If you’re looking for Ray Charles on an evening where he plays two 55 minute shows, you can probably find him in one of two places: seated in front of a piano or chessboard, In fact, the trim, 5’9” legendary “Genius of Soul” feels at home in front of either board, regardless of how many people are watching. Most people can picture Ray with his black sunglasses and captivating smile sitting in front of a piano, yet the image of this musician who is blind looking with his hands at a chess board may raise a few questions. Like, how?
In a game where skill and determination weed out the more proficient players, chess can be easily adapted to the needs of the blind. For instance, Ray plays on a board where each square is the same color but the depth of the squares are altered—the “black” squares are raised while the “white” squares are lowered. In addition, the black pieces may have sharper tops, whereas the white ones are flat, and all pieces include a peg on the bottom that fit into any hole drilled into the squares on the board. In order to make the game a bit more user-friendly, you will probably hear Ray Charles and his partner calling out moves as the game progresses, making this type of chess a louder, more interactive experience.
Ray has managed to recruit a few of his band members, friends, and even interviewers to play a chess game in between gigs on tour. As he sips warm coffee with Bols gin, he is comfortably removed from long months on the road promoting his latest album.
Brother Ray, as he is affectionately called, has certainly put his time in on the road. In his musical career of over 47 years, Ray has successfully mastered the blues, jazz, gospel, rock, pop, and country music continually airing his soulful heart. He has teamed up with the best of the best in each stylistic genre, including BB King, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, and, most recently, Eric Clapton. Ray prefers not to describe himself as a specific kind of singer, just a musician. “I’m not a country singer. I’m a singer who sings country songs. I’m not a blues singer, but I can sing the blues. I’m not really a crooner, but I can sing love songs. I’m not a specialist, but I’m a pretty good utility man. I can play first base, second base, shortstop. I can catch and maybe even pitch a little.”
Whether it be the blues king or the granddaddy of soul, you get the distinct feeling that Ray is singing what he knows. “His style of singing is born out of his style of talking,” explains David Ritz, coauthor of Ray’s autobiography, Brother Ray. “There are two moods which he exhibits: extreme highs and extreme lows… When he is excited, he is an obsessive and poetic talker; he will chew your ear off until you are exhausted and beat. When he is down, he becomes non-verbal—his responses are monosyllabic… Both moods are strong, and his sullen look will grip him as suddenly as his smile.” But his wry sense of humor is enduring—and endearing. Once, when booked into a glamorous Las Vegas hotel suite with a bed two steps up, he said: “You know, I think these people are trying to kill me.” On the ceiling, above the bed, was a mirror. “Oh great!” he shot back when informed of the extra.
Ray Charles Robinsons’ autobiography, Brother Ray, details Ray’s life, which began on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia. He recounts his days as a country boy in Greenville, Florida (about 30 miles from the Georgia boarder) as the older of two boys cared for by his biological mother, Aretha, whom he called “Mama.” Aretha and the boys treated one of his father’s first wives, Mary Jane, like family, and Ray was known to refer to her as “Mother.” Mary Jane lived nearby and occasionally cared for the boys as if they were her own. His father, Bailey Robinson, was rarely seen by Ray or his brother George. Bailey worked driving spikes on the railroad cross ties in Florida and Georgia, hardly ever coming around to see the family. It was Aretha who brought home whatever pennies she could, doing chores for the local people in the neighborhood.
Ray speaks highly of his mama. To this day, he can clearly describe her looks and continues to praise her wisdom, love, and discipline. His experiences as a child were of complete love and acceptance, mixed with periods of loss and suffering. Early childhood memories include adventures in the colorful country with his brother George, and Sundays at the local Baptist Church—Ray’s first introduction to religion and music. And then he’ll recall watching his four-year-old brother George accidentally drown in a washtub as he desperately tried to pull him out. Ray was only five then, and the most he could manage to do was scream for his mama to help.
Up until he was about six, Ray’s vision was normal. Over a period of time, images began to blur and he would spend five or ten minutes each morning wiping the mucas from his eyes as they adjusted to the light. During that year, Aretha had taken him to numerous doctors in the area, all of which concluded that Ray would be blind and there was nothing to be done about it. By the age of seven, with his mama’s insistence, he reluctantly left home for a state-supported boarding school—the nearest one being St. Augustine’s for the blind and deaf, 160 miles away from home.
“Mama was a country woman with a whole lot of common sense. She understood what most of our neighbor’s didn’t—that I shouldn’t grow dependent on anyone except myself,” Ray explains. “One of these days, I ain’t gonna be here,’ she kept hammering inside my head. Meanwhile, she had me scrub floors, chop wood, wash clothes, and play outside like all the other kids… And her discipline didn’t stop just because I was blind. She wasn’t about to let me get away with any foolishness.”
Ray’s new school separated the deaf from the blind, the black from the white, and the boys from the girls from ages six through eighteen. “It’s awfully strange thinking about separating small children—black from white—when most of them can’t even make out the difference between the two colors,” Ray said.
It was a tough move for him to be so far from home at the time and he openly admits his crying. “I suppose I’ve always done my share of crying, especially when there’s no other way to contain my feelings. I know that men ain’t supposed to cry, but I think that’s wrong. Crying’s always been a way for me to get things out which are buried deep, deep down. When I sing, I often cry. Crying is feeling and feeling is being human. Oh yes, I cry.”
He learned Braille and eventually sign language so the deaf kids could “speak” to him in the palms of his hands as he read their lips. It wasn’t long before he was able to read books and work with his hands weaving and carving. The second part of the school year, Ray was taken to the hospital to have his right eye removed. It had been aching him badly, throbbing from morning to night. To this day, doctors can only speculate as to what the problem was, some saying perhaps glaucoma.
Brother Ray was always into music, whether it was pounding on Mr. Wylie Pittman’s piano in the neighborhood store or simply listening to the jukebox. It was no surprise that his favorite subject in school was music instruction, which he started at the age of eight. The formal instruction began with exercises and classical pieces on the piano and, two years later, on the clarinet.
Being constantly attracted, and distracted, by music of all sorts, Ray discovered a variety of role models and musical styles. His keen sense of hearing and rhythm enabled him to pick up not only the instruments and melodies, but the arrangements how the horns, the reeds, and the rhythm were arranged in different sections. During the early forties, Ray was listening to the big bands with the rest of America, along with the middy Mississippi blues that were only available on “race records.” Determined and strong-willed, Ray would always find some way to sneak into the practice rooms at school after hours to practice.
Ray Charles’ mama warned him over and over again that one day, she wouldn’t be around, but nothing prepared Ray for the time when she passed away. He was only fifteen when he had to return home from school for his mother’s funeral.
“When a boy has just one parent a mama he’ll cling to her like she’s life itself,” expresses Charles in Brother Ray. “And he’ll never even start thinking about what life would be like without her. The thought’s too terrible… I was unable to deal with the facts of death; I was unable to accept the reality of death.”
After his brother George had died, there was just mama. Now he was alone. “I had to make up my own mind, my own way, in my own time,” explained Ray. “Never really had to do that before, and in many ways, I found the situation frightening. But that week of silence and suffering also made me harder, and that hardness has stayed with me the rest of my life.”
Shortly thereafter, Ray dropped out of high school and moved to Jacksonville, Florida. His intention in scuffling through Jacksonville was to get some live musical experience in the big city. Ray responded to his new surroundings by seeking out any piano he could find. “it was music which drove me; it was my greatest pleasure and my greatest release. It was how I expressed myself.”
It was about this time Ray Charles Robinson ended up shortening his name, so he wouldn’t be confused with “Sugar Ray” Robinson, the popular boxer of the time. Staying downtown with some friends of Mary Jane, Ray would jam at any gig he could get. He would manage to memorize his way around town, paying little attention to things like drainage pipes, sewers, or cracks in the sidewalk.
Ray was always pretty courageous. When he was ten or eleven, he rode a bicycle on practically every dirt road and path in Greenville. During a summer in Tallahassee, the fifteen-year-old daredevil learned how to ride a motorcycle. He loved the feeling of motion and just like getting around Jacksonville or any other town, “being blind wasn’t gonna stop me… somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t going to hurt myself I always had a lot of faith in my ability not to break my neck.” Ray’s hearing is exceptional, and his instincts are sharp. “I suppose that one proof of the rightness of my attitude is that as a kid, I was never seriously hurt and there were only a few close calls,” he comments.
Ray’s acute hearing proved to be quite an asset to his career as well. Though the ability to sing, play, write music and network his way around the clubs barely put food on the table at first, nothing could contain Ray’s passion for music. After Jacksonville, it was Orlando, then Seattle, and by 1948, his first album was released. At the time, Ray Charles was most influenced by his idols, Nat Cole and Charles Brown. Ray recalls, “But as I was shaving one morning, I thought, “Who knows your name?’” Gradually, his own style developed.
It wasn’t long before Ray Charles was forging the gospel with the blues. His earliest tangible result of that was “I Got a Woman” for Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records in 1954. Record producer Jerry Wexler described Brother Ray’s voice then: “The emerging sound was unmistakable, brand-new, yet ancient as the woods, the country church of Ray’s childhood. The breakthrough was close at hand.”
And so began the “Genius of Soul,” a hybrid sound that introduces God’s voice to man’s feelings, which certainly raised a few eyebrows for a while. Ray continued to experiment with his new style. Big bands, small bands, solo, and a variety of backup choruses have spotted his long career. He has also been fortunate enough to work without interference from record companies through the years and be able to choose his own songs.
“I am very into lyrics,” Ray explains. “I start with what the words are saying, what the storyline is saying, like a good script. It should really capture me, do something for me. If I don’t get it, it’s not going to move people, and if it’s not going to move people, it’s not going to happen. I don’t think I’m good because I’m blind, I think I’m good because I’m good.”
At one point, stage manager Carl Hunter explained that “he’d [Charles] know it if the band missed a note, a single note. He’d know it if the drummer’s left shoelace was flapping. You be with us long enough, you’ll swear the man can see.” In a performance, Ray’s body moves to a different part of the music, but his feet provide the most deft, air bone accompaniment. It’s his feet that give the backbeat, the downbeat, the accents, and the tempo; it’s the way Ray conducts. In fact, this way of conducting is so powerful that “in rehearsal, if you walk between the band and his feet, they all start cursing you,” said Carl.
Ray’s publicist, Bob Abrams, says, “You know you’re getting a good show when Ray’s socks fall down… his feet are going up over the piano. One sock falls half-mast. It’s because of all the energy he expands. That’s his exercise.”
Brother Ray’s latest album, “My World,” is yet another example of his timeless musical talent. His mix of socially conscious songs with pop standards display a very contemporary side of Ray. There are songs about concern for families and children, as well as peace and unity on the planet.
“Music is powerful,” Ray says. “As people listen to it, they can be affected. They respond. But when I was doing this album, I wasn’t trying to create an overall message. It just turned out that we got some songs that had something to say.” And Ray, along with his all-star cast for some of his songs (like Billy Preston, Mavis Staples, and Eric Clapton), continues his musical experiments this time using synthesizers, sound samplers, and drum machines.
This open attitude keeps Ray current with his fans. During the 1980’s and 90’s, he caught the attention of a whole new generation with his popular “California Raisin” and Pepsi (“Uh huh”) commercials. In fact, the first Diet Pepsi commercial in the fall of 1990 proved to be so unexpectedly popular that Ray Charles is taking home an estimated $3 million from Pepsi after renegotiating his original one-year contract. And for those that missed it, photo “opportunities” were available with life-size cutout figures of Ray Charles and the Raeletts at selected supermarkets last year.
“I must say, I’m proud of that commercial,” explains Ray, in his fifth year as spokesperson for Pepsi.
And what about those three sexy background singers dubbed the Raeletts? Well, Ray has never been one to hold back with women. Next to music, women have always been the major objects of his attention. In Brother Ray, he tells us that no day is worth starting without a love, and many of his songs have been regarded as a sort of report of his fortunes and misfortunes with women.
Battling substance abuse for a number of years, Ray finally enrolled in the rehabilitation program at St. Francis hospital near Los Angeles in 1965. His decision to go cold turkey is an example of his commitment to himself, and after overcoming his physical and psychological addiction in his own way, he left the hospital. It was at St. Francis that Ray learned how to play chess and continued to play cards in Braille.
Ray’s most recent bout with pain was a serious maddening of inner-ear problems. “I was hearing sound within sounds,” he says. For a man that relies so heavily on his hearing, this proved to be quite a scare. Although his problems have since been resolved, Ray felt motivated enough to become involved with groups like Ear International, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization for the hard of hearing. His personal donations and fund raising have provided money for research in developing electronic implants, among other devices.
In furthering his dedication to the hard of hearing, Ray urged Congress to increase funding for research into hearing loss in 1987. His visit to Washington, D.C. included speaking before the subcommittees for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, saying: “Most people take their hearing for granted. I can’t. My eyes are my handicap, but my ears are my opportunity. My ears show me what my eyes can’t. My ears tell me 99 percent of what I need to know about my world.”
In addition to working with Ear International, Ray Charles has shown a long and active concern and involvement with sickle cell disease programs. In 1975, the National Association for Sickle Cell Disease (NASCD) presented their first “Man of Distinction” Award to Ray, and he continues as the L.A. chapter’s Honorary Chairman since 1962.
What’s next for this multi-talented entertainer? Well, as Ray himself articulates, “music is nothing separate from me. It is me. I can’t retire from music any more than I can retire from my liver… I believe the Lord will retire me when He’s ready. And then I’ll have plenty of time for a long vacation.”
–Mary Ann Ireland