The crossover legend endures

At 72, Ray Charles keeps on rocking, and keeps finding new fans

For much of his seven-decade-long career, Albany, Ga., native Ray Charles Robinson — Ray Charles to you — has been popular music's quintessential "crossover" artist. The multi-instrumentalist's blend of gritty rhythm and blues, gospel, soul, jazz, rock, and even country has reached generations of fans worldwide. Since his string of classic hits in the '50s and '60s — including "I Got a Woman," "Hit the Road Jack," and "What'd I Say" — Charles has maintained his boundless appeal. Though he hasn't scored a big hit since the '70s, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee keeps a high profile, thanks to constant touring, philanthropic activities, film appearances, and popular TV and print ads for Pepsi and the Georgia Lottery.

Long before his version of "Georgia" became an unofficial state anthem — and the theme to TV's "Designing Women" — Charles was thrilling raucous club audiences with his soul review. Such is the unique duality of Ray Charles: the good-natured elder statesman of soul and the swinging '60s shouter; the suave, white-haired gentleman crooning easy-listening standards at the piano and the earthy entertainer of vintage photos, feverishly pounding the keyboard on his rounds through the chitlin' circuit of the '40s and '50s. He's the elite and the everyman, and he's revered by an astonishingly diverse group of followers.

Presented this past summer with a Heroes Award by the Atlanta Chapter of the Recording Academy, Charles remains a prolific artist with a vibrant career. This year Charles has reactivated his long-dormant record label, and released two new albums and a live DVD.

To further solidify his immortality as a pop icon, Charles' grinning likeness now graces a line of slot machines and — just in time for the holiday season — a musical animatronic doll. Sell out? You bet. But Charles has faced more than enough personal and professional turmoil to have earned the right to profit any way he can from his name. And still, Charles continues to reinvent himself for modern audiences.

After a day of recording in his studio, Charles was in a relaxed and talkative mood — punctuating his comments with his famous raspy laugh. He spoke with CL from his Los Angeles office.

Creative Loafing: What do you remember about the Atlanta music scene when you were playing clubs here?

Ray Charles: I love Atlanta. I used to play at a place there called the Peacock.

The Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue?

Yeah! Oh you know about it? Yeah, the Royal Peacock. That's my old stompin' grounds, man.

What was a typical night like there?

Oh man! Hmmm, well ... it was crazy. But most importantly, there was always all kinds of music goin' on. All kinds.

When you visit now, do you ever have time to just hang out in Atlanta?

Most of my time now is controlled. I'm usually there for a reason. It's not like it was when I was loose and fancy-free, if you know what I mean.

Although you were born in Albany, you spent a lot of time in Florida as you were growing up. Tell us how you became interested in music.

I've always loved music. It's my bloodstream, really. The man that started it all for me was an elderly gentleman. He wasn't famous or anything, but he could play boogie-woogie on the piano. When I was 3, instead of going and playing outside, I had to stop and listen to him. He could have said, "Don't bother me, kid — leave me alone while I'm playin'." But he didn't. He'd let me bang on the piano along with him. He said, "You love music so much, I'm gonna show you how to play a melody on the piano with one finger." And that's how I got started.

Nat King Cole was a later influence on you, too.

Oh, Nat Cole was the man. I wanted to do what he was doing in the '40s, to sing and also play those tasty little things on the piano behind his singing.

You sound like your character in Blues for Lovers [a 1965 film in which Charles starred as himself]. Are you planning any more acting roles?

I was myself in that movie. I don't act. I just be myself in movies. If somebody comes along and says, "We don't want you to act, just be yourself," then I'll do it. I can't act. Let's face it, I'm a singer.

What's your latest project?

I was just in the control room putting some parts on a song for an inspirational album. A lotta times, instead of having some singers come in and sing the parts, I'll just sing 'em myself.

What song are you working on?

It's an old song that I found. An old country song. I fell in love with the thing. It's so good. I know people are gettin' sick of songs like this, but it's called, "God Bless America, Again."

The song Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty recorded in the '70s?

You know it. It's good, man. When I first heard it, I said I've got to do something with this. I'm tryin' to put my little touches to it.

Tell me about this new Ray Charles doll. It sounds pretty cool.

You gotta see that thing, man. I'm 72 years old and I must tell you, very little impresses me these days. But that thing, it's just like me and it does music and it moves at the keyboard! When it's done singin', it raises its hand up. It even has its own website. [[[http://www.raycharlesdoll.com/|www.raycharlesdoll.com]]

To a whole generation of kids, you're the guy on the Lottery commercial. Do you think the kids in those ads have any idea of your history?

I love doing those commercials with the kids. It's fun, 'cause they're real smart. But yeah, that's a good question. I don't know. It's hard to say if they actually know me. Some of the kids might remember the Pepsi commercials. But if they talk to their momma, I know their momma knows the music. So they'll know. They'll know about me.

That seems to be a big part of your appeal: the ability to crossover to a variety of generations. And now you've got a record label called Crossover Records. This is the same label you had in the mid-'70s, right?

Yes, but I just let it become dormant. To run a record company, you have to have hands on. I couldn't be on the road and run a record company, so I let it go for a while.

What led you to get it going again?

After I went through a series of record companies the last couple of decades, I became disgruntled. Although these were big companies like CBS and Warner Brothers, what I didn't like was that we'd go in and make all this music, but they wouldn't promote it.

Right. All of your stuff on Columbia and Warner's seemed to come out and then instantly disappear. I've seen some of your albums listed as being official releases, but I've never seen the actual record.

Exactly. I'd get paid to do 'em, you know. They didn't owe me anything for those. But it's not about money, it's about promotion. You can't make people buy something, but you can at least let them know it's out there and leave it up to them. If they don't want it, so be it. But you can't expect people to want something they don't know about.

So are you going to use Crossover as a way to re-release some of those under-promoted albums?

No, I have a deal with Rhino for that. They took all my old stuff — right now the Atlantic and ABC stuff — and got the rights from me to reissue it all. They're handling all the old stuff.

That's important — they got the rights directly from you. You're one of the very few musicians who gained control of your masters. In the '50s and '60s, that was especially rare.

As you well know, record companies just don't give up their masters. Very few people, period, ever get that luxury.

How did you manage to wrestle your material away from the big guys? You own all the Atlantic and ABC/Paramount stuff, the classic material.

Well, my mom taught me something when I was a kid. She said, "Son, people can only give you two answers: yes and no. And you learn to respect both of them." Don't get bent out of shape if you want something and the person says no. You gotta respect that. When I went into ABC, they came up with a contract that was very lucrative. The money was good. They were gonna pay me 75 cents out of every dollar, which was unheard of in those days. But I had this brainstorm and I thought about my mom.

This was about 1960, right? ABC had Paul Anka and easy-listening pop people like that.

Oh yeah. See, they wanted an R&B artist. And "What'd I Say" was still hot at the time, you know. My contract with Atlantic was up, and ABC/Paramount made me that great offer. So I said to them, "This contract is pretty good, but there's only one thing wrong with it. I want to own my own masters." Sam Clark at ABC said, "Oh no, Mr. Charles, that's unheard of. I'm gonna have to go and talk to Mr. Goldstein about that." Now, Goldstein was the head of ABC/Paramount at the time. I said OK. Two days later, he called me back and said, "Man, you are the luckiest man in the world." I said, "Why?" He said, "Mr. Goldstein told me that whatever you want, to give it to you." So you see — ask. 'Cause you may get it and you may not. But be prepared, either way.