Behind the Curtain: Interviewing Ray Charles in 1983

Behind the Curtain: Interviewing Ray Charles in 1983

(Photo by: Glen LaFerman www.glenlaferman.com)

Interviewing Ray Charles back in 1983 was like interviewing a man who had conquered the world and done it all.

Ray was like an explorer seeking out new lands or a great warrior defeating his enemies in battles that were stacked against him. He was afraid of nothing, and though he experienced more than his share of defeats and losses, he never turned his ship around to head back to home shores or retreated in the face of an overwhelming enemy.

Charles had seen and done it all by the time I met on him that day over 30 years ago and I was nervous about talking to him. If you want to know the real truth, I was shaking in my shoes. I was straight-up scared.

Maybe “scared” was not the right word. Intimidated was closer to what I felt. I was afraid I wouldn’t measure up to what were sure to be impossibly high standards he’d set not only for himself but for the people around him. I didn’t want to say something stupid or worse, utter some comment that might somehow offend him. Because I’d heard about Mr. Charles—that’s what all his employees called him that day—and I knew he wouldn’t suffer fools lightly.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Photo by: Glen LaFerman www.glenlaferman.com

I knew about his temper and flying off the handle. He’d agreed to the interview but that didn’t mean he had to make it a walk in the park.

Ray Charles was only 53 years old on the day of that interview back in 1983 but he’d been a living legend for decades. He was one of the most profoundly influential artists of all time.

Back in the 1950s, he pioneered a sound that merged rhythm and blues, gospel and straight blues into a sound uniquely his own. Then in the 1960s, he successfully brought both white and black audiences to a style that blended country and pop. Billy Joel said he did more for music than Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra claimed, “Ray was the only true genius in show business.”

What makes those statements and Ray’s accomplishments all the more impressive is the fact that Ray Charles—born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930—beat ridiculous odds to become the legend he became. Not only was he a black man growing up in the racist and segregated south but he started going blind at age five and experienced total blindness by age seven.

On top of that, Charles grew up dirt poor. His mother, Aretha, was a sharecropper and worked on a piece of land controlled by a white landowner. His father, Bailey, was a railroad repairman but there was little work in Albany, George where Charles was born so the family moved to a poverty-riddled black community on the western side of Greenville, Florida.

Even the singer wasn’t immune to his impoverished surroundings and handicapped life and by the time he was 16, Charles was a full-blown addict.

Still, he came through it all—he beat the poverty, the racism, the addiction and even the blindness (he remained sightless during his life but it never stopped him from achieving). And that was the man I was going to see. But before I jumped into my car to drive to his office compound/recording studios in Los Angeles, I made sure I had done my homework.

My record collection by 1983 was pretty freaking big. I had been writing for about 10 years and back in those days, record companies sent you the new releases. You’d try to get on a label’s mailing list and once you were on it, you remained on it virtually until the end of time. Now it is rare to even receive a CD via snail mail because all music is either sent as a download or a stream mail but back in the ‘80s when vinyl was still king, record labels routinely sent out new releases.

So my collection at that time probably numbered in the 4,000-5,000-album figure. I had a lot of records. They were on shelves taking up every wall of my guesthouse in Laurel Canyon. In that collection were several Ray Charles albums that had been sent to me by Atlantic Records (I was on their list) including True To Life, Love & Peace, Ain’t It So, and maybe a couple of others.

These were all albums sent to me in the late 1970s and early 1980s but Ray’s truly important music came decades earlier when he was originally signed to Atlantic Records (he re-signed with them in 1977 and put out various titles including those mentioned above). I always had this compulsion—some of my friends called it insane—that I had to own every album an artist ever recorded. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know. So I had a relatively decent collection of Ray Charles albums that I’d found in various used record stores. I didn’t have all of them but on my shelves were What’d I Say, The Genius of Ray Charles and several other Atlantic Records releases he recorded in the late ‘50s.

So I listened to the albums and read what I could about him—this was pre-computer of course—and wrote the interview. To be honest, I loved Ray Charles but it wasn’t what I loved best. My main passion at the time was guitar-based music, English rock bands from the late ‘60s and all the great American groups in the ‘70s.

While I did listen to Ray’s records and read everything I could find about him, I still didn’t know nearly as much about his music—or have anywhere as deep an understanding—as I did about the Jeff Beck Group or Procol Harum. Sit me across the table from any guitarist back in the day and I was in the zone. But sitting opposite Ray Charles? Not so much.

The interview was held at the singer’s office compound in downtown Los Angeles. Situated at 2107 W. Washington Boulevard, the facility was originally called the Edifice Complex (a play on the term, Oedipus Complex) and was built in 1962. It would later be cited as an historical landmark. Washington Boulevard was a long east/west street that ran all the way to the ocean heading west and all the way into downtown L.A. heading east. I was heading east and it was about a 25-minute drive to the complex.

Ray’s recording studio was here as were his production offices. It was a fairly low-key brick building and appropriately so because the neighborhood in which it stood was less than stellar. This area of Los Angeles was kind of rundown and dirty. There were broken bottles in the gutters and buildings had been tagged and scarred by graffiti. There were hookers on street corners, derelicts mumbling to themselves and criminal-types lurking in the alleyways.

I announced myself at a little intercom and metal gates opened to allow me in. I was let into the facility and greeted by a very nice woman who told me Ray was waiting for me. I asked her if there was anything I needed to know about talking to Ray and she said just treat him like anybody else. I laughed nervously. She did mention that he preferred being called Mr. Charles.

She ushered me into a conference room and Ray was seated at a table. There were marks on the table from his rings dragging across the surface when he guided himself in the direction of visiting guests. Wearing a beautifully-tailored blue long-sleeved dress shirt, dark blue slacks, black shoes and wraparound sunglasses, he must have heard us come in because he rose and extended his hand. I shook it and told him my name and he grinned that famous Ray Charles smile with his pearly whites gleaming beneath the lighting above.

I took out my cassette player to insert the tape and plug in the microphone when I knocked the whole thing off the table. It crashed to the floor and my first thought was, “Oh, my god, I just trashed my tape player.” Followed quickly by, “Oh, my god, Ray is going to think I’m an unprofessional, witless moron.” I explained what I’d done and apologized by saying, “I’m really nervous. I don’t want to say anything stupid to you.”

Sensing my nervousness, he gently opened our conversation by admitting, “This is all my pleasure. You don’t have to concern yourself with saying anything stupid. I’ve lived long enough so you gotta go a long ways to be able to say something stupid to me.”

It was a very comforting comment to make and it did put me at ease—for a second. Ray answered all my questions but there was always an edge in his voice, a cautionary note saying, “You be careful now.” We talked about the new album he was then working on—which would become Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?—and how he had returned to his country roots. A few questions in, I asked him if he listened to the music around him. It was something I asked just about everybody I interviewed and was—or at least I thought so—a pretty harmless question. Ray didn’t think so.

He said, “Well, now, I mean c’mon, I’ve got to be interested. That’s like my asking you ‘Are you interested in the writing?’ I’m interested in what’s going on in my profession and obviously I have to because this is what I do. But what I was saying was not that I’m not interested, I’m just saying what I’ve been able to hear record-wise, I just don’t find as much individuality as I would like to see happening. But of course you’ve got to listen and see what’s out there so you can stay current. One does not want to be left behind.”

From that point forward, I was the one who felt left behind. Having been on the receiving end of that infamous Charles anger—though it was just a fleeting glimpse—had left me pretty well drained. In fact that was what Ray had been doing to a coffee cup sitting on the table in front of him—draining it. This was undoubtedly his morning bracer, a shot of whisky in his coffee to keep him even. But as the interview unfolded and Ray’s coffee cup grew emptier, his patience grew thinner.

It’s not that he became visibly angry or insulted me in any direct fashion, but there was always an underlying current of tension right there beneath the surface. Our conversation probably lasted about 35 minutes—and may have continued for a bit longer—when I asked him a question he really didn’t like. I asked him if he had been doing drugs—I described it as “indulging in things”—when he recorded Let’s Go Get Stoned.

“Why? The words don’t dictate that at all,” he said, his voice rising several notes. “The words talk about a guy getting a bottle of liquor, a bottle of gin as a matter of fact. That’s exactly what it talks about. ‘I’m gonna call my buddy on the telephone/And say let’s go get stoned’ and that’s what we were talkin’ about. You know? It’s amazing how it can be equated that way. Straight out. As a matter of fact I didn’t write the song—the song song was brought to me. And it’s about a guy that’s going out drinking gin.  I don’t know if that answers your question but I have to go now.”

And that was it. He got up from the table and shook my hand. I asked him if I could have a picture with him and he obliged and in that photo my hand is on his shoulder and Ray has a big grin on his face. However, when I asked him if he’d sign an album for me, his mood darkened and with no pun intended said, “I don’t sign nothin’ I can’t see.”

As I drove home feeling variously like a beaten pup, a whipped cur, a man who had undergone multiple lashings and ultimately someone who had simply messed up the job, I turned on the radio in hopes of finding solace there. As I punched in one of the pre-sets, I heard Ray’s Hit the Road Jack fill the speakers. No, that wasn’t true. I wish I could say it was. I wish I could say at that moment that one of his songs did come on the radio and in some sort of pre-ordained or cosmic serendipity, hearing his music at that precise second lifted the burden from my shoulders and made me feel better.

But there was no Ray Charles song and in fact I felt like garbage the entire ride back to my guest house in the Hollywood Hills. I have always beat myself up whenever I’ve uttered something stupid during an interview. Even if I was cruising along and had established a mutual rapport and gained the interviewee’s trust, all it took was a single imbecilic utterance on my part to unravel the entire conversation. From that moment on, all I could focus on was “Oh, man. This guy must think I’m an idiot. I am such an idiot.”

Whether Ray Charles thought I was a moron for my comments or whether he had forgotten the conversation five minutes after I left was something I’ll never know. Charles passed away roughly 21 years later on June 11, 2004. I only hope the last words out of his mouth weren’t, “I can’t believe how dumb that boy was. He was a fool.” This probably wasn’t his last thought or his final words but you never know. I can remember that moment over 33 years ago like it was yesterday. I only hope Brother Ray’s memory wasn’t as good as mine.

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