Songs And Sales By The Genius Of Soul

Posted: March 29, 1998

It's late on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the QVC studios in West Chester, and the frosty-haired Genius of Soul is at the piano, getting his 15 minutes.

Ray Charles has, of course, far surpassed his Warholian allotment of fame. He's received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, he's been a Kennedy Center honoree, and he's an original member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the '50s, he fused gospel emotionalism with jump-blues rhythms, a brazen act that allows him to claim one of the most significant artistic accomplishments of the 20th century: the invention of soul music. And throughout a brilliant recording career that stretches 50 years - and is the subject of the definitive five-disc set Genius & Soul, released by Rhino last fall - he's performed in a dizzying array of pop styles.

As Brother Ray - born Ray Charles Robinson in 1930, and raised in poverty in Greenville, Fla. - puts it with typical zest: ``I've come a long way since I was a kid who would walk around with short pants on with holes in them. I've sung for four presidents. So that ain't bad!''

But on this day in Chester County, all Charles is getting is 15 minutes. Literally.

He's flown in from Los Angeles with a single purpose: to perform a few songs solo at the piano, then field questions from callers and a TV host. The goal is to pitch his text-and-CD package My Early Years, 1930-1960 in the 64 million living rooms QVC reaches.

My Early Years is a curious product. There's an oversized 14-page booklet with notes by Charles about his early life - watching his brother drown in the tub at age 5, losing his sight at 7, taking the bus alone to Seattle at 17 because he felt his career was stifled. And there's the 14-song CD, which mixes staples such as ``Georgia'' and ``Hit the Road Jack'' with oddities such as ``I Can See Clearly Now'' and rarities like ``Blues in the Night.'' Strangely, however, every song was recorded after 1960.

The QVC folks are thrilled to add Charles to the list of musicians who have performed live in their studio. ``When we get someone of that caliber,'' says Karen Fonner, director of merchandising, ``other artists know it's a great medium for them.''

And Charles knows an opportunity when he sees one. Never mind that he's immediately followed by a man in a bunny suit selling porcelain Easter figurines: QVC has clout. New-age pianist Giovanni sold 100,000 albums during a recent two-hour appearance.

On stage, the 68-year-old Charles teases genuine feeling out of ``Georgia'' and ``I Can't Stop Loving You,'' making the songs sound fresh, though he's sung them a zillion times. He talks about his early heroes (``I ate, drank and slept Nat `King' Cole''), his code of self-reliance (``my mother didn't teach me to be dependent''), and why, early on, he chose to pursue jazz rather than classical music (``it gives you the right to play what you're thinking'').

Afterward, Charles is escorted backstage. He accepts greetings and congratulations, and sits on a green-room couch to talk about his remarkable career.

So astonishing is its range, productivity and vitality - the classic rhythm-and-blues sides for Atlantic Records in the '50s, jazz sessions with ace players such as Dave ``Fathead'' Newman and Milt Jackson, the early '60s Modern Sounds in Country and Western albums - that the recent box is only the beginning of Rhino's plans for Charles. In the next two years, the label also plans to release a three-disc country set and a 20-disc deluxe package of everything he ever recorded.

``People take Ray for granted,'' says James Austin, the Rhino producer in charge of Charles' reissues. ``He's still soulful as hell, and he's still got chops. . . . We want to say to the public: `This man is a national treasure, and he's still here on this Earth. Look what he knows.' ''

Charles began learning what he knows from a Greenville piano player named Wiley Pitman. At age 3, he'd pound on the keys, picking out melodies with one finger. From the start, ``it was music that got my attention, my friend,'' he says, looking robust in gray slacks, shirt and jacket as he fidgets on the sofa.

Charles heard blues players such as Arthur ``Big Boy'' Crudup, Tampa Red and Pete Johnson in the neighborhood. He heard country music on the radio, and gospel in Baptist churches and revival meetings. Later, when he combined blues and gospel on ``The Things I Used to Do,'' a 1953 song he arranged for Guitar Slim, and his own 1954 hit, ``I've Got a Woman,'' there was an uproar among right-minded folks who found the hybrid sacrilegious.

``A lot of preachers thought I was trying to do something wrong,'' he recalls, flashing his sly grin. ``But all I was doing was being myself. I was raised with blues and the church. It was my influence, and naturally, it was going to come out in what I do.''

When he was 5, his brother George died before his eyes. Shortly thereafter, he inexplicably began to lose his sight. Now glaucoma is suspected of having been the cause.

Going blind didn't dramatically change his life, says Charles. ``It was a slow process, but my mom was very smart in helping me deal with losing my sight. Kids can learn to adjust with the proper guidance.''

At age 7, after his sight was entirely gone, his mother sent him to the St. Augustine (Fla.) School for the Blind, where the black and white students were segregated, though they couldn't even see one another. ``Imagine that!'' Charles says. ``Ain't that a bitch?''

He studied Braille, received formal piano training, and studied jazz and classical composition. He was adjusting well - ``My mother always instilled in me,'' he says, speaking slowly, with emphasis, `Learn how to do things for yourself' - but nothing could shield him from the devastation of his mother's death. He was 15 at the time.

``I was very distraught for a long time. When my mom passed, I had to do something, so that's when I started out on my own.''

He got gigs wherever he could. ``I even played in a hillbilly band called the Florida Playboys'' - but after two years, Charles had had enough.

``Did you ever feel that you've gone as far as you can go in a situation? That's how I felt. I wasn't getting anywhere, so I decided to go to Seattle, which was the farthest I could get away from where I was.''

There he fell in with upstarts such as Quincy Jones, and cut his first sides, sounding like a cross between heroes Cole and Charles Brown. By 1953, he had signed with Atlantic, where he scored explosive hits such as ``I've Got a Woman,'' ``Drown in My Own Tears,'' and ``(Night Time Is) The Right Time,'' and was marketed as ``The Genius.''

His initial collaborations with Atlantic's Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun were not successful, though, and Charles is forever thankful for their patience.

``Record companies in those days approached artists in a different manner,'' he observes. ``I don't think I would have made it today. When I put my first two [albums] out and they didn't hit, I would have been out of a record company. Today, if you don't score right away, man, you don't got no gig no more.''

In 1948, a year after he arrived in Seattle, Charles began using heroin - a practice he continued until 1965. He makes no excuses. And when he quit, he did it cold turkey.

``It's psychological,'' he says, leaning forward to share a secret. ``[The doctors] didn't understand why it was that I could sleep in the day and stay up and play cards with the nurses all night, and I wasn't climbing the walls or biting the sheets or anything like that. I was just sick, and I knew I was going to be sick. Then I was sweating. You know that foul-smelling sweat coming out of your body, that poison?

``I knew that was going to happen, but if you know that, you tell yourself that you don't care. `I ain't gonna die! The main thing is I ain't gonna die!' And sure enough, after four or five days it was gone.''

Within months, Charles was back on the road, where he's been ever since, still playing more than 100 shows a year. And though he's not exactly hot, he's never been far out of the public eye, whether he's anchoring the ``We Are the World'' sing-along in 1985 or doing Pepsi commercials with the Uh-Huh Girls in the early 1990s.

He continues to record: His last new work was in 1993. And he commands a reputation as a demanding taskmaster who doesn't tolerate slip-ups on stage. ``I give my best, and I expect everybody up there with me to do the same. If you call yourself a professional, that's what you should be. I don't expect any more out of any musician than I expect out of Ray Charles.''

And his energy can still be electrifying. In a three-quarters-empty TV studio in West Chester or a packed house on the road, he makes his standards sound just a little different each night.

``You don't worry about that. See, if you're spontaneous, you don't have that kind of problem. Why? Because I sing it the way I feel. And,'' he says slowly, as if stating the most obvious fact known to man, ``nobody feels the same way every day.

``You don't feel the same way you did yesterday,'' he says, grabbing his interviewer's arm and laughing. ``If you say you do, you're lying!

``When I sing `Georgia,' I may be a little in front of the way I did it yesterday, or I may be lagging back behind,'' he says. ``It's whatever kind of groooove I'm in. . . . That's the great thing about music. You do it according to how you're feeling. You don't plan it, you just do it! And what pops out is the way you're feeling at that moment.''

He smiles at the thought.

``I love the great composers and everything they wrote,'' he says. ``I love Beethoven, he's one of my favorites. But I'd want to take something like `Moonlight Sonata' and add something, you know. Just because I would want to have some of me in it!''

Ray Charles pauses, then laughs some more. ``You know what I mean?''

FOR MORE INFORMATION * My Early Years is available exclusively through QVC and Ray Charles' own company. The disc costs $28.50, plus shipping and handling, at QVC: Call 1-800-345-1515 or visit the QVC Web site at http://www.iqvc.com/

It's $25, postage included, through Charles' outlets: Call 1-800-943-0068 or visit the Web site:

www.raycharles.com

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