For a period of time in the 1990’s I was Ray Charles.
I never sang “Georgia” or “Hit the Road, Jack,” and Pepsi never paid me to sell their product. But over a several year span, I — a white guy who grew up in New Jersey — got to speak not for Ray Charles, but as the man known as the “Genius” and the “High Priest of Soul.”
It began innocently enough. After thousands of interviews, Ray had come to hate the process, and told me he was particularly dreading a session with a journalist who stuttered. “Come on by and sit with me,” Ray said. “If you’re there, maybe we can figure out what he’s asking and get the goddamn thing over with.” Only when I arrived for the interview did Ray inform me that instead of merely keeping him company, I — not he — would be doing the talking. Ray was a prankster, so I assumed he was joking. The reporter blanched when he learned who would be answering his questions, but I figured that once we were under way, Ray would laugh, then take over.
The first question came, and I started to answer: “Well, Mr. Charles would say…”, but Ray interrupted and told me to use the first person — to be him, not just speak for him. And so, using his diction, or my best approximation thereof, I answered questions about his music, his past, his interests, his current projects, his upcoming tour, and even his relationships. When pressed for specifics, I explained about Ray’s — or my — departure from Atlantic Records to ABC Paramount. And how “What I Say” was improvised one night when the band and I were begged to take yet another encore despite having run out of material. I spoke about how my album of duets with Betty Carter came to be.
When the interview was finished, Ray was aglow. “My man!” he bellowed. “I loved every goddamn moment!”
“So,” I said, “can I ask why?”
“Because at this point you know more than me. And besides, it was fun!”
I was naïve enough to think it was a one-shot prank unlikely to be repeated. Instead it proved to be a running joke – a secret we shared, and an opportunity to hang out.
Ray spent the interviews reading, sleeping or working on his specially-designed computer, while I filled in as Mr. Charles.
I first met Ray when I was asked to write an in-depth article about him that would go into areas not covered in his memoir. Though flattered, I had two demands before I agreed. First, was the freedom to tell the whole truth, not a sugar-coated version. More important was access. Without spending real time with the person, plus those in his or her world — which often required a measure of door opening — there was a limit as to how in-depth or insightful the result could be.
I was told by Ray’s manager, Joe Adams, that I would have “a measure of access.” Asked how that sounded, I replied that it would yield no more than “a measure of success.” That led to a hearty laugh. “Let’s leave it to Mr. C,” said Joe.
I’d seen Ray countless times onstage and onscreen before we met, but he seemed smaller in person—smaller, yet somehow stronger. This was in 1996, not long after he had enhanced his living legend status with an improbable hit version of “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning.”
Skipping the preliminaries, Ray went into challenge mode. “So you know music history?” he asked.
“More or less.”
“Back in the day, what were the two acts you never wanted to follow?”
“First was probably Guitar Slim.”
“And the other?”
“A dancing bear.”
There was a moment’s silence, then Ray cackled. “Gimme some skin!” he yelled, holding out a hand so that I could slap him five.
While Joe Adams watched, Ray grew pensive again, formulating another question. “In your opinion, who’s the most influential singer the world’s never heard of?”
“The man knows his shit!” Ray announced, hearing the name of the lead singer of the Blind Boys of Mississippi, who introduced the hollers and shrieks later used by Ray, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, and so many others.
“What’s that song Ike did with Tina that I like so much?” Ray asked Joe.
“I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”
“You got your access,” Ray announced.
What I quickly learned was that, although one of the best-known and most visible people on earth, Ray was intensely private. I was surprised, therefore, that access evolved into more and more time gabbing about our mutual love of music, France, and women.
Knowing that despite his background in Blues and R&B, he considered himself a bebopper. I asked him one afternoon if he’d ever heard what his friend Dizzy Gillespie had said about him.
“Tell me,” Ray implored.
“Some cats can play slow,” I said, trying to get the quote verbatim. “Others can play slower. But only one motherfucker has the guts to play slowest, and that’s Ray Charles.”
Ray howled with delight, then called in Yulanda, who answered the office phones. “Know how I ask you to screen calls?” he told her. “With him, no more screening. He gets through.”
One thing that struck me instantly about Ray was his tremendous pride. Anything, even inadvertent, that made him feel slighted or patronized was painful to a man whose mantra was “I may be blind, but I ain’t stupid.” That included having someone approach saying, “Ray, it’s Chris” or “Hi, Ray, it’s Emma.”
Despite his blindness, Ray had made a vow as a young man: No cane, no cup, no guide dog. He was determined that what for others was a disability would for him be a mere inconvenience. “I can do anything other people do,” he told me proudly. “I just have to do it differently.” That led not merely to playing chess and mastering the controls in his recording studio, but also to riding a bike, driving a car, and even piloting his private plane.
His only limits were self-imposed. He would not sign his name to a document not written in Braille. Nor would he deal a second time with anyone who burned him or got on his nerves. On those rare occasions when someone who was persona non grata reached him by phone, Ray would scream, “You must be looking for the white Ray Charles!”
When Ray mused one afternoon about some Southern dishes that he missed, I mentioned that my wife would happily make them for him.
“When?” Ray asked instantly.
We agreed on a date a week away. But that morning, Ray called to report that a sick aunt had taken a turn for the worse, which meant postponing the dinner until he got back from a visit in Florida.
As promised, he called upon his return, and we chose another day.
When that morning came, once again Ray apologized, and another date was chosen.
When that neared, it was Joe Adams who called, warning that Ray was definitely going to cancel for a third time. The reason, he explained, was that there was only one thing that made Ray self-conscious: eating in front of strangers.
Countering that I was no longer a stranger, I proposed a bet: a lunch that Ray would show.
“No, my friend,” Joe roared. “A Champagne dinner!”
When indeed Ray called, before he could say more than “Hey, man,” I interrupted.
“Hope you’re not trying to help Joe Adams win a bet,” I said.
“Whatcha talking about?”
“He swears you’ll never show up at my place.”
“7:30 is what we agreed on?”
“I’ll be there on one condition. Make sure he pays up!”
Ray finally came over for dinner on the day after his birthday, which happened to be the day before my older son’s. It was the start of what became a cherished tradition: a joint celebration in late September complete with chicken, cornbread, and birthday cake.
And every time, we would have the same argument.
“Where’s Vernon?” I would ask when Ray came in alone, inquiring about Ray’s all-purpose valet, chauffeur, and accomplice.
“Waiting in the car.”
Year after year, Vernon would be invited in to join us at the table.
What had begun as access evolved into much, much more. Though he lived a surprisingly insular life when not performing, Ray’s curiosity was boundless. He wanted to hear about the people from his past who I contacted while doing my research: musicians like Lowell Fulson and Floyd Dixon; ex-band members Hank Crawford, Leroy Cooper, Marcus Belgrave, and Clifford Solomon; ex-Raelettes Mable John, Clydie King, and Alexandra Brown; songwriters Percy Mayfield and Jimmy Lewis; friends and girlfriends from way-back-when.
When it came time for door opening, Ray insisted I was doing fine on my own. I countered by saying there were three people with whom I needed help.
“Let’s hear,” Ray said dubiously.
“With those motherfuckers around him? Makes sense. And?”
To Ray’s dismay, I mentioned someone he considered his oldest and closest friend: Quincy Jones.
“That’s easy!” Ray exclaimed. “If Q only had ten cents to his name, he’d give me a nickel.”
Despite references to the drug problems and womanizing in Ray’s past, both Ray and Joe were pleased with the draft I showed them, even when the publication put the story on hold, saying that there had been too much press lately about the black stars of the soul era, like Ike Turner, Little Richard and Aretha Franklin.
Given that, plus the reality that journalistic relationships are as fleeting as shipboard romances, I assumed my membership in Ray’s world had reached an end. That was quickly dispelled by a call from Joe Adams.
“Ray’s official bio is way out of date,” he informed me. “And mine, too. Mind writing new ones for us? And come on by tomorrow so Mr. C can say hello.”
“Hope you’re not going to be a stranger,” Ray said when I arrived. “We’re not just friendly, you know. We’re friends.”
Once the bios were finished, I was asked to write introductions and liner notes to Ray’s albums, to help produce a compilation of his love songs, and to act as peacemaker between Rhino Records and Joe Adams who had been offended by one of the record company execs.
Suddenly I was the go-to guy for everyone wanting something from Ray. That meant people hoping to book him or have him appear for a benefit, songwriters trying to bring him tunes, even a British rocker wanting to apologize for footage of him drunkenly disparaging Ray.
To all, I said no.
Then the time I was pressed into service as Ray arrived. After the first interview, I grew more comfortable, adding anecdotes that he had forgotten. I described the 1963 benefit concert for Martin Luther King, staged just before the march on Birmingham, when he performed alongside Nina Simone, Johnny Mathis and James Baldwin. The concert was staged under threats of violence from the KKK, but no amount of tension could stop Ray’s perfectionism. When one of his Raelettes hit a false note, Ray stopped the show to correct her.
I talked about when Ray jumped to ABC-Paramount, seeking complete control over his work, and stunned his new label by announcing that his first album would be country. (It was a hit.) I even talked about Ray opening the wrong door in a New York hotel room, then winding up naked in the hallway.
Then suddenly, in 2003, the interviews stopped, as did Ray’s concert appearances. Though there were denials of health problems, his skin became yellowish, and his body seemed to shrink.
A statement was issued: Ray was ill, but a recovery was expected.
Sadly, that never happened.
After seven wonderful years as part of a privileged group, I assumed I would never have another chance to be Ray. Thanks to his ever-enterprising valet, however, I was wrong. Having spent four decades taking behind-the-scenes photos, Vernon had approached a publisher with what sounded like a dream project: a coffee-table book in which candid photos of the man known as the Genius would be accompanied by quotes from Ray about the pictures.
The problem was that there were no quotes. But that, as the valet saw it, could be solved with no one being the wiser. All that was needed was for me to do what I’d done many times before: be Ray.
As Vernon described it, it was sure-fire, a score, a chance to win the jackpot.
He pleaded, but I said no.
I would cherish many memories of Ray Charles, but I would never be him again.