I was a kid three years old, I was already trying -- whenever
I heard a note -- I was already trying to involve myself with
it. There was this wonderful man named Wylie Pitman who was one
of the first people to encourage me. As a youngster I would jump
in the chair next to him and start banging on the piano keys while
he was trying to practice. And he would say, "Oh no, son,
you don't play like that; you don't hit the keys with all your
fingers at one time. I'm going to show you how to play a little
melody with one finger." He could have easily said, "Hey
kid, don't you see I'm practicing? Get away, don't bother me."
But instead he took the time to say, "No, you don't do it
that way." When Mr. Pitman started playing, whatever I was
doing I'd stop to go in and sit on that little stool chair he
changing fast shortly after that. I guess the first major tragedy
in my life was seeing my younger brother drown when I was about
five years old. He was about a year younger, and a very smart
kid. I remember that well; he was very bright. He could add and
subtract numbers when he was three-and-a-half years old. The older
people in the neighborhood, they used to say about him, "That
boy is too smart. He's probably not going to be very long on this
earth." You know old folks, the superstitions they have.
were out in the backyard one day while my mom was in the house
ironing some clothes. We were playing by a huge metal washtub
full of water. And we were having fun the way boys do, pushing
and jostling each other around. Now, I never did know just how
it happened, but my brother somehow tilted over the rim of this
tub and fell down, slid down into the water and slipped under.
At first I thought he was still playing, but it finally dawned
on me that he wasn't moving, he wasn't reacting. I tried to pull
him out of the water, but by that time his clothes had gotten
soaked through with water and he was just too heavy for me. So
I ran in and got my mom, and she raced out back and snatched him
out of the tub. She shook him, and breathed into his mouth, and
pumped his little stomach, but it was too late.
It was quite
a trauma for me, and after that I started to lose my sight. I
remember one of the things they tried to save my sight for as
long as they could was to have my mama keep me away from too much
light. It took me about two years to completely lose all sight,
but by the time I was seven, I was completely blind. That's when
I went to St. Augustine's school for the blind.
enough, losing my sight wasn't quite as bad as you'd think, because
my mom conditioned me for the day that I would be totally blind.
When the doctors told her that I was gradually losing my sight,
and that I wasn't going to get any better, she started helping
me deal with it by showing me how to get around, how to find things.
That made it a little bit easier to deal with. My mother was awful
smart, even though she'd only gotten to fourth grade. She had
knowledge all her own; knowledge of human nature, plus plenty
of common sense.
As long as
I can remember, music has always been something extraordinary
in my life. It's always been something that completely captured
my attention -- from the time I was three, when Mr. Pitman was
showing me these little melodies. My first love was the music
I heard in the community: blues, church gospel music, and country
and western. That's why I love country and western today, because
I heard a lot of it when I was a kid. My mom would let me stay
up to listen to the Grand Old Opry on Saturday night. That's the
only time I got to stay up late. I heard the blues played by Muddy
Waters and Blind Boy Phillips and Tampa Red and Big Boy Crudup.
And of course every night if you listened to the right station,
you might pick up a little Duke Ellington or Count Basie. But
the bulk of what I heard of blues in those days was called "race
music," which became rhythm and blues, and rhythm and blues
later was called soul music.
When I got
to school I couldn't get into the piano class because it was full.
That's when I took up the clarinet. I was a great fan of Artie
Shaw, so I started playing a reed instrument. Later I was able
to get into the piano class. Music teachers in those days were
a lot different from teachers today; it was a different thing
all together. When I came up, you didn't have jazz appreciation
like you have today; you studied classical music. With blind kids,
as opposed to sighted kids, when you study music you must read
the music with your fingers. I'd read three or four bars of music
with my fingers, and then play it. You can't just sit there and
play as you're reading the music. You have to first learn the
bars of music, practice it, and then play it and memorize it.
The name of
the game was to know your lesson when it was due and I studied
like everybody else. Even in my other classes, I always felt that
it was important to know what you were supposed to do and have
your lessons down, or at least have a working relationship with
the music. I was just an ordinary student; I was not exceptional
like some students. The only problem I had with my teachers was
that when I was supposedly practicing my lesson, a lot of times
I'd be playing jazz. Of course, the teacher would catch me, and
that didn't go over too well. She'd say, "What the hell are
you doing boy; what's the matter with you; you lost your mind?
Get to your lessons." Classical music to me was a means to
an end. In other words, I wanted to learn how to arrange and I
wanted to know how to write music, and in order to do that I had
to study classical music. But I wanted to play jazz, and I wanted
to play blues -- that was my heart.
As a student,
I was always playing music that somebody else wrote, and I got
the idea in my mind that I would like to write music myself. The
first time I wrote an arrangement and heard it played back to
me, you can't imagine how excited I was. I mean, to write something
and then have musicians play it back to you, and you hear it and
you hear your ideas, your thoughts -- that was the most exciting
thing to me. I was 12 years old when I first had that feeling
and I've never forgotten that. It was at the St. Augustine's.
We had a small orchestra, you understand. Keep in mind, this was
a small school for the deaf and the blind, so you had maybe nine
or 12 people in the band, something like that.
I wasn't quite
15 when my mama died. That was the most devastating thing in my
whole experience -- bar nothing, period. It happened while I was
away at school, and they didn't want to tell me about it. They
just called me in to the principal's office and said that I needed
to go home right away. When I got there I found out from Miss
Mary Jane, a lady that helped my mom raise me and take care of
me; she gave me the news. From that moment on, I was completely
in another world. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep -- I was totally
out of it. There's no way to describe how I actually felt. I was
truly a lost child.
The big problem
was I couldn't cry; I couldn't get the sorrow out of my system,
and that made things worse. Now, there was an old lady in town
we called Ma Beck. She was the kind of lady that --well, everybody
in town used to say that if there was a heaven, she was certainly
going to be there when she passed. Anyway, this elderly woman
saw the trauma I was going through. So she took me aside one day
and said, "Son, you know that I knew your mama. And I know
how she tried to raise you. And I know she always taught you to
carry on. I also know she told you she wanted you to know how
to get around and be independent. Because she knew she wasn't
always gonna be with you. Didn't she tell you that?"
I said, "Yes
ma'am'" and started to tear up. And Ma Beck kept after me.
"Well, then, you also know that your mamma didn't want you
going around just doing nothing and feeling sorry for yourself,
'cause that's not the way she brought you up. Isn't that right?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am," and more tears came out. Now this
elderly lady, she knew everything about me, including my sorrow
over my brother's death. She made me realize that it wasn't my
fault, and told me that I couldn't go through life blaming myself.
with Ma Beck shook me out of my depression. It really started
me on my way. After that I told myself that I must do what my
mom would have expected me to do. And so the two greatest tragedies
in my life -- losing my brother and then my mom -- were, strangely
enough, extraordinarily positive for me. What I've accomplished
since then, really, grows out of my coming to terms with those
My mama had
a friend that lived in Jacksonville, Florida, and after she died
I went there to see this lady, whose name was Lena May Thompson,
and her husband. They weren't any kin to me; they were just friends
of my mama and when she passed they just took me in like I was
their own child. They were wonderful people. I stayed in Jacksonville
for a year or so working in little bands for musicians like Henry
Washington. Whenever he would get a job, and if he could use me,
I would work for four dollars a night. Later I went to Orlando,
and it was the same thing. I would get jobs with a fellow named
Joe Anderson, who had a band there. I stayed about a year before
going to Tampa to work with a couple of bands there. I played
for two fellows, Charley Brantley and Manzi Harris, and I even
worked with a hillbilly band called The Florida Playboys. I learned
how to yodel when I was with them.
years I was totally in love with Nat King Cole's music. I ate,
slept, and drank everything Nat King Cole. I wanted to be like
him because he played the piano and sang and put all those tasty
little things behind his singing. That's what I wanted to do,
so he became my idol. I practiced day and night to sound like
Nat Cole, and I got pretty proficient at it, too. One morning
I woke up and, still laying in bed, something said to me, "Where
is Ray Charles? Who knows your name? Nobody ever calls you, they
just say, 'Hey, kid, you sound like Nat Cole,' but they don't
even know your name." I knew right then I was going to have
to stop singing like Nat, but I was scared to because I could
get jobs sounding like him. I finally told myself, "Ray,
you have got to take a chance and sound like yourself -- period."
Work was very
sparse. I might work a couple of nights and then no more for two
weeks or three weeks -- whenever something came along. Hit and
miss, really, that's what it was. I was very lucky in the sense
that when I was going through those hard times, I was fortunate
to run into some people like the Thompsons. Even in Tampa, I ran
into two sisters name the Spencers. One of them, the oldest, was
a music teacher and she just took a liking to me. I don't know;
I guess she saw that I was out there struggling and blind. They
took me into their home, fed and sheltered me, and gave me a few
dollars to spend. Although I wasn't making any money, I didn't
completely starve to death. I had a lot of days when I ate sardines
and dried beans and bread to survive.
I was playing
dance halls in different little cities like De Land, Florida,
or St. Petersburg. It wasn't concerts in those days. These were
dances you worked from 9:00 at night until 1:00 in the morning;
four hours at least. You've got to realize, now, there was no
such thing as nightclubs -- like Cheerios and the Blue Note. These
were small places with one door, that means one way in and one
way out. They might have had two or three windows. In one corner
they might have been frying fish and selling beer and soda and
stuff like that. The people were out there on the dance floor
dancing, and the band was stuck back in the corner somewhere.
We were usually in the back, so if any trouble broke out, we would
make sure there was a window to climb out. These places were not
nightclubs like you think of them where people come in and sit
down, and they've got on their furs and have a drink. You came
in, you came to dance and to drink your liquor, you ate your fish
or chicken or whatever they were selling in there and that was
I was not
the star, mind you; in those days, I was always with somebody
else's band. If I was working in Charlie Brantley's band, he was
the star. As a matter of fact, in Charlie Brantley's band I wasn't
even the vocalist. Of course, they let me sing one or two songs
before the show was over, but Charlie had his own singer, Clarence
Jolly. Otherwise, I was just his piano player, and I was happy
to do that because I needed the money. If he needed me to sing,
I'd sing; if he wanted me to play the piano, that's what I did;
if he wanted me to write an arrangement, I'd write an arrangement.
Whatever it took to make a dollar. And, of course, I wrote some
music during this period as well. For example, Joe Ellison's band
played some of my music when I was with them.
I got tired of Florida. I was working with these different bands
and I had worked with The Florida Playboys, when I got the feeling
one day -- just an impulse -- and I said to myself, I'm going
to leave here because I'm not going anywhere, I'm not doing anything.
I was too scared to go to a big city like New York or Chicago,
but I wanted to go to a city that was a nice size and where I
thought I wouldn't get swallowed up. So I said to a friend, Gosady
McGee, "I want to go to a city. . .what would be the furthest
city I could get to from Florida that's still a city." And
that's how I wound up in Seattle. I saved what little money I
could -- about $500 -- and finally took a bus from Tampa, Florida,
to Seattle, Washington. The trip took me 5 days.
I wanted to
form my own group; that was my whole thing back then. See, after
my mama passed, I always worked with somebody, or rather for somebody.
I'm not saying that was a bad thing, but I kept thinking that
I just wasn't going anywhere. I was just getting a job here, getting
a job there, and I got paid. Sometimes, I wouldn't even get paid.
I wanted to have something of my own. I thought I wanted to have
my own little trio.
When I first
got to Seattle, I went down to where they were having a talent
show. I was really too young, but I begged this guy to let me
perform. He felt sorry for me and let me in. On this talent night,
I sang my little song, which was heard by representatives of a
place called the Elk's Club. See, on talent night you would have
various club owners or club representatives come and see what
the talent was. Anyway, the Elk's Club hired me for the weekend
and they asked if I could get a trio together. Hell, I didn't
know what I was talking about. I didn't even know anybody. I just
felt that I could find somebody to play well.
As it turned
out, I got my friend Gosady McGee and I found Milt Jarret, and
we started practicing and I went to work in the Elk's Club. I
worked there every weekend. The guitar player's name was McGee,
and mine was Robinson, so we called it The McSon Trio. We had
a nice little trio and that was the first thing I had that I could
honestly say was mine. Every weekend we knew we would make something,
and after I had worked there for five weekends or so, the guy
at the Rocking Chair, which was a much nicer club, decided they
wanted to hire us.
In those days,
I lived on 20th Avenue. I had a little house, nothing fancy. We
had an oil heater and I remember we went out to get kerosene to
put in the damn heater. While I was living there, I bought the
first little electric piano that came out -- that shows you how
far back it goes. I didn't have much money, but I had the things
I needed. I had a radio, but not a TV. It was a big radio with
a record player in it.
time in Seattle, I met and worked with some musicians who later
made names for themselves. There was a fellow named Bumps Blackwell
who had a band. As I recall, he hired me to play a gig one night
with him. There was a young guy named Quincy Jones in the band.
I think we may have first met in a club -- maybe the 908 or the
Black and Tan or the Elk's Club. It probably sounds like I'm making
our meeting insignificant, but musicians just meet; it ain't no
big deal. Quincy and I became very good friends because I could
write music and he wanted to learn how to write. He would come
over to my house in the morning, wake me up, and sit at the piano
while I would show him how to do little things. That's how we
became very close. I have always loved him and he's the same way
now as he was as a kid -- just as sweet and nice.
I first met
Jack Lauderdale of Swingtime Records when we were at the Rocking
Chair. There was a private club upstairs -- that's where they
would gamble at -- and downstairs was where we were working. Jack
was there one night and he came downstairs and heard us playing.
He said, "I'd like to sign you guys up to a contract. What
would you think about that?" Oh, Man, I was so excited! "Wow!
We're gonna get a record contract!" There was nothing about
any advance or money up front. All the man said to me was the
he was gonna record me, and we'd have a hit. I didn't even ask
about the terms. All I knew was that I wanted to make a record;
this was a big thing to me at that time. Jack was the first person
I signed with, and I have to give him credit. I don't know what
he heard, but he must have heard something -- because he recorded
me in Seattle and then flew us down to record in L.A.
in Los Angeles around 1950, I made a record called "Baby,
Let Me Hold Your Hand." It started making a little noise
-- in the black community, of course -- and Swingtime thought
it would be a good idea if Lowell Fulson and I went out on the
road together as a package, 'cause Lowell had "Everyday I
Had the Blues" and I had "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand."
And so that's what we did.
and I were on the road, we played the same kinds of dance halls,
that I worked in down in Florida. We were working everyday on
this tour, which was okay. Of course, in those days we put up
with "the usual things." I didn't go into the Hilton
Hotel, I didn't go into the Sheraton, I had to stay in rooming
houses. I had to make sure I stopped at the right gas station,
where they had restrooms for colored, and if I was hungry I couldn't
stop at just any restaurant to eat, so if I was long distance
between places and I saw a restaurant, I had to go around to the
back door and let them hand me out sandwiches.
Let Me Hold Your Hand," was my first big hit on the radio,
but I had heard myself before, singing my first record, "I
Love You, I Love You" and "Confession Blues." To
tell the truth, hearing my songs on the radio was no where near
as exciting as making a record. I really wasn't that excited about
hearing myself; I was more excited about making music. I did make
some records for Swingtime where I sound like myself, where I
wasn't trying to sound like Nat Cole. One of them was "Going
to the River and Drown Myself," another was "Kiss Me,
Baby." I was testing the waters then, just before I went
to Atlantic. Even when I started recording for them, I made two
or three records sounding like Nat Cole. After that, I finally
told myself, "Stop this Nat Cole imitation...sink, swim,
or die." Next I did "I Got a Woman" and it was
I made a big
change professionally when Atlantic bought my contract from Swingtime.
Originally, I didn't know anything about it. By the time I found
out, Atlantic had already bought the rights from Jack. Naturally,
buying my contract didn't mean anything if I didn't agree to go
along, but Atlantic had the contract from Jack and, of course,
it was all right with me. I didn't see anything wrong with it.
Atlantic was very good to me. They didn't interfere with my music.
they would say to me, "Okay, we want you to come in and record."
Then they would send me different demos of music, and if I didn't
like them I'd write something and record that instead. It just
turned out that most of the things I wrote were successful, and
Atlantic would just come in and pay the bill. It was unusual,
really, because record companies in those days picked the music
and the artist sang it and that's the ways it was done. I was
lucky in the sense that even when I was starting out I went to
companies that didn't interfere with what I wanted to record,
even Swingtime would just say, "Well, kid, what do you got
for us?" And that was it. For an artist, there are few things
more rewarding than the freedom to do the things you want to do
the way you want to do them.
I was with
Atlantic from 1952 to 1959. I had control of what I was recording,
so if I made any bad recordings or bad decisions I have to say
it was strictly my own fault. Most of what we were doing in those
days were singles; they were more popular than albums. I only
did two albums on Atlantic. The first album was a jazz album I
did with Quincy Jones, which had songs like "Doodlin'."
The second album, The Genius of Ray Charles, Quincy wrote with
time -- still with my smaller band -- I was thinkin' I really
wanted to introduce a girl sound to my music. Don't forget, I
was raised in a Baptist church and I wanted my music to have a
certain kind of feelin'. One night in 1957, I was in Philadelphia
and there was a band playin' -- I forget who was playin' -- but
I went to catch the band and on this show they had a second band
performing called The Cookies. Well, The Cookies sounded pretty
good to me. So the following week, we recorded together in New
York, I think we did Swany River Rock. And it sounded so good,
I asked them to work with me all the time. That's when The Cookies
-- Margie Hendrix, Ethel (Darlene) McCrae and Pat Lyles -- became
By 1959, my
career was on the fast track. Although I didn't know it when I
signed with ABC, things were about to start happening for me at
a much faster pace then I ever thought possible when I was a kid
back at the St. Augustine's school. But that's another story,
for another time.
reflects on Jazz, Rock 'n Roll, Soul and his composing...