“This is Brother Ray,” he says, his voice so close like being inside a song. Even better than I hoped, after waiting almost two years to talk to Ray Charles on the telephone. I’ve played some of his records so often I can sing all the parts.
So I ask him, “Of all the things you’ve done” “which makes you the most proud?”
And then I wait.
“I’m going to go way back to my youth,” he says.
“It was when I got my first big band.” He’s thinking back to 1952 now, 1954 I’ve Got a Woman his first hit ..
He sings me a few bars . Whenever he mentions a song, he’ll sing a few bars.
“I never had great dreams about winning Grammy’s, although I did . “My dream was to one day have a big band.”
His scratchy voice picks up momentum as he remembers.
“Of course even before then I always wanted to record a record, because everybody I knew that was famous was on a record. ‘Boy,’ I thought, ‘if I could just get on a record, maybe I could be something!”
And he did make a record, before he even had his big band made it while he was living in Seattle, where he became a junkie in Seattle, where he first began to wear sunglasses and where he became a man.
“It was not a hit.” He laughs. “I was just glad to hear my voice being played back to me from a record . ‘Confession Blues,.” He croons the title. “But I was thrilled to death to have a record!” he says happy to recapture the memory, to remember his youth.
“My dream, from childhood on, though, was to one day have a big band . So when I finally got my dream, my big band, that was something I’d wanted from my childhood .. I always admired people like Count Basie and Woody Herman and Stan Kenton I wanted to have a big band like that, where I could hear that music come back at me ..
“The other things just sort of came,” he says, winding down. “The biggest thrill in my life was when I was young and I was able to do the things I had dreamed of.”
Ambition drove Ray, the ambitions of a blind teenager raised in the South before WWII . When he came to Seattle on a Trailways bus at age 17, he was bursting with them . He decided to get as far away from Tampa as he could, so he looked at a map and picked Seattle . Ray got off that bus full of teenage dreams looking for his power.
“I came from the woods . the idea of heading West was exciting as hell.”
I can see him rubbing his hands together, nodding his head and twisting his face into what might be a smile.
His first job in Seattle was at the Black Elks Club, where he could duck behind a huge elk’s head near the piano to toke off a joint. He sang “Georgia” for the Elk’s Club cook, Georgia Kemp. Everybody loved Ray life was good. His girlfriend Louise even came out from Tampa.
“In Seattle all of a sudden I had to become a man. I started keeping house, I had an apartment, a piano, a big radio, hi-fi set, telephone. Cookin’.” He laughs with glee. “There ain’t no doubt about it. I became a man.”
He made his record before he turned 21 less than four years later got his own big band. After that, things just came to him . After that, it just became an act. After he discovered what he had that people wanted, after he discovered his power it all just came easy to him.
And the people loved him for it.
“Ray! Ray! Ray!” they cried, sometimes in groups, sometimes just a single voice above the crowd . They had already waited more than an hour in drenching rain, sliding around in the pulp of the hillside, huddled under miserable umbrellas and blue tarps in gore-tex rainsuits and make-shift coverings of plastic garbage bags.
“Ray! Ray! Ray!”
And then, when the downpour became a deluge, he was led out to the piano. Seated at the keyboard, one of his black patent-leather shoes flapped, inches from the curtain of water that poured into our up-turned faces where we stood in the mud below the covered stage.
He cried and moaned from woody baritone to soaring falsetto, every syllable freighted with meaning. He writhed in an unreadable dance at the keyboard leaning over sideways almost bent double his feet splayed and his shoulders lurching. The joy in his voice rose to a crescendo the Raylettes lent sanctified harmonies to “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and his calls lifted us.
I couldn’t read his face, though. It might have worn a grimace or a grin.
In Seattle, he’d discovered what he needed to do to make the audience love him. Modify the Nat Cole routine and slide back into the blues. One day, goofing around with some friends, showing off . he started doing a gospel parody and got a glimpse into the sound that would make him famous.
He wasn’t singing the blues on the job then because “man,” he says, “you couldn’t make a nickel off that kind of music then.”
After two years in Seattle Ray left in the middle of the night on a train to Los Angeles without telling anyone.
He hooked up with shows touring the South. When he finally returned to Seattle two years later, he had become the singer we know. He had become The Genius.
Suddenly he steps out from behind his soothing mask..
“Do you play?” he asks.
“No not anymore . I feel ashamed. I’d played into my 20s, then quit.
“I wasn’t really good enough.”
“You just needed a gig, man,” he laughs — he’s been gigging since he was 15. “You just needed a gig.”
But I did have a few starting at age 17 just a little behind Ray I played tenor sax in a rock and roll band we called The Rivieras because the rhythm guitar player’s dad owned the Buick dealership and bought us blue blazers we wore on stage where we moved in choreographed steps blurting out “Louie Louie” “Walk Don’t Run.” I loved being on stage with all the kids dancing and watching me.
But I didn’t know what to do with that power then I took much longer to become a man. Maybe I was scared of it . I kept having a dream that I was up on stage but didn’t know the music.
And I was dazzled by words. They led me to believe there was supposed to be something more to it than getting gigs and entertaining that there was something more noble than singing for your supper.
Ray was never burdened by notions like that.
But today, whenever I manage to please an audience with something I’ve made, I close my eyes and I’m 17 again, up on stage, riding the buoyant sweep of a big band that carries me with gusts of brass, supports me with thick chords from five saxes gives me the power of music. Only this time I’m better, sure of myself at last, using words now instead of notes and they’re all out there, dancing in the rain and loving me for it.