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Ray Charles: The 'Fresh Air' Interview

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Thanksgiving Day, we're giving thanks for great American music. We've gone into the archive for this 1998 interview with Ray Charles. He was nicknamed the genius, not just for his great singing and piano playing, but also for his producing, arranging and choice of songs. Although he's considered to have virtually invented soul, many of his great recordings were country songs. When I spoke with him, Rhino Records had just released a box set collecting Ray Charles complete country and Western recordings from 1959 to '86. So we started with a 1962 recording that was included in the box. This is "Born To Lose."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO LOSE")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Born to lose. I've lived my life in vain. Every dream has only brought me pain. All my life I've always been so blue, born to lose and now I'm losing you. Born to lose.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSS: Ray Charles, why did you first want to record country music?

CHARLES: Truthfully because I love it. I've always loved it as a kid. That was the only time my mom would let me stay up past 9 o'clock on a Saturday night to listen to grand old opera. And, of course, the lyrics they were saying, you know, were saying were very everyday-type conversation if you know what I mean. You didn't have to be an Einstein to figure out what they were talking about. So it was very common, very much like the blues in a sense.

GROSS: Well, I want to play your "Cheatin' Heart" which is a real standard of country music. This is just a really wonderful example of you doing a song your way.

CHARLES: (Laughter) Thank you.

GROSS: I mean, you might even be using different chords on here than the chords that were written. But, you know...

CHARLES: Yeah, that's right. That's right. Well, that's - see, that's what makes it become me.

GROSS: And the singing, too, of course.

CHARLES: Why thank you, ma'am (laughter).

GROSS: But would you say a little bit about what you did with this song to make it your own?

CHARLES: Well, it's like any song that I'm going to do, I first sing it to myself. And see if I can genuinely feel it. You know, maybe sometimes I may sit at the keyboard and fool around with the chords and see if I can find a way to sing it where it makes me feel good inside. Sometimes, you know - I can run into songs that are good songs, but I can't make it do anything for me. But the song is a great song. You know, to give you for an example like I've always loved "Stardust." Beautiful song. But I never could quite get it to sound like I wanted to for me.

GROSS: OK. Now, "Stardust" - you had a huge hit with Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia."

CHARLES: That's right.

GROSS: How come "Stardust" doesn't work for you?

CHARLES: Well, I just could never get into it. I mean, "Georgia" was something - I used to hum "Georgia." As a matter of fact, my chauffeur said to me one day - he said, you know Mr. Charles? You're always humming that song "Georgia." You're always humming it all the time. Why don't you record it? Well, I had never thought about recording it. I just liked the song, you know. But it was a chord structure in "Georgia." I mean - especially in the middle part of it. It's got some beautiful changes. Hoagy Carmichael - I have to give him some skin. He wrote some beautiful stuff on that song.

GROSS: OK. Well, I had you describe your version of "Your Cheatin Heart." And we haven't played that yet so let me give that a spin now. This is the Hank Williams song "Your Cheatin Heart" performed by Ray Charles. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR CHEATIN' HEART")

CHARLES: (Singing) Your cheatin' heart will make you weep. You cry and cry and try to sleep. But sleep won't come the whole night through. Your cheatin' heart will tell on you. When tears come down like falling rain...

GROSS: That's Ray Charles, one of his recordings included on his new box set "The Complete Country And Western Recordings 1959 To 1986." Now, it's funny. You know, when I was young, some of your country songs were really big hits. You know, like "Born To Lose" and "You Don't Know Me" and "Crying Time." I didn't think of them as country songs. I thought of them as Ray Charles records.

CHARLES: (Laughter) You're very sweet, honey. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter) No, I mean that. I didn't find out until much later they were country songs.

CHARLES: Well, actually what it is - I'll tell you something that - which I think would be helpful to the people - to our listeners just so they will really know what I'm about. See, I am not a country singer. I'm not a jazz singer. I am not a blues singer. What I am is I am a singer that can sing country music. I can sing the blues. I can sing a love song, but I'm not a specialist like you would say B.B. King is a blues singer.

GROSS: Right.

CHARLES: There's no question about it. But I'm not a blues singer. I'm a singer that can sing the blues.

GROSS: I know a lot of African-American musicians grew up listening to country music on the radio in the South because that's what was on the radio.

CHARLES: Yeah.

GROSS: Then I'm wondering if you ever felt any more distanced from that music because the performers were white and you were African-American. Did that matter to you at all?

CHARLES: No. No. You know, that is the marvelous thing about music. It is the one thing that I won't say there's - there is no segregation or anything. I'm not saying that, but it was very, very small. I mean, if you look around, you saw guys like Benny Goodman. I mean, there was Lionel Hampton in his band. You know, various white bands - there were black people in the bands and when I was coming up, I worked with a hillbilly group in Florida called the Hillbilly Playboy - the Florida Playboys. And it was a hillbilly group. They taught me how to yodel.

GROSS: Yeah. Could you yodel for us?

CHARLES: (Yodeling). I'm a lot better than that, but that's the idea. (Yodeling). My voice - it's too early in the morning, but you get the idea.

GROSS: You know, I have to say that is not unlike some of the things that you do on your solo record.

CHARLES: (Laughter).

GROSS: No, really.

CHARLES: OK. I truly enjoy the various forms of music. And it really - it keeps me going.

GROSS: Did you think I was nuts when I said that about yodeling sounding not unlike some of the things you do on your solo records?

CHARLES: Yeah, yeah. No, no, no, no, no, I heard every word of it, girl. Believe me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1998 interview with Ray Charles. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to my 1998 interview with Ray Charles which was recorded after the release of a box set collecting his country recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSS: I want to play another personal favorite from your country recordings. And this is "You Don't Know Me."

CHARLES: Oh, yeah. All right.

GROSS: Would you tell us about why you chose this song?

CHARLES: I think, again, the songs that I choose I start with the lyrics. What are the lyrics saying to me? What kind of story are they telling me? I guess it's like an actor who looks at a script, you know? Because, you know, when you look at lyrics, you've got to tell a story in three minutes. You know, you don't have two hours like you do when you got a script. You got to say what you got to say and make it believable within three minutes.

So I start with the lyrics and when I start with the lyrics, I tell myself, now, how many people will this song fit? I mean, does it sound like most people can relate to it? And you tell yourself, yeah. You give your hand to me and then you say I've watched you walk away, you know. You hear somebody says I can't stop loving you. I've made up my mind. Just think of the people that say that. And so I always start with the lyrics to see does the lyrics carry any real meaning, not just for me but for the people who are going to be listening to me?

GROSS: Well, let's hear "You Don't Know Me." And the song was written by Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold, and this is Ray Charles' 1962 recording of it now reissued on his CD box set "The Complete Country And Western Recordings 1959 To 1986"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T KNOW ME")

CHARLES: (Singing) You give your hand to me and then you say hello. And I can hardly speak. My heart is beating so and anyone can tell you think you know me well, but you don't know me. No, you don't know the one who dreams of you at night 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. For I never knew beyond a vacant love, though my heart aches of love for you. A friend and shy I let my chance go by, a chance that you might love me, too. You give your hand to me...

GROSS: As we mentioned, you grew up in the country, and I think it was about the age of 7 that you lost your sight, and you lost it gradually over a period of a couple of years. Did you realize what was happening?

CHARLES: Well, as far as losing my sight, I knew that because my mom was very astute. I mean, I don't know how she managed to come up with the idea she did, you know. See, because she didn't have no psychologist to tell her to do this and tell her to do that. But she started - she knew I was going to lose 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, since you can't see that chair, you're going to have to teach yourself to remember that that chair is there or you got to teach yourself to remember that that table is there or you've got to teach yourself to remember to turn right when you get to da, da, da. And, of course, she started with me - with that - with me when I started to lose my eyesight, so I gained an awful lot. And, of course, being that age it wasn't as much of a shock. As, say, it would be if I was losing my sight at the 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?

CHARLES: No. Because when - by the time I started losing my sight for sure, I was going to a school for the deaf and the blind.

GROSS: Did you have good medical care at the time?

CHARLES: Oh, no, honey, you know, you're thinking about much later in life. I mean - I - 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 was. As a matter of fact, we had one hospital on the campus - and you won't believe this but this is the facts - there was one hospital there. And it was on what they called the white side. We had to go over to the white side if we needed to go to the hospital. I mean, that was just the way it was. Nobody thought nothing about it because, hey, if that's the way it is, that's what it is.

GROSS: It's kind of amazing isn't it that here you are going to school for people who are blind, and it's a segregated school.

CHARLES: That's right.

GROSS: So you're segregated by color which you can't even see.

CHARLES: That's right. That's right. That's right. But, you know - the - well, you know, you and I - I'm sure you probably will never understand it because I never understood and I've lived a lot longer and you and I can tell you I've never understood how somebody can be against me, and yet let me cook their food for them, feed them. You know, don't make sense does it?

GROSS: Was it at the boarding school for children who were blind and deaf that you first learned to play music?

CHARLES: Exactly. Yeah. I started - I couldn't get in the piano class, so I started taking up clarinet. That's how - that's why I can play clarinet and saxophone.

GROSS: So you play clarinet first?

CHARLES: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: How'd you like the instrument?

CHARLES: Yeah, I started - I couldn't get into piano class, so I started taking up clarinet. That's why I can play clarinet and saxophone.

GROSS: Oh, so you played clarinet first?

CHARLES: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: How'd you like the instrument?

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 Shaw man, I mean, 100 percent. I was very impressed by what he could do with a 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 figured, well, OK, I'll play clarinet. And I did that. And then, of course - but the next year, I was able to get into the piano class.

GROSS: Did you give up clarinet?

CHARLES: No, I studied both. But naturally, my heart was with the keyboard because, I mean, that's just - 'cause 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 17-piece band. See, that's the 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 kind of music were you playing in school?

CHARLES: Oh, well, we would - they had, like, little, small, cute little songs from Chopin that we would play or Beethoven or something like that - not the symphonies but little, small vignettes or whatever you call those little things that you do, you know? And, of course, when I would write something, I would write some kind of current song, you know, that was being played, you know, on the radio.

I would just write an arrangement for the band to play it. And I tell you, that's why I don't write a score today because I started out writing the parts first. You know, most times what arrangers do - I'm sure you know this, I'm just saying it for the sake of the audience - arrangers write a score first.

And then when they write the score, they write the parts. Well, I wanted to hear the music so bad, I'd write the parts first and write to score afterwards. (Laughter) It's kind of backward, right?

GROSS: Well, you know, I interviewed Hank Crawford, who played in your band in...

CHARLES: Yeah, he was my (unintelligible) for a lot of years.

GROSS: Yeah, and he was your music director for a while.

CHARLES: Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: And he said that when you did an arrangement, what you would do would be to call out the notes in the part.

CHARLES: That's right. He told you right. That's right.

GROSS: Yeah, and I thought that was so strange. I figured, oh, well, you'd sing the part for the person who was transcribing it, but you called out the notes.

CHARLES: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I would literally tell him what note to write down. If I tell him the notes, I don't have to worry about whether I'm singing it, you know, out of tune, do I?

GROSS: Well, that's a good point, right.

CHARLES: All right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHARLES: If I tell him the notes, it can't be no mistake. You see what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

CHARLES: I don't want to hum it. I wanted to - 'cause I know how to tell him technically. All he got to do is write what I tell him. That way, it can't be no mistake because if I hum it to him, I might not hum it just right or he may not hear it right or hear what I'm - but if I say, it's C-sharp, C-sharp is C-sharp all over the world.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1998 interview with Ray Charles. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to my 1998 interview with Ray Charles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, what were the early kinds of places you performed in?

CHARLES: Oh, they were like places - one way in and one way out. You know what I mean? They were places like like dance halls. And they would and a lot of them would sell beer, and they'd sell fish and chicken and stuff like that. But, like I say, only one way in and one way out so if a fight broke out, you know, it was 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 can 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 patented yourself on Nat Cole and Charles Brown.

CHARLES: That's right.

GROSS: What did they both mean to you? Why did you feel so strongly about them?

CHARLES: 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, he was one of the - people don't realize but 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 to play little tasty things behind what I was saying. So I really tried to patent myself after Nat Cole in the early beginnings of my career.

GROSS: I thought we could listen to the very first recording that you made which is "Confession Blues."

CHARLES: Oh, my goodness. Where did you find that?

GROSS: Oh, on one of your box sets.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It was easy.

CHARLES: Oh, brother. Yeah. That's one of the things where I was - you got me down - I guess I was about 17 years old at that time when I made that.

GROSS: Well, this is 1949. Let's hear it. Then we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONFESSION BLUES")

CHARLES: (Singing) I want to tell you a story of a boy who was once in love. I want to tell you a story of a boy who was once in love. And how the girl that I loved marked me (unintelligible) heaven as I dreamed of. She called me fine sweet marshmallow, 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 to establish your own sound?

CHARLES: Well, right around - well, you know, I started thinking about it in 1951 somewhere in there - in 1950 and '51 - but I was scared to try it because, you know, I was - I could get a lot of work sounding like Nat Cole. You know, I could work at night clubs, and I could make a living, you know, with his sound. I woke up one morning, and I started to think - 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. Nobody never said Ray never, never, never. So I started telling myself, you know, your mom always told you to be yourself, and you 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.

GROSS: Your sound, you know, draws on rhythm and blues and also, I think, gospel music. Did you sing in a church when you were young?

CHARLES: Oh, yeah. Sure, yeah. Like I said to you earlier, I went to all the BYPU meetings in the Sunday school and Sunday morning service and the evening service and the revival meetings they would have during the week, you know, whenever that was going on. So yeah, I didn't star in the church, but I did sing, you know, in the choir.

GROSS: Is there a record that you think of as being the first recording that you made as yourself, really establishing yourself?

CHARLES: Probably "I Got A Woman." I mean, that was the - because that - when I did that, that seemed to upset a lot of people. But it was really me.

GROSS: It upset a lot of people?

CHARLES: Oh, yeah. A lot of people thought that it was too religious, and I was bastardized in the church. And, oh, I mean, I got all kinds of criticism for that.

GROSS: I mean, you were using too much of a sanctified sound for a sexual record?

CHARLES: Yeah, that's right. But it was really me. It was 100 percent me. And, of course, I just said, well, I have to be criticized because I'm going to sing the way I sing. And later on after some other people start doing it, then they start calling it soul music. It just goes to show you I guess I was a little ahead of my time or something.

GROSS: Well, Ray Charles, it has been so wonderful to talk with you. I really thank you so much.

CHARLES: Well, Terry, it's been good talking to you. And I just want you to know not only is it good to talk to you, but I will keep on listening to you, too.

GROSS: It is an honor to hear you say that. Thank you.

CHARLES: I really mean it. Thank you. Thank you very much.

GROSS: My interview with Ray Charles was recorded in 1998.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A WOMAN")

CHARLES: (Singing) Well, I got a woman way over town that's good to me. Oh, yeah. Say, I got a woman way over town, good to me, oh yeah. She gives me 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. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Trevor Noah and Zadie Smith and our tribute to the late Sharon Jones, check out our podcast. You'll find those and other FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy Thanksgiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL")

CHARLES: You know when I was in school, we used to sing it something like this. Listen here. (Singing) Oh beautiful, for spacious skies form amber waves of grain. For purple mountain majesties above the fruited. Now, wait a minute - I'm talking about America, sweet America. You know, God done shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea. You know, I wish I had somebody to help me sing this. America, America. I love you, America. You see... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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