach yourself to remember to turn
when you get'--dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.
And, of course, she started with that, with me, when I started to lose my
eyesight, so I gained an awful lot. And, of course, being that age, it
as much of a shock as it, say, would be if I was, say, losing my sight at
age of 30 or 40 or something, where you've seen all your life.
GROSS: Did you go through a long period of depression afterwards?
Mr. CHARLES: No, because by the time I started losing my sight for sure, I
was going to a school for the deaf and the blind. And, you know,
children--you know, I'm sure you're aware of this, but children can be very
brutal, I mean, to each other.
GROSS: Yeah, no kidding. Yeah.
Mr. CHARLES: Yeah. You know what I mean?
Mr. CHARLES: And so if you go in there--like, when I first went there, I
very homesick and I was crying--and you know what you go through--because
where I went to school was about 130 or 40 miles from where I lived, you
So there was a state school for the blind and deaf, as I said. So I was
crying and missing my mama and all that. And, see, kids--instead of
sympathizing with me, they would pick on me and make you feel bad, you know.
So, you know, they'll get you out of that kind of groove
GROSS: Did you have good medical care at the time?
Mr. CHARLES: Oh, no, honey. You know, you're thinking about much later in
life. I mean, bless your heart, I appreciate the question, but no, no.
Medically, I mean, I don't think anybody in those days even knew what that
Mr. CHARLES: As a matter of fact, we had one hospital on the campus--and
won't believe this, but this is the facts. There was one hospital there,
it was on what they called the white side. It was not--we had to go over to
the white side if we needed to go to the hospital. I mean, that was just
way it was. Nobody thought nothing about it because, hey, if that's the way
it is, that's the way it is.
GROSS: It's kind of amazing, isn't it, that here you are going to school
people who are blind, and it's a segregated school.
Mr. CHARLES: That's right.
GROSS: So you're segregated by color, which you can't even see.
Mr. CHARLES: That's right. That's right. That's right, But, you know,
I'm--well, you know, you and I--I'm sure you probably would never understand
it because I never understood, and I've lived a lot longer than you. And I
can tell you I've never understood how somebody can be against me and yet
me cook their food for them, feed them, you know. Don't make sense, does
GROSS: Was it at the boarding school for children who were blind and deaf
that you first learned to play music?
Mr. CHARLES: Exactly. Yeah, I started--I couldn't get in the music class
first year I was in school because the class was full. So, I mean, I
get in the piano class, so I started taking up clarinet. That's how--that's
why I can play clarinet and saxophone today.
GROSS: So you played clarinet first?
Mr. CHARLES: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: How'd you like the instrument?
Mr. CHARLES: I loved it. Well, I was a great fan of Artie Shaw. I used to
love him. Everybody was talking about Benny Goodman, but I was an Artie
man, I mean, 100 percent. And I was very impressed by what he could do with
the clarinet, and, naturally, he was my mentor. I wanted to play. But,
obviously, I wanted to be in the piano class, but since I couldn't, I
`Well, OK, I'll play clarinet.' And I did that. And that, of course--but
next year I was able to get into the piano class.
GROSS: Did you give up clarinet?
Mr. CHARLES: No. I studied both. I kept studying both instruments, but
naturally my heart was with the keyboard because, I mean, that's
there's so much you can do when you play piano. You know, by the time I was
12 years old or 13 years old, I could write a whole arrangement for a
band. See, that's a great thing. If you study piano, it gives you a whole
outlook on a lot of different things that has to do with music.
GROSS: Now what were the early kinds of places you performed in?
Mr. CHARLES: Oh, they were like places--one way in and one way out, you
know, in the early--they were places like dance halls, and a lot of them
sell beer and they'd sell fried fish and chicken and stuff like that. But
like I said, there was one way in and one way out, so if a fight broke out,
you know, it was all kind of rough. Those were the days, I have to say,
that--they were good experiences, but I would not like to do them again, you
know, because, like I said, we were playing dances in those days and, of
course, anything could happen.
GROSS: Now early in your career you went through a period, like many people
do early on, of trying to figure out who you were musically. And before you
really figured that out, you sounded very much like you had patterned
on Nat Cole and Charles Brown.
Mr. CHARLES: That's right.
GROSS: What did they both mean to you? Why did you feel so strongly about
Mr. CHARLES: I just loved the way--well, Nat Cole--the reason he was so
powerful in my life was the fact that I wanted to do exactly what he was
doing. You know, most people think of Nat Cole as a great singer, you know.
They know his voice. But I was looking at Nat Cole as a pianist. I mean,
was one of the--people don't realize that Nat Cole was a hell of a pianist.
He played some of that tasty stuff behind his singing, and that's what I
wanted to do--was to be able to play little tasty things behind what I was
saying. So I really tried to pattern myself after Nat Cole in the early
beginnings of my career.
GROSS: And Charles Brown, the rhythm and blues singer.
Mr. CHARLES: And Charles Brown had that real--I don't know how you would
it. He had that--he always sounded like he was pleading, begging, you
know--really pleading in his songs or crying, you know. And I like that.
always sounded like he was sincere. Whatever he was singing about, he was
genuine. He meant it. That's the way I took Charles Brown. And I liked
especially when he was singing the blues or something, like "Merry
Baby" and stuff like that.
GROSS: Well, I thought we could listen to the very first recording that you
made, which is "Confession Blues."
Mr. CHARLES: Oh, my goodness. Where did you find that?
GROSS: Oh, on one of your box sets. It was easy.
Mr. CHARLES: Oh, brother. Yeah, that's one of the things where I was--you
got me down pat. I was about--I guess I must have been about 17 years old
that time when I made that.
GROSS: Well, this is 1949. Let's hear it and then we'll talk about it.
(Soundbite from "Confession Blues")
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) I want to tell you a story of a boy who was
love. I want to tell you a story of a boy who was watching love and how the
girl that I loved robbed me of the happiness I dreamed of. She called me
fine, sweet and mellow, but that didn't mean a thing.
GROSS: That was Ray Charles' first recording made in 1949.
Now how did you start to get a sense of who you were as a singer and start
establish your own sound?
Mr. CHARLES: Oh, well, 'round about 19--well, you know, I started thinking
about it in 1951, somewhere in there--in 1950 and '51--but I was scared to
it because, you know, I was--I could get a lot of work sounding like Nat
you know. I could work in nightclubs and I could make a living, you know,
with his sound, you know. I could take the amplifier and tune it and add a
little bass and a little bit of treble or something like that to it and
pretty almost just like it, you know. But then I knew what--I woke up one
morning and I started to thinking that--I said to myself, `You know, nobody
knows my name.' Everybody said to me, `Hey, kid. Hey, kid, you sound just
like Nat Cole. Hey, kid.' It was always, `Hey, kid.' Nobody never said,
`Ray.' Never, never, never.
So I started telling myself, you know, `Your mom always told you to be
yourself, and you've got to be yourself if you're going to make it in this
business. You've got to--I know you love Nat Cole, but you've got to stop
that,' you know. It was just a question of thinking one morning when I woke
up, `People don't even know my name. I'm just "Hey, kid."'
GROSS: We're listening to a 1998 interview with Ray Charles. Let's listen
to the song we meant to play earlier, "You Don't Know Me."
(Soundbite from "You Don't Know Me")
Chorus: You don't know me.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) You give your hand to me and then you say, `Hello,'
and I can hardly speak. My heart is beating so. And if anyone could tell,
you think you know me well. Well, you don't know me.
Chorus: No, you don't know me.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) No, you don't know the one who brings a view in life
and longs to kiss your lips and longs to hold you tight. Oh, I'm just a
friend. That's all I've ever been 'cause you don't know me.
Chorus: No, you don't know me.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) For I never knew the art of...
GROSS: We'll hear more of our interview with Ray Charles after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: It's Soul Music Week on FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 1998
interview with Ray Charles.
Is there a record that you think of as being the first recording that you
made as yourself, really establishing yourself?
Mr. CHARLES: Probably "I Got a Woman." I mean, that was the--because when I
did that, that seemed to upset a lot of people, but it was really me. It
GROSS: It upset a lot of people?
Mr. CHARLES: Oh, yeah. A lot of people thought that it was too religious
and I was bastardizing the church and, oh, man, I got all kinds of
GROSS: Oh, you mean you were using too much of a sanctified sound for a
Mr. CHARLES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's right, but it was really me.
was 100 percent me. And, of course, I just said, `Well, I'll have to be
criticized because I'm going to sing the way I sing.' And later on after
other people started doing it, then they started calling it soul music. It
just goes to show you I guess I was a little ahead of my time or something.
GROSS: Well, I think that's inarguable. Why don't we hear "I Got a Woman"?
And this is my guest, Ray Charles.
(Soundbite from "I Got a Woman")
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Well, I got a woman way over town that's good to
Oh, yeah. Say I got a woman way over town good to me. Oh, yeah. She give
money when I'm in need. Yeah, she's a kind of friend indeed. I got a woman
way over town that's good to me. Oho, yeah. She saves her lovin' early in
the mornin' just for me. Oh, yeah. She saves her lovin'...
GROSS: That's Ray Charles, a recording that he said was the first one that
really sounded like his own style.
The record that we just heard, "I Got a Woman," was one of your early
recordings for Atlantic.
Mr. CHARLES: Yes.
GROSS: When you started recording for Atlantic, what was it like for you to
find your audience?
Mr. CHARLES: Oh, it was very--Atlantic was a great company, I have to tell
you, I mean, for me. Now I'm only speaking for myself because I know some
people would say, `Oh, man, Ray, you're wrong.' But for me, it was a great
company because what Atlantic did--they were smart in the sense that they
never, ever tried to sway me in any way, form, shape or fashion as to what
should I do when it comes to music. All they did was whenever I wanted to
record, wherever I wanted to record, they would come and pay the bill.
That's all they would do. And it left me open to record, wherein like a lot
of kids today, they have producers and they got to record what the producers
say. And the producer says, `I want you to sound like who had the last
So you don't have--when I was coming up, I didn't have no pressure. I could
just--Atlantic said, `Hey, you might not have a hit now, but you're going to
have a hit.' And it was true because I made three or four records for
before--you know, that didn't do anything, but then we came up with a song
called doing the "Mess Around," which was a big hit; "It Should Have Been
And next thing we had "I Got a Woman." But the first two or three records
made didn't sell, but you can't do that in today's age. You make two or
records that don't sell now and you're out.
GROSS: Ray Charles recorded in 1998.
FRESH AIR's Soul Music Week continues tomorrow and concludes on Labor Day.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin
recorded in 1971.
(Soundbite of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin song)
Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Oh, yes, I did.
Ladies and gentlemen, Ray Charles. He's going to move with the Spirit of
Lord. He's going to help us move. Come on, Ray, give us a little bit. I
got Brother Ray Charles.
Mr. CHARLES: Hello, baby.
Ms. FRANKLIN: Rescue me.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Girl, I'm going to move.
Ms. FRANKLIN: Move with the Spirit.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Spirit ...(unintelligible).
Ms. FRANKLIN: Yeah.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Oh, I'm going to move.
Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Go ahead and move now.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Spirit of the God.
Ms. FRANKLIN: Yeah, don't do that to me. Yeah.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Spirit of hope...
Ms. FRANKLIN: Get down, Brother.
Mr. CHARLES: ...yeah, with me when I wake up in the morning.
Ms. FRANKLIN: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Spirit of hope.
Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Spirit of hope.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Spirit of the Lord.
Ms. FRANKLIN and Unidentified Chorus: (Singing in unison) The Spirit of the
Ms. FRANKLIN: It's like ...(unintelligible) sitting in a saucer. Right on,
Ray. That's how you do it. You get on up to it.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Listen, just like a movie star talkin' to Ray
Ms. FRANKLIN: Yeah. Yeah.
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