Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 19, 1998
Head: Ray Charles
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's my pleasure to introduce a guest we have wanted to present for years, 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 is considered to have virtually invented soul music, ma
ny of his great recordings were of country songs. In fact, his 1962 album "Modern Sounds and Progressive Country and Western Music," became one of his best known records, and included one of his biggest hits, "I Can't Stop Loving You."
Now, Rhino Records has produced a new box set collecting Ray Charles' complete country and western recordings from 1959 to '86. Before we talk about his life and music, let's start with a song from the box set. Recorded in 1962, this is "Born to Lose."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF M
USIC -- RAY CHARLES PERFORMING "BORN TO LOSE")
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...
GROSS: Ray Charles, why did you first want to record country music?
RAY CHARLES, MUSICIAN: 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 nine o'clock on a Saturday night to listen to the Grand Ol' Opr
y. I was very fascinated by country music. It's strange, and I know it's quite unusual, but that is the way it was.
GROSS: What did you like about it?
CHARLES: I -- you know, just -- being a musician, I was just impressed by the sound. I mean, you know, country music obviously had its own sound, and it was fascinating what these guys could do with these banjos and these fiddles and steel guitars.
I don't know. It truly fascinated me. And, of course, the lyrics that they were singing were very --
every day type conversation, if you know what I mean. You didn't have to be an Einstein to figure out what they were talking about, what they were singing about. So it was very common, very much like the blues, in a sense.
GROSS: What was the reaction of your record company when you said, around 1962: I want to do a country record.
Did they think: hey, Ray, great idea?
CHARLES: No, not exactly, no. Although I understand their concern, because, you know, at the time, I was a pretty good-selling arti
st over at ABC at the time.
But their concern was that I was a "rhythm and blues artist." And they thought if I start doing country music that I would lose a lot of fans. And, of course, if I lose fans that means they would lose a lot of business, too. So they did have -- I thought their concern was legit.
You know, I understood what Sam Clark, who was the president -- Sam would say to me: you know, you're a kid, I'm a little worried about that. I know that's what you want to do, but we're worried that
you may lose some fans.
And my attitude was: well, Sam, you know, you probably could be right, but I think I will gain more fans than I will lose if I do it right.
So he said: OK, it's your career. If you want try it, go ahead and do it.
GROSS: Now, what about the reaction of your friends and fellow musicians. Did your African-American friends and fellow musicians think: why would you as a Black man want to record a country record?
Because I think a lot of people see this big dichotomy betw
een Black music and country music, and think that it's really inexplicable that an African-American likes country music.
CHARLES: Yeah, I know. It's very unusual. But I must say, I had nobody give me any static about what I did. I had more static when I started sounding like my true self, as opposed to trying to imitate Nat King Cole. I had more static from that, because people were saying I was sacrilegious, and I was blaspheming religion and all this stuff. But that was just the way that I sang.
when I went into the country field, nobody said anything, and I guess the reason they didn't too much because the thing was so big. I mean, it's pretty hard to argue when it's that big a hit.
GROSS: I want to play "Your Cheatin' Heart," which is a real standard of country music. And I think this is just a really wonderful example of you doing a song your way. I mean, you might even be using different chords on here than the chords that were written, but...
CHARLES: Yeah, that's right. That's what makes
you become me.
GROSS: And the singing, too, of course.
CHARLES: Well, thank you, ma'am.
GROSS: Would you say just a little bit about what 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 genuinely can feel it, you know. Any song -- I'm that way about all music, all songs I do. I sit there and 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 I can run into songs that are good songs, but I can't make it do anything for me. But the song was a great song, you know. To give you an example, like I've have always loved "Stardust," a beautiful song. But I could never quite get it to sound like I wanted to for me. So you know, it's really a true feeling what you feel inside, you know, where you can put yourself into it. Can you really feel what you're doing? And that's important to me to feel what I'm doing.
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: 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 j
ust liked the song, you know. But it was the chord structure in "Georgia," I mean, especially in the middle part of it. It's got some beautiful changes to it. Hoagy Carmichael, I have to give him some skin, he wrote some beautiful stuff on that song.
GROSS: OK, well, I have 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. And this is from the early 1960s, one
of the recordings included on the new Ray Charles box set "The Complete Country and Western Recordings 1959-1986." Here it is.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF MUSIC -- RAY CHARLES PERFORMING "YOUR CHEATIN' HEART")
Your cheatin' heart will make you blue
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 1959-1986."
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 don't think of them as country songs. I thought of them as Ray Charles records.
CHARLES: You're very sweet, thank you, Terry.
GROSS: 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
and I think it would be helpful to the people, to our listeners. You see, I am -- just so they will really know what I'm about. You see, I am not a country singer. I am 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 am not a specialist, you know what I mean?
I'm kind of like a baseball player, you know. I can play a little first base, second base, shortstop, and third base. I might even catch and pit
ch a little bit for you if you need me to. I'm sort of like that in the music world, as opposed to being, say, a specialist, like you would say B.B. King is a blues singer.
CHARLES: There's no question about it. But I'm not a blue singer. I'm a singer that can sing the blues.
GROSS: Now, your biography back from, I think, 1978 begins:
"Let me say right here and now that I am a country boy and, man, I mean, the real backwoods."
Tell us a little bit about where you grew up in
CHARLES: Oh, well, I'm from a little small town in -- well, actually I was born in Albany, Georgia, but I don't know anything about it, because my parents moved to Florida when I was about six months old, so you know, I wouldn't remember anything.
So I was raised in a little village, you could call it, called Greenville, Florida. It's about 42 miles east of Tallahassee, you know. And it was just a little country town, and we just had like a little general store. And there was a post office, a
nd there was a bus stop, not a bus station, but a, you know, where you sit on the bench and wait for the bus. And that was about it.
And everybody knew everybody. And, of course, the -- actually, the bulk of the people were people that were more or less poor. So you know, if Mrs. Jones needed some sugar, she would borrow it from my mom. And if my mom needed some flower, she would borrow it from Mrs. Williams, or whatever. I mean, that's the way they got along.
GROSS: What did you hear on the radio the
CHARLES: Well, basically, in the daytime you heard country music on the radio. I mean, that was it. All day long was country music, all over the town. And at night, you could hear things like Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey or Count Basie, because in those days they would have programs that were live, that were coming from some of the various hotels or nightclubs.
And so you could hear the various bands at night, and in the daytime you heard strictly country music. And, of course, being in a Black nei
ghborhood, naturally, I heard the blues.
I mean, that's where the blues was, and, of course, the religion thing, because, you know, you went to revival meetings and BYPU. And I went to Sunday school and church on Sunday morning and Sunday evenings. So you know, that was a mixture that I grew up in.
GROSS: Now 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 then.
GROSS: I'm wondering if yo
u ever felt any more distance 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 -- I won't say that there was 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 and his band, you know; various White bands where there were Black people in th
e band. And when I was coming up, I even worked with a hillbilly group in Florida called the billy Playboys -- the Florida Playboys. And there was a hillbilly group who taught me how to yodel.
GROSS: Could do you yodel for us?
I mean, I am a lot better than that, but that's the idea.
My voice -- it's too early in the morning, but you get the idea.
GROSS: I have to say that is not unlike some of the things that you do on your solo records.
CHARLES: OK. I truly enjoy the various forms of music, and it keeps me going.
SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING
GROSS: Now, we're recording from your studio. Do you have to get your phone?
CHARLES: No, no, no, no, that, unfortunately, the switchboard kind of goofed and made it ring back here. They must have about seven, eight lines and they let the wrong line ring. Mistake.
GROSS: Did you think I was nuts when I said that about yodeling, sounding like some of the things
you do on your solo records?
CHARLES: No, no, no, no. I heard every word of it, girl. I really did.
GROSS: My guest is Ray Charles. He has a new box set of his country and western recordings. We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is for Ray Charles. He has a new box set of his complete country and western recordings. Now, I don't know if you know the Solomon Burke (ph) story about how after he had his first big hit, "I Mean This Is Just
Out Of Reach," and he showed up at a country music concert, he was the performer, and people only knew him from the radio. And when they saw that he was Black they thought that he was an impersonator, and they drove him out of town.
CHARLES: No, man, you see, fortunately for me, I think what really happened with me, nobody expected me to be George Jones or Hank Snow or Johnny Cash...
GROSS: Because you were already Ray Charles.
CHARLES: That's right. See, so when I went into the South and did these -
- they knew that the songs I was doing was me. I was not trying to be nobody but me. I think that's the key, you know. The main thing is you do what you do, that's it.
GROSS: Now, when you're playing in this Hill Billy band in Florida, what was your repertoire like?
CHARLES: Oh, they played some of everything. They played, you know, all the country songs at the time. As a matter of fact, I can't think of the -- oh, man -- not Ernest Tubbs, but there was another guy that was very, very big back in those
"Anytime you're feeling lonely
Anytime you feel..."
It's a shame I can't think of the guys name now, but he was very, very big. We used to play a lot of his stuff, a lot of Hank Williams songs. I mean, they played all the country -- all the artists in the country field that had hits at the time.
GROSS: How did you end up being in this country band?
CHARLES: I got in there because -- I didn't have any money, so I would go down to the music store in the daytime, because they had
all these great pianos in there. And they would let me come and and play the piano -- any piano I wanted to play. And that was fascinating to me because I can go in, just fool around with the various pianos.
And so one day the guy who was working in the store, he said to me: hey, you know, our piano man is sick. Would you like to come in and sit with the band?
I said: well, yeah, man, sure.
So I went out that night and sat in with the band. I guess I must have played with them for about six weeks
GROSS: That's not very long.
CHARLES: Oh, well, it was long enough for me to make a nice little piece of change, because those guys worked all the time.
GROSS: Did you sing the lead?
CHARLES: No, no, no. I saying by myself. It wasn't like I it was quartet. I sang what I sang and, of course, they were all musicians, and they had another guy there also that could sing, too. But, again, it was one of the kind of things where I sang my little stuff -- mainly, I was just a pianist. But I did hav
e two or three things that I sang.
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 when you look at lyrics, you know, you got to t
ell 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, you know. 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?
Any you tell yourself: yeah -- "you give your hands to me, and then you say, I watch you walk way."
If you can see, or you hear somebody
says: "I can't stop loving you, I've made up my mind." Just think of the people saying that, you know.
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 this song was written by Cindy Walker and Eddie Arnold. And this is Ray Charles' 1962 recording of it, now reissued on his CD box set "The Complete Country and Western Recordings 1959-1986."
UDIO CLIP OF MUSIC -- RAY CHARLES PERFORMING "YOU DON'T KNOW ME")
You give your hand to me
And then you say hello
And I can hardly speak
My heart is beating so
And if anyone can tell
You think you know me well
Well, you don't know me
No, 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
Just a friend
That's all I've ever been
Because you don't know me
For I never knew the art of
Though my heart aches with love for you
A prayer which I...
GROSS: Ray Charles with a song included on his new country and western box set on Rhino Records. Ray Charles will be back in the second half of the show.
You're listening to FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, and this is NPR, National Public Radio.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Back with more of our interview with Ray Charles. He has a new box set of his complete country and western recordings. He spoke
to us from his recording studio.
As we mentioned, you grew up in the country, and I think it was at about the age of seven 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 ideas she did, you know, because she didn't have no psychologist to tell her to do this or tell her to do that. But sh
e 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 got to teach yourself to remember to turn right when you get to,
da, da, da, da.
And, of course, she started with that with me when I started to lose my eyesight, so I -- 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 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, I'm sure you're aware that children can be very brutal, I mean, to each other.
GROSS: Yeah, no kidding, yeah.
CHARLES: You know what I mean? And so if you go in there -- and, like, when I first went there, I was very homesick and I was crying -- you know, what to go through -- because where I went to school was about 130 or 140 miles from where I lived, you know. So there was a state school for the blind and deaf, as I said. I was crying and missing my mama and all that. And, see, kids are k
ids. Instead of sympathizing with you, they would pick on you and make you feel bad, you know. You know, so they will get you out of that kind of groove.
GROSS: Did you have good medical care at the time?
CHARLES: Oh, no, honey. You're thinking about much later in life. I mean, bless your heart, I appreciate the question, but, no. I don't think anybody in those days even knew what that was.
CHARLES: As a matter of fact, we had one hospital on the campus, and you won't believe t
his, but this is the facts. There was one hospital there, and 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 the way it was.
Nobody thought nothing about it, because, if that's the way is, that's the way 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? You're segregated by color, which you can't even see.
LES: That's right. That's right. That's right. But you know, you know -- I'm sure you'll probably never understand it, because I never understood it. And I lived a lot longer than you, and I can tell you I 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: Your mother must have been pretty determined to have you in the school, I mean to -- considering that she was pretty poor, that you lived in a backwoods area, to
manage to get you to this school, and maybe even force you to go because you probably wanted to stay home. That was pretty good on her part.
CHARLES: Oh, yeah. As I said, she was very for poor (unintelligible). I'll always love my mom, and when I stop to think about the things that she -- you know, she really is responsible for me being what I am today, because she instilled in me that it was vital that I be independent. She would always tell me that even people who love you, your friends, you know, you nee
d to do things for yourself because there are times when they're busy, when they might want to do it for you but they don't have the time. And you need to know how to do things for yourself -- take care of yourself.
And she did her best to teach me every little bitty thing thing that she felt would be helpful to me in my life. Therefore, I know how to clean up a house, I know how to cook, I know how to wash clothes, I know how to do things. That's why people are so surprised when they see me packing my bags.
They say: you mean, you pack your own bags. I say: yeah, even if somebody else packs 'em up, I have to tell them how to do it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ray Charles. And the occasion for his visit with us is the release of a new box that called "The Complete Country and Western Recordings, 1959-1986."
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 music class the
first year I was in school, because the class was full. I mean, I couldn't in the piano class, so I started taking up clarinet. That's why I can play clarinet and saxophone.
GROSS: So you played clarinet first?
CHARLES: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: How did you like the instrument?
CHARLES: I loved it. Well, I was a great fan of Vonnie Charles (ph). I used to love him. Everybody was talking about Benny Goodman, but I was an Vonnie Charles 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 figured: well, OK, I'll play clarinet. And I did that, but the next year I was able to get into the piano class.
GROSS: Did you give up clarinet?
CHARLES: No. I studied both. I kept studying, but, naturally, my heart was with the keyboard, because there's just so much you can do when you play piano. But time I was 12 years old or 13 years old, I coul
d 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 have to do with music.
GROSS: Now, what kind of music were you playing in school?
CHARLES: Oh, well, we were -- they had, like, a little small, cute little songs from Chopin that we would play, or Beethoven, or something like that; not the symphonies, but the 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 that was being played, you know, on the radio. I was just writing arrangements for the band to play it. I'll tell you, that's why I don't write a score today, because I started out writing the parts first -- you know, most times, when arrangers do -- I'm sure you know this, I'm just saying this for the sake of the audience -- arrangers write a score first, and then, when they write a score, they write the parts.
Well, I wante
d to hear the music so bad I'd write the parts first and write the score afterwards. It's kind of backwards, right?
GROSS: You know, I interviewed Hank Crawford, who played in your band...
CHARLES: Yes. He was my copyist for a lot of years.
GROSS: Yeah. And he was your music director for awhile.
CHARLES: That's right.
GROSS: And he said that when you did an arrangement what you would do would be to call out the notes...
CHARLES: That's right. He told you right. That's right.
SS: And I thought that was so strange. I figured: oh, you'd sing the part for the person who was translating, but you called out the notes.
CHARLES: 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 out of tune, do I?
GROSS: Well, that's a good point.
CHARLES: All right. If I tell them the notes, it can't be no mistake. You see what I mean? I don't want to hum it, because I know how to tell him technica
lly. All he's got to do is write what I tell them. That way it can't be no mistake, because if I hum a tune, I might not hum it just right, or he may not hear it right. But if I say: it's C sharp. C sharp is C sharp all over the world.
GROSS: My guest is Ray Charles. He has a new box set of his country and western recordings. We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Ray Charles. Now, how old were you when you left school and set out on your own?
: I was about 15 when my mom died, so I left school that year.
GROSS: And what was it like for you to first be on your own like that?
CHARLES: Oh, it was tough, but I was lucky. I was lucky, because my mom had a friend that lived in Jacksonville, which as I say, was about a hundred-some-odd miles from Greenville. And my mom had always talked to me about her and told me that, you know, if I ever needed somebody to talk to, this lady and her were real good friends.
So when my mom passed away I fooled a
round for a little while in Greenville and Tallahassee, and then I decided I would go to Jacksonville -- of course, Jackson was a city, and I wanted to see if I could get started in music and do something. So I went there -- and this lady's name was Leena Mae Thompson (ph) -- and her and her husband, Fred Thompson, they took me and treated me just like I was their own kid.
They fed me, because I surely didn't have no money, didn't have nothing. They bought me clothes. I mean, I was lucky. And when I would g
et a job, maybe once or twice a week or something like that, I'd give them the money. Because you know, it wasn't that much money involved in the first place. And I know they spent way more money than I was able to give them back.
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. Know what I mean? They were places like dance halls, and a lot of them would sell beer, and they'd sell fish and chicken and stuff like that. Bu
t like I said, it was one way in and one way out, so a the fight broke out -- it was kind of rough.
Those were the days, I have to say, 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 l
ike you had patterned 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: 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. 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 -- people don't realize that Nat Cole was a hell
of a pianist.
He played some of that tasty stuff behind his sing, and that's what I wanted to do, was to be able to play little tasty things behind what I was singing. So I really, really tried to pattern myself after Nat Cole in the early beginnings of my career.
GROSS: And -- and Charles Brown, the rhythm and blues singer?
CHARLES: And Charles Brown had that real -- I don't know how you would call it. He always sounded like he was pleading, begging, you know. really pleading in his songs, or crying.
And I liked that. He always sounded like he was sincere whatever he was singing about. He was -- he meant it. That's the way I took Charles Brown, and I liked it, especially when he was singing the blues or something, like "Merry Christmas, Baby," and stuff like that.
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. It was easy.
Oh, brother. That's one of things were I was -- you got me down pat. I guess I was about 17 years old at that time when I made that.
GROSS: This is 1949. Let's hear it, and then we'll talk about it.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF MUSIC -- RAY CHARLES PERFORMING "CONFESSION BLUES")
I want to tell you a story
A lonely boy was watching love
I want to tell you a story
Our little boy was watching love
And how the girls that I loved
(unintelligible) as I dreamed of
She called me fine, sweet
But that didn't mean a thing...
GROSS: That was Ray Charles' first recording made in 1949. How did you start to get a sense of who you were as a singer, and start to establish your own sound?
CHARLES: Oh, well, right about 19 -- you know, I started thinking about it in 1951, somewhere in there, 1950 or '51. But I was scared to try, because, you know, I could get a lot of work sounding like Nat Cole. You know, I could work in nightclubs, and I could make a living with his sound. I could
take the amplifier and tune in and add a little bass, little bit of treble or something like that to it; and sound pretty close, almost just like him.
But then I knew -- I woke up one morning and I started to thinking, I said to myself: you know, nobody knows my name. Everybody says to me: 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. I know you love Nat Cole, but you got to stop that.
It was just a question of thinking one morning what I woke up: people don't even know my name. I'm just "hey, kid."
GROSS: Your sound drives on rhythm and blues, and also, I think, gospel music. Did you sing in a church when you were young?
CHARLES: Oh yeah, sure. Like I said to you earlier, I went to all the BYPU meetings and the Sunday school and the Sunday morning service and the ev
ening service and the revival meetings they would have during the week you know whenever that was going on. So I didn't start in the church, but I did sing a little 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 -- because 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 bastardizing the church, and, ah, man, we 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, 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 started doing it, then they started calling it soul music. It
just goes to show you, I guess I was a little bit ahead of my time or something.
GROSS: Well, I think that is inarguable. Why don't we hear "I Got a Woman." And this is my guest, Ray Charles.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF MUSIC -- RAY CHARLES PERFORMING "I GOT A WOMAN")
Well, I got a woman
Way over town
That's good to me
Say, I got a woman
Way over town
Good to me
She give me money when I'm in need
She's a kind doll, a friend in need
I got a woman
That's good to me
She saves her lovin'
Earlier in the morning'
Just for me
She save her lovin'...
GROSS: That's Ray Charles recording, like I said, that was the first one that really sounded like his own style. The record that we just heard, "I Got a Woman," was one of the early recordings for Atlantic. When you start recording for Atlantic what was it like for you to find your audience?
CHARLES: Atlantic was a great company. I have to tell you -- I mean,
for me, and 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 anyway, form, shape or fashion as to what I should 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 k
ids today, they have producers and got to record with the producers say. And the producer says: I want you to sound like who had the last hit. 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 Atlantic before they 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
Me;" and next thing we had "I Got a Woman." So -- but the first two or three records I made didn't sell.
You can do that in today's age. You make two or three records that don't sell now and you're out.
GROSS: I want to get back to your country music set, from 1959-1986, those are the years that the recordings span. It ends in 1986. Have you not been recording new country records?
CHARLES: No, not since then, because, see, I did what I wanted to do -- the last album's that I was doing in Nashvi
lle, I really wanted to -- although could record with everybody wanted to -- but I was able to get in some of the people that I had been loving for years, like I say, with the Willie Nelsons and the George Jones and Ricky Scaggs, and people like that
So, once I -- because when I did the albums in the '60s, it was like doing country music in a modern way, you know, using strings and voices and stuff. In the '80s, what I wanted to do, I wanted to actually use the cats that play the music themselves. So I was luc
ky enough to do that.
And once I've done that, I'd said: well, OK, now I can let that rest for awhile. Now that's not to say I won't ever do anymore country western music, but it says that I can afford to relax for awhile, because I've got to do things I wanted to do.
GROSS: My guest is Ray Charles. He has a new box set of his complete country and western recordings. It's on Rhino Records.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Where are you now in terms of music?
CHARLES: Well, right now I'm
recording an album now for Quest, and we are almost through with it. It's one of those albums that -- I have some other people on it with me. I know Gladys Knight is on it with me, and we have two or three different -- well, I think we must have about five or six different people that's going to be on this album with me.
GROSS: You are speaking to us now from your own recording studio.
CHARLES: That's right.
GROSS: Is this where you record your records?
CHARLES: That's right.
GROSS: And ho
w did you first decide that you should have your own studio?
CHARLES: Well, when I was with ABC -- one of the things that happened when I went to ABC, they wanted me to produce my own music. So I got the idea that since I was going to produce my own music, I should have my own studio and I should own my own masters. And that was one of the very unusual things that happened to me in my career, because very few artists own their own masters, very few, even in today's age.
But I -- at the time, it was somethin
g that -- I didn't know. I mean, I would've signed a contract with ABC, anyway. But my mom always told me that, you know, you can always ask and you only get two answers, yes or no. So I asked for my own masters, and after about two or three days of them thinking about it, they gave it to me.
So once I got -- I knew I can get my own masters back, I said: well, I'd better build my own studio so I can record -- and I can record when I want to. I don't have to book this studio and get in there when they want m
e to get in. I can record in my studio anytime of day or night I want.
GROSS: It makes sense to me.
CHARLES: Oh, yeah. It's very, very comfortable that way.
GROSS: I'd like to end our interview by asking you to choose a favorite, if you have one, from the new country music box set. There's a big selection there...
CHARLES: That's true. And it would be very hard to find what I would call a favorite, but I can tell you one of the songs that I really love. There is an old Johnny Cash song that I
did on there called "Ring of Fire." But I got it from Johnny Cash. (unintelligible) real nice to play "Ring of Fire."
GROSS: I loved it song, and it was written by his wife, June.
CHARLES: Oh, really. I didn't know that.
CHARLES: Oh, no kidding! Well, thank you for telling me that.
GROSS: So we'll end with "Ring of Fire." Why do you love this song?
CHARLES: Just think of the lyrics, just think of the lyrics.
"Oh, love is a burning thing"
lks -- it speaks to you, you know. I really didn't know what you just told me, but I'll have to see. I'm very happy to hear that.
GROSS: Well, Ray Charles, it has been so wonderful to talk with you. I really thank you so much for your time.
CHARLES: Well, Terry it's a good talking to you. I just want you to know, not only is it good to talk to you, but I'm going to keep on listening to you, too.
GROSS: It is an honor to hear you say that. Thank you.
CHARLES: I really mean that. Thank you, th
ank you very much.
GROSS: Ray Charles. He has a new box set of his complete country and western recordings. It's on Rhino Records.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF MUSIC -- RAY CHARLES PERFORMING "RING OF FIRE")
Well, love is a burning thing
Yes it is
And it makes, you know, it makes the fire and rain
Girl, you know, I found my wild desire
That's what you do to me
Because I don't care
I fell into your ring of fire
You got me baby
I fell into the burning ring of fire
I went down
And, oh, the flame went higher
And it burns burns burns
The ring of fire
Your ring of fire
Girl, you know, the taste of love sweet
Ain't it sweet, baby
When two hearts like (unintelligible)
I done fell...
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ray Charles
High: Singer and pianist Ray Charles has
a new four-CD box set out that captures his contribution to country music, "Ray Charles: The Complete Country and Western Recordings 1959-1986. Charles may be best known for his blues, R&B and soul music. He has won 12 Grammy Awards.
Spec: Music Industry; Ray Charles; Entertainment; Art
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Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. Al
l rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ray Charles
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.