New Haven Register archives: THE MODEST GENIUS: Ray Charles, who performs tonight at the Shubert, gets a thrill from the honors he has reaped

Ray Charles will tell you "I've been a very, very blessed, fortunate human being."

(This story originally ran as the lead of the New Haven Register’s Weekend section Friday, Oct. 29, 1993. It was an advance to his show that night at the Shubert in New Haven. It was one of only two interviews I ran in Q-and-A form; the other was my June 1999 interview with Brian Wilson.)

By Fran Fried, Register Entertainment Editor

There’s simply no way to do Ray Charles justice in the confines of a newspaper; even a magazine piece may not be long enough. Despite his out-and-out humility, this is one of the pivotal figures of American culture — maybe not the most influential, but one of the most transcendental, and easily one of the most recognizable.

Forget about the Diet Pepsi commercials and the “Uh-huh”s; forget about even his individual hits — “I Got a Woman,” “What’d I Say,” “Hit the Road, Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” “Georgia on My Mind.” The Genius’ genius lies in his ability to travel from one musical style to another — blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, country, jazz, classical — tying together many threads of our collective culture while maintaining a high level of excellence.

His last album, the Richard Perry-produced “My World,” released in March, even explores the new jack territory.

Without trying to sound trite about this, Ray Charles Robinson, now 63, is a unique translation of the American success story.

Born in Albany, Ga., and raised in Greenville, Fla., he overcame one strike after another. A poor black child in the South in the ’30s, blinded by glaucoma at 7, he studied music and parlayed it into a 45-year career.

As an adult, he overcame heroin addiction and has lived to enjoy the fruits of his long labor: induction into the Rock’N’Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, 11 Grammy Awards, Kennedy Center Award, NAACP Hall of Fame Award, honorary chairman of the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.

A week ago Wednesday, we talked by phone from his publicist’s office in Los Angeles, one of his infrequent interviews. Thirteen days earlier, he received his latest honor, a National Medal of the Arts from Bill Clinton at the White House.

There’s a limit to what you can cover in 20 minutes with anyone, let alone Brother Ray. Since his words speak well enough for themselves, I’ve left them in question-and-answer form:

Q. You’ve earned so many honors and awards. Does it still excite you to receive them?

A. “I’m not very good at words. But for me, as a little kid that came up in the country in the South … we were very very poor. I wore short pants and my mother used to patch them over and over.

“Being a little black kid and blind — now, I’m not asking for any sympathy, man — to sit in the company of three presidents (Clinton, Reagan and Nixon) of the most powerful nation on earth, for me that’s unbelievable. It’s way beyond any dream I had.

“They mean a lot to me because, number one, I’m getting them while I’m in good health, while I can appreciate them. When I got my Kennedy Center award, I was 57 years old. Everyone else was 73, 74 years old. It’s a marvelous feeling to smell the roses, man.

“I’ve worked very hard. I practice all the time and try to improve what I do. It’s nice to have people recognize me. All that work has not gone unnoticed. It’s beautiful.”

Q. The one thing that has always been your hallmark has been your ability to move from one musical style to another. Where did your love of music come from?

A. “As a kid … I’ve always liked all kinds of music. It just wasn’t one kind of music that sounded good to me. In the South in those days, we listened to the blues because it was in our neighborhood. You could turn on the radio and hear Glenn Miller, Count Basie.

“Some of the shows were broadcast live. Most of the South listened to the Grand Ole Opry. It was the one show my mom let me stay up Saturday nights and listen to. I’ve always loved good music.

“In school, they wouldn’t let us play jazz. I’ve studied Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, but I always wanted to play jazz.”

Q. Do you ever think of going back and making another jazz album, like you did (with Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet) in the ’50s?

A. “I’ve had thoughts of it. But what I’d like to do is get some of the jazz giants — Louie Bellson, Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, people like that — and put an album together with them.

“I’ve been working on it, strangely enough. I’m very enthused with it. I’m working with some arrangers. One of the people I wanted is already gone, so I better hurry. I wanted Dizzy Gillespie on the album.”

Q. Your last album had a lot of contemporary sounds to it. What made you take that direction?

A. “What I’m interested in, man … I don’t deal with fads. I don’t even know what hip-hop is. Nobody can really tell me. I’ve yet to have anybody tell me what makes it different.

“My feeling is what I try to do, instead of concentrating on fads, is if you play good music, that will always be everlasting. Duke (Ellington)’s music is as good as it was in the beginning. Count Basie’s music is as good as it was.

“Talking about music — if you can understand this, I’ve never been interested in fame. I always wanted to be great. And how do you be great? You do things. You involve yourself in something that’s great. If you can find a way to play the best music you can, you play it.

“I understand the (labels). But my thing is I find I’m not a country singer, I’m a singer that can sing country. I’m not a jazz singer, I’m a singer that can sing jazz. I’m not a blues singer, but I can sing the blues.”

Q. You have so many songs from which to pick and choose. How do you decide what you’re going to do on stage?

A. “Night to night, I just go out before I’m ready to go on stage. If I decide to change something, since I have my own band, if I decide I want to change what I’m doing, it never takes me nothing to change around. All the songs are numbered. I don’t hardly know the names of the songs. I’ll just call out `Let’s do 501.’ ”

Q. Recently, I saw a TV show (NBC’s “Later,” with Bob Costas), and Smokey Robinson was talking about a show the Miracles did at the Apollo (Theatre, in Harlem) in 1958, where your band was the house band. The Miracles showed up without any charts and the band got upset. You showed up and asked what the problem was and wrote them new arrangements on the spot. Where did you get your knack for arranging?

A. “I did go to school. I do have a background. I’m a piano player. I know how to write. When I go into a studio and there’s something I don’t like and want to change, I can do it. Hopefully, I don’t have to do that. It can be a pain in the ass.”

Q. Do you ever pick up the sax anymore?

A. “I play my sax once in awhile — symphony dates, that’s about it. (He usually spends the first half of each year performing with symphonies around the country.) My chops are not that great.”

Q. With the long career you’ve had, does it bug you that a lot of people only know from a commercial?

A. “My commercials is music! I think it’s pretty damn good music! They’re very well done. I’m not embarrassed. It’s not beneath me. It’s like my mom told me when I was young. If you’re gonna shine shoes, be the best shoeshine boy in town.”

Q. I’m not saying it’s beneath you, I’m just saying that with all the music you’ve done through the years, there’s a generation of people who only know you from the commercial.

A. “I don’t care what they know me for. They know me for something. If they want to know me for “You’ve got the right one, baby, uh-huh, OWWWW!” that’s alright with me. Whatever you know me from.”

Q. Is there anything musically these days that excites you?

A. “I haven’t heard it yet. There’s not much out there that is original. Most of the stuff is rap, or semi-rap, or something.”

Q. Your last album was all other people’s material. Do you plan on putting together an album of your own songs anytime soon?

A. “I don’t write too much anymore, my friend. I used to write more — how can I put this? — when I was a lot hungrier. A lot of times, the record companies would send me material in the ’50s and ’60s, and if it was good writing, I’d record it.

“But I never felt I was a writer per se. To write a song may take me three days, because I want something to be just right. Most good writers may take five or 10 minutes. The things I wrote, most were successful, but I’m not interested in putting in the time. First of all, I don’t have the time.”

Q. This may be a fair question, this may not be. But considering all you’ve done, would you consider (your version of) “Georgia on My Mind” becoming the state’s song as your crowning achievement?

A. “I can’t really say that. Now this may sound weird to you, because if someone were saying it to me, it may sound weird to me. But I’ve been a very, very blessed, fortunate human being. I’ve had a lot of good things happen to me. I’ve had some bad things, too, but the good things outweigh the bad things.

“To say anything is a crowning achievement is really hard. But when they made my version the state song, it was touching. Everybody stood up in the whole Georgia assembly. This was Georgia, a southern state.

“Man of the year awards, the Kennedy Center Award, the Arts award I just received … There are a lot of wonderful things that have happened to me. I couldn’t think of one thing. Each thing has its own emotion.”

Event: Ray Charles and Stewie Stone (benefit for St. Raphael’s Adolescent Psychiatric Day Hospital) Time: 8 tonight Place: Shubert Performing Arts Center, 247 College St., New Haven Tickets: Only $35 balcony seats remain Info: 562-5666

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2 Responses to “New Haven Register archives: THE MODEST GENIUS: Ray Charles, who performs tonight at the Shubert, gets a thrill from the honors he has reaped”

  1. Kelli Elam Says:

    A very enjoyable read, Fran, and thank you for posting it! Easily, he’s one of the greats of all-time. And, Thank you, Mr. Charles, for all happiness YOU have brought into our lives!

    (Hugs),
    Kelli

  2. New Haven Register archives: Playing his Pet Sounds: Once-reclusive Beach Boy legend Brian Wilson really seems to be back these days. And he’s coming to Connecticut. « Franorama World Says:

    […] of talking to performers for the Register, this was one of just two interviews (the other being Ray Charles in 1993) that I kept in Q-and-A […]

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