The Genius of Soul is a bit cranky tonight. With showtime approaching for his 11:30 P.M. set at New York City’s Blue Note, brother Ray Charles is slumped in a dressing room chair, moody and wrapped in silence. Minutes pass. Then Charles, blind since childhood, turns slowly toward a darkened window. In a whisper-soft voice he begins to sing, not a blues or a country ballad, but an old, sentimental World War II song: “When the lights go on again, all over the world…”
The moment ends. It is showtime now, and soon Charles is standing onstage in the warmth of bright lights and a packed house. While his 15-piece brass band roars behind him, he starts to rabbit-hop in time with the music, then wraps his arms around his shoulders in a symbolic embrace of the audience. For the next hour he stays in perpetual motion, swaying to fast tunes behind his electric piano like a funk-beat metronome. The tempo slows as he gently caresses the melody of his signature ballad, “Georgia on My Mind.” And when the Raeletts, his five-woman chorus, join the band for a bone-rattling “What I Say,” Charles’s infectious glee spreads through the $50-a-ticket crowd.
“My mama taught me to give my all to a job, no matter what,” he says later, still pumped with excitement backstage. “You’ve just got to do it and not complain. You never know how much time you have left in the world.”
Ray Charles turned 60 recently, and the man who invented soul nearly four decades ago is still making every moment count. Earlier this year, his duet with Chaka Khan titled “I’ll Be Good to You,” from Quincy Jones’s Back on the Block album, topped the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart. His latest album, Would You Believe?, released just last month, was finished in time to free Charles for a six-week tour of the Far East and Europe with guitarist B.B. King, pianist Gene Harris and the 17-piece Philip Morris Super-band. Meanwhile, he is a ubiquitous presence on television as the star of a Diet Pepsi ad campaign.
Years ago Frank Sinatra called Charles “the only genius in the business.” Ray doesn’t put much stock in such praise. “I’ll get all the accolades,” he shrugs, “but at my best I will never make half the money that Sinatra has made. It’s not going to happen. But when you break it down, what does it matter? I can only sleep in one bed at a time. I can only make love to one woman at a time.”
A notorious ladies’ man, Charles has sired nine children, ages 14 to 40, with seven different women, and has seven grandchildren. “All my kids know me,” he says proudly. Vowing to remain single after two failed attempts at marriage, Charles is a restless spirit, often subject to mercurial moods. When he is down, there is no approaching him. When he is happy, there is no resisting him.
As he starts his seventh decade, Charles still spends most of his days on the road, traveling nine months each year. Chess, a game he discovered while kicking a heroin habit in 1965, is his primary passion between shows. For Charles, it is a game of touch as well as tactics, and he uses a specially designed board with raised black squares and pegged pieces, his fingers a blur as he surveys the field. His play is defensive. “He sets little traps and sits and waits for you to fall for them,” says Vernon Troupe, 50, his valet and constant companion. “Then he pounces.”
Charles is just as exacting in real life. “I truly love Mr. C., but working for him is not easy,” says Troupe. “If his tuxedos are not pressed a certain way or his food is not just so, somebody has to know the reason why. And if he says he’ll be ready at 10 o’clock, he means 10, not one minute before or after.”
Off the road, Charles returns to a sparsely furnished apartment in Beverly Hills and doesn’t socialize much. “If you get more than three or four people around me, you’ve got a crowd,” he says. A windowless office complex near downtown L.A. is headquarters for his personal manager, Joe Adams, and houses a private recording studio, which Charles considers his real home.
Inviting a guest into this sanctum recently, Charles had to be reminded to turn on the light. He was cautious and reserved at first when asked to talk about himself. Soon, however, he pranced and preached as he recalled his country upbringing in Greenville, Fla.
Christened Ray Charles Robinson (he later dropped the surname to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson), he was the son of Bailey Robinson, a railroad repairman who was seldom around and never married Ray’s mother, ‘Retha. She took in washing and ironing to support her two children and shared child raising with Bailey’s legal wife, Mary Jane. “Mary Jane had a child of her own but he died, so she took a liking to me,” Charles says. “With Mary Jane I couldn’t do wrong. I was her pet. But my mother made sure I did right.”
Despite the decades that have passed, Charles still talks of his joy on those nights when he would awake to a full moon in the sky before his world went black. “Other nights I’d wake up and it would be pitch dark,” he says. “So I’d go out with a big flashlight and light up the world.”
On Sundays he sang at the Shiloh Baptist Church, but there was other music as well—at the Red Wing Café where the proprietor, Wylie Pitman, kept the jukebox stocked with records by Muddy Waters, Blind Boy Phillips and Tampa Red. “Mr. Pit also had a piano,” says Charles. “As a little kid I’d go in and start banging on it, and the man could have easily shooed me away. Instead he’d take my fingers, one by one, and show me a little melody.”
When he was 5, the bright and simple days began to end. Ray was playing in the backyard one afternoon when he saw his 3½-year-old brother, George, topple into a washtub. “He must have dropped something in the water and keeled over trying to get it,” he says. “I tried to pull him out, but he was too heavy. I went into the house to get my mom, but it was too late.”
A few months later, Charles’s eyes started tearing and his sight gradually slipped away, stolen by a disease his country doctor could not name, let alone cure. Within two years he was totally blind. “People couldn’t understand why my mama would have this blind kid out doing things like cutting wood for the fire,” he says now. “But she had the foresight to go against the grain in this little town. Her thing was: ‘He may be blind, but he ain’t stupid.’ That’s why I brag on my mama today.”
For the next eight years he boarded at a state school for the blind in St. Augustine, Fla., where he studied classical music and played blues and boogie in his spare time. Then his mother died suddenly, apparently a victim of food poisoning. Lost and alone, Ray lay motionless for a week following her funeral before finally breaking into tears.
He was just 15, but he decided to set out on his own and to try to earn his way as a pianist. “I had to leave Greenville because there was nothing I could do,” he says simply. “And I wasn’t about to be begging nobody because I wasn’t raised that way. My mom would have died 15 deaths if I did that.”
Instead he traveled through Florida playing in pickup bands and living on sardines and beans. “I didn’t have somebody looking out for me 24 hours,” he says. “You understand what I’m saying? I had to walk around by my goddamn self if I wanted to go.” Finally, he asked a friend to take a map of the United States and locate a big city as far away as possible from Tampa. Within days he was rumbling toward Seattle by bus. “I didn’t know anything about the town,” he says. “But I figured it had to be a place where at least I’d have a better chance.”
A few months short of 18 when he arrived, he entered a talent contest his first night in town and was immediately offered a job playing at a local Elks club. After several months, he caught the ear of a record producer and cut his first single, “Confession Blues.” As his reputation grew, Charles became the idol of a teenage trumpet player with considerable gifts of his own. “Ray’s apartment was the place to be because he had his own record player,” says Quincy Jones, Ray’s best friend still. “He used to take it apart and get shocked and stuff. He was just curious about everything.”
During the next few years Charles lived on the road, making the rounds of black honky-tonks and beer halls around the country. Musicians called it the chitlin’ circuit. “People didn’t sit on their asses,” Charles says. “They came to dance. If somebody got too close to somebody else’s woman, it was nothing to have a fight break out and bottles start flying.” For a long time he was content to copy the style of such established stars as Nat King Cole. People praised his mimicry, “and I thought it was great,” he says. “But as I was shaving one morning, I thought, ‘Who knows your name?’ ”
Soon he began combining gospel styling with down-and-dirty lyrics and horn riffs, and folks everywhere came to know who he was. “The black church is the ultimate source of American music,” says Quincy Jones. “Ray got the mothership together with its grandbabies, blues and jazz, and touched the world.” In the process he created a new genre of music; it came to be called soul, and at first “some people said it was sacrilegious,” Charles says. “But it was me. And most people loved it.”
In the ’60s he went further, turning tired country standards like “I Can’t Stop Loving You” into pop hits by embellishing them with lush orchestral arrangements and his own plaintive vocals. Critics were confounded by his landmark LP, Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music. But Charles had listened to Grand Ole Opry every Saturday as a kid and was only doing what felt natural.
Unfortunately that wasn’t all that he did; in the late ’40s he had begun a heroin habit that he didn’t break for 17 years. Despite the damage it eventually did to his reputation, he still refuses to be cast in the role of repentant sinner. “There wasn’t nobody around saying, ‘Hey, man, you want to get high, Ray?’ I did drugs because it was my pleasure,” he says. “Still, I never wanted to be so ossified I wasn’t aware of what was going on around me. Being blind stopped me from that.”
In 1964 Charles was busted for heroin possession at Boston’s Logan Airport. While awaiting trial, he headed to California where, after attending a Little League banquet with his second wife, Della, and their 9-year-old son, Ray Jr., he began sizing up his future. “Before he got his little award, I had to leave for a recording session,” Charles says. “So he started to cry. And I’m thinking, ‘Now what’s going to happen if somebody comes out and calls his daddy a jailbird or a drug addict?’ That’s when I decided I was through with drugs.” He checked himself into a hospital and went cold turkey. After random testing for a year proved he was clean, the drug rap against him in Boston was dropped.
“Ray was always a good provider and loving father,” says Della, now 61. Despite their 1977 divorce, Della still treats Charles to pound cake and homemade ice cream every year on his birthday and bears him no ill will. “People see his guarded side.” says Della. “But you have to remember the people he loved the most as a child—his brother and his mother—were taken away from him. That’s why he’s cautious about letting people get too close.” Ray Jr., now 35, has become more intimate with his dad recently since Charles hired him to oversee plans for a feature movie about his life. “I used to be intimidated by my father,” says Ray Jr. “He is not a patient man. But he is teaching me a lot about discipline.”
Patience is in short supply for Charles as he rehearses with the Philip Morris Super-band in New York two days before going on tour. Song after song, he has been scolding the musicians like a schoolmaster, sometimes cursing under his breath. “It don’t matter how it’s written, honey,” he says when one band member complains about his illegible sheet music, “because I’m here to tell you for myself.”
The next day his fellow headliner, blues guitarist B.B. King, jokes about a time he provoked Ray’s ire in the studio a couple of years ago. “Ray said, ‘Now B.B., you a musician and a singer. Can’t you hear?’ ” King recalls. “But you know, Ray is right every time he tells you something.”
Charles’s own sharp hearing is legendary among his fellow musicians, but the gift was temporarily affected four years ago by an inner-ear infection that gave him the fright of his life. “It would be a real bitch if I ever lost my hearing,” he says. “I know I couldn’t be no Helen Keller. I think that would be worse than death.”
Only slightly less terrifying, it seems, is the thought of retirement. “I don’t want to retire to nothing,” he says firmly, leaving no question. And so he works and plays and continues on, lending his voice and soul to yet one more generation. He will tour South America and Japan with his own band before the end of the year and has long-range plans to do an all-star recording session that will include jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Jackson. “I figure you do what you can, while you can, on this earth, because you can bet your ass you’re gonna leave here,” he says. “Ain’t no doubt about that.”