Ray Charles Reflects On His Country Music Roots
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Ray Charles was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last month. That may sound odd to you, since he's such a pivotal figure in soul music and rhythm and blues. But his 1962 album, "Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music," became one of his best-known records and included some of his biggest hits like "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "You Don't Know Me."
I had the luck of interviewing him in 1998, after the release of a box set collecting his complete country and western recordings from 1959 to '86. This is an interview we love to return to every few years, and this seems like a perfect opportunity, especially since there's also a new box set called "True Genius" collecting 90 newly remastered recordings. "True Genius" is also available on digital platforms.
Ray Charles was nicknamed The Genius, not just for his great singing and piano playing, but for his producing, arranging and choice of songs. When we spoke, he was in his recording studio. Let's start with one of the country songs he recorded. This is "Born To Lose."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO LOSE")
RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Born to lose. I've lived my life in vain. Every dream has only brought me pain. All my life, I've always been so blue. Born to lose, and now I'm losing you. Born to lose.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Ray Charles, why did you first want to record country music?
CHARLES: Truthfully, because I love it. I've always loved it as a kid. That was the only time my mom would let me stay up past 9:00 on Saturday night to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. I was very fascinated by country music. It's strange, and I know it's quite unusual, but that was the way it was.
GROSS: What'd you like about it?
CHARLES: I - you know, I guess, being a musician, I was just impressed by the sound. I mean, you know, country music obviously has its own sound. And it was fascinating what these guys could do with these banjos and these fiddles and and the steel guitars. I don't know. It truly fascinated me. And, of course, the lyrics that they were saying were very everyday type conversation, if you know what I mean. You didn't have to be an Einstein to figure out what they were talking about or what they were saying about. So it was very calm and very much like the blues in a sense.
GROSS: What was the reaction of your record company when you said - around 1962 - I want to do a country record? Did they think, hey, Ray, great idea?
CHARLES: No, not exactly. No. But although I understand their concern because, I mean, you know, at the time, I was a pretty good selling artist over at ABC at the time. And - but that concern was - is that I was a, quote, "rhythm and blues artist," unquote. And they thought if I start doing country music that I would lose a lot of fans. And, of course, if I lose fans, that means they would lose a lot of business, too. So they did have - I thought their concern was legit.
You know, I mean, I understood what Sam Clark, who's the president, Sam was saying to me, said, you know, you're a kid. I'm a little worried about that. You know, I know it's what you want to do, but we're very worried that you may lose some fans. And my attitude was, well, Sam, you know, you probably could be right, but I think that I'll gain more fans that I'll lose if I do it right. So he said, OK, it's your career. If you want to try it, go ahead and do it.
GROSS: Now, what about the reaction of your friends and fellow musicians? Did your African American friends and fellow musicians think, why would you, as a Black man, want to record a country record? Because I think a lot of people see this big dichotomy between Black music and country music and think that it's really inexplicable if an African American likes country music.
CHARLES: Yeah. I know. It's very unusual. But I must say I was - I had nobody to give me any static about what I did. I had more static when I started sounding like my true self, as opposed to trying to imitate Nat King Cole. I had more static from that because people were saying I was sacrilegious and I was bastardized in religion and all this stuff, but that was just the way that I sang. But when I went into the country field, you know, nobody said anything. And I guess they really didn't say too much because the thing was so big. I mean, it's pretty hard to argue with something when it's that big a hit.
GROSS: Well, I want to play "Your Cheatin' Heart," which is a real standard of country music. And I think this is just a really wonderful example of you doing a song your way.
CHARLES: (Laughter) Thank you.
GROSS: I mean, you might even be using different chords on here than the chords that were written.
CHARLES: Yeah. That's right. That's right. Well, that's what makes it become me.
GROSS: And the singing, too, of course.
CHARLES: Why, thank you, ma'am.
GROSS: But you - would you say a little bit about what you did with this song to make it your own?
CHARLES: Well, it's like any song that I'm going to do. I first sing it to myself and see if I can genuinely feel it, you know. Any song - I'm that way about all music, all songs I do. I sit there, and maybe sometimes I may sit at the keyboard and fool around with the chords and see if I can find a way to sing it where it makes me feel good inside. And sometimes, you know, I can run into songs that are good songs, but I can't make it do anything for me. But the song is a great song, you know. To give you for an example, like, I've always loved "Stardust" - beautiful song, but I never could quite get it to sound like I wanted to do for me. So, you know, it's really a true feeling - what you feel inside, you know, where you can put yourself into it. Can you really feel what you're doing? And that's important to me to feel what I'm doing.
GROSS: OK, now "Stardust," you had a huge hit with Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia."
CHARLES: That's right.
GROSS: How come "Stardust" doesn't work for you?
CHARLES: Well, I just could never get into it. I mean, "Georgia" was something - I used to hum "Georgia." As a matter of fact, my chauffeur said to me one day, said, you know, Mr. Charles, you always humming that song, "Georgia," you always humming it all the time. Why don't you record it? Well, I had never thought about recording it. I just liked the song, you know. But I - it was the chord structure in "Georgia," I mean, especially in the middle part of it. It's got some beautiful changes to it. Hoagy Carmichael, I have to give him some skin, he wrote some beautiful stuff on that song.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Well, I had you describe your version of "Your Cheatin' Heart," and we haven't played that yet, so let me give that a spin now. This is the Hank Williams song "Your Cheatin' Heart" performed by Ray Charles. And this is from the early 1960s, one of the recordings included on the new Ray Charles box set "The Complete Country And Western Recordings 1959-1986." Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR CHEATIN' HEART")
CHARLES: (Singing) Your cheatin' heart will make you weep. You cry and cry and try to sleep. But sleep won't come the whole night through. Your cheatin' heart will tell on you. When tears come down...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tears come down.
CHARLES: (Singing) ...Like fallin' rain...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Fallin' rain.
GROSS: That's Ray Charles, one of his recordings included on his new box set "The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986." Now, it's funny - you know, when I was young, some of your country songs were really big hits, you know, like "Born To Lose" and "You Don't Know Me" and "Crying Time." I didn't think of them as country songs. I thought of them as Ray Charles records.
CHARLES: (Laughter) You're very sweet, honey. Thank you, Terry. But you know, actually...
GROSS: No, I mean, I mean that. It didn't - I didn't find out till much later they were country songs. Who knew?
CHARLES: Well, actually, what it is - I'll tell you something that - and which, I think, would be helpful to the people, to our listeners. You see, I am - just so they will really know what I'm about. You see, I am not a country singer. I'm not a jazz singer. I am not a blues singer. What I am is - I am a singer that can sing country music. I can sing the blues. I can sing a love song. But I'm not a specialist. You know what I mean?
I'm kind of like a baseball player. You know, I can play a little first base, second base, shortstop and third base. I might can catch and pitch a little bit for you if you need me to. I'm sort of like that in the music world as opposed to being, say, a specialist. Like, you would say B.B. King is a blues singer.
CHARLES: There's no question about it. But I'm not a blues singer. I'm a singer that can sing the blues.
GROSS: Now, your biography back from, I think, 1978 begins, (reading) let me say right here and now that I am a country boy, and man, I mean the real backwoods.
Tell us a little bit about where you grew up in the country.
CHARLES: Oh, well, I'm from a little small town and - well, actually, I was born in Albany, Ga., but I don't know anything about it because my parents moved to Florida when I was about 6 months old. So you know, I wouldn't remember anything. So I was raised in a little village, I guess you could call it, called Greenville, Fla. It's about 42 miles east of Tallahassee, you know? And it was just a little country town. And we just had, like, a little general store, and there was a post office, and there was a bus stop - not a bus station but - you know, where you sit on a bench and wait for the bus. And that was about it, and everybody knew everybody. And you know - and of course, the - I say the bulk of the people were people that were more or less poor, you know, but - you know, so if Ms. Jones needed some sugar, she would borrow it from my mom. And if my mom needed some flour, she would borrow it from Ms. Williams or what - I mean, that's the way we got along.
GROSS: And what did you hear on the radio then?
CHARLES: Well, basically - in the daytime, you heard country music on the radio. I mean, that was it. All day long was country music all over the dial. And at night, you could hear things like Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey or Count Basie. They - because they would have - in those days, they had programs that were live that was coming from some of the various hotels and nightclubs. And so you could hear various bands at night. And in the daytime, you heard strictly the country music. And of course, being in a Black neighborhood, naturally, I heard the blues. I mean, that's where the blues was - and of course, the religion thing because, you know, you went to revival meetings and BYPU. And I went to Sunday school and church on Sunday morning and Sunday evenings. And so, you know, that was the mixture that I grew up in.
GROSS: Now, I know a lot of African American musicians grew up listening to country music on the radio in the South 'cause that's what was on the radio...
GROSS: ...Then. I'm wondering if you ever felt any more distanced from that music because the performers were white and you were African American. Did that matter to you at all?
CHARLES: No, no. You know, that is the marvelous thing about music. It is the one thing that - I won't say there was no segregation or anything. I'm not saying that. But it was very, very small. I mean, if you look around, you saw guys like Benny Goodman. I mean, you - I mean, there was Lionel Hampton in his band. You know, various white bands, there were Black people in the bands, and there was - when I was coming up, I even worked with a hillbilly group in Florida called the Hillbilly Playboys - the Florida Playboys. And it was a hillbilly group. They taught me how to yodel, you know?
GROSS: Yeah, no, could you yodel for us?
I mean, I'm a lot better than that. But that's the idea.
My voice is - it's too early in the morning, but you get the idea.
GROSS: You know, I have to say that is not unlike some of the things that you do on your solo records.
GROSS: No, really.
CHARLES: OK. I truly enjoy the various forms of music, and it really - it keeps me going.
GROSS: Now, we're recording from your studio. Do you have to get your phone?
CHARLES: No, no, no, no, no, that - unfortunately, the switchboard kind of goofed and let it ring back here. You know, they must have about seven, eight lines, and they let the wrong line ring.
CHARLES: Mistake (laughter).
GROSS: Now, did you think I was nuts when I said that about yodeling sounding not unlike some of the things you do on your solo records?
CHARLES: Yeah, yeah. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I heard every word of it, girl. I really did.
GROSS: Now, I don't know if you know the Solomon Burke story about how after he had his first big hit - I think it was "Just Out Of Reach."
GROSS: And he showed up at a country music concert. He was the performer. And people only knew him from the radio. And when they saw that he was Black, they thought that he was an impersonator (laughter).
CHARLES: (Laughter) Oh, wow.
GROSS: They kind of drove him out of town.
CHARLES: Oh, man, I - well, see, fortunately for me - I think what really happened with me, nobody expected me to be George Jones or Hank Snow or Johnny Cash. Nobody...
GROSS: Right, because you were already Ray Charles.
CHARLES: That's right, see? So when I went in the South and did these songs, they knew that the songs I was doing was me. I was not trying to be nobody else but me.
GROSS: I want to...
CHARLES: And I think that's the key, you know? I mean, the main thing is you do what you do. That's it.
GROSS: So when you were playing in this hillbilly band in Florida...
GROSS: ...What was your repertoire like?
CHARLES: Oh, they played some everything. They played, you know, all the country songs at the time. As a matter of fact, I can't think of - oh, man. Not Ernest Tubb. But there was another guy that was very, very big back in those days. And he used to do (singing) any time you feeling lonely, any time you feeling - you know? Oh, man, it's a shame I can't think of the guy's name now. But he was very, very big. We used to play a lot of his stuff, a lot of Hank Williams songs. I mean, they played all the country - you know, like, all the artists in the country field that had hits at the time.
GROSS: And how did you end up being in this country band?
CHARLES: I got in there because - through accident. I used to - I didn't have any money. So I would go down to the music store in the daytime because they had all these various pianos in there. And they would let me come in and play the piano, you know, any piano I wanted to play. And that was fascinating to me because I could go and just fool around with various pianos. And so one day, the guy who was working in the store, he said to me, hey, you know, our piano man is sick. Would you like to come in and sit in with the band? I said, well, yeah, man. Sure. Yeah. And so I went out that night and sat in with the band. I guess I must have stayed with them for about six weeks.
GROSS: That's not very long (laughter).
CHARLES: Yeah. Oh, well, it was long enough for me to make a nice, little piece of change because those guys work all the time.
GROSS: We're listening to my 1998 interview with Ray Charles. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "HORNFUL SOUL")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1998 interview with Ray Charles. Last month, he was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. We spoke after the release of a box set collecting the complete country and Western songs he recorded from 1959 to 1986. I want to play another personal favorite from your country recordings. And this is "You Don't Know Me."
CHARLES: Oh, yeah. All right.
GROSS: Would you tell us about why you chose this song?
CHARLES: Oh, I think, again, the songs that I choose, I start with the lyrics. What are the lyrics saying to me? What kind of story are they telling me? You know, it's like, I guess it's like an actor who looks at a script, you know, because, you know, when you look at lyrics, you know, you got to tell a story in three minutes, you know? You don't have two hours like you do when you got a script. You got to say what you got to say and make it believable within three minutes. So I start with the lyrics, you know? And when I start with the lyrics, I tell myself, now, how many people will this song fit? I mean, does it sound like most people can relate to it? And you tell yourself, yeah. You give your hand to me. And then you say - I watch you walk away, you know? You can see - or when you hear somebody says, I can't stop loving you. I've made up my mind. Just think of the people say that, you know? And so you - I always start with the lyrics to see, does the lyrics carry any real meaning, not just for me, but for the people who are going to be listening to me?
GROSS: Well, let's hear "You Don't Know Me." And this song was written by Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold. And this is Ray Charles' 1962 recording of it, now reissued on his CD box set "The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T KNOW ME")
CHARLES: (Singing) You give your hand to me, and then you say, hello. And I can hardly speak. My heart is beating so, and anyone one can tell. You think you know me well, but you don't know me. No, you don't know me. No, you don't know the one who dreams of you at night and longs to kiss your lips and longs to hold you tight. Oh, I'm just a friend. That's all I've ever been 'cause you don't know me. No, you don't know me. For I never knew the art of making love, though, my heart aches with love for you. Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by, a chance that you might love me, too. You give your hand to me, and then you say goodbye. I watch you walk away beside the lucky guy. Oh...
GROSS: That's Ray Charles singing "You Don't Know Me." Last month, he was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. We'll hear more of my 1998 interview with Ray Charles after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "JOY RIDE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're listening back to my 1998 interview with Ray Charles. There's a new box set of 90 newly remastered recordings that's also available on digital platforms. Last month, he was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I spoke with him in 1998 after the release of a box set collecting all the country and western songs he'd recorded between 1959 and '86.
As we mentioned, you grew up in the country. And I think it was at about the age of 7 that you lost your sight. And you lost it gradually over a period of a couple of years. Did you realize what was happening?
CHARLES: Well, as far as losing my sight, I knew that because my mom was very astute. I mean, I don't know how she managed to come up with the ideas she did, you know, but - see, because she didn't have no psychologist to tell her to do this or tell her to do that. But she started - she knew I was going to lose my eyesight. And so she knew I was going to lose my eyesight, she started showing me how to get around and how to do things without seeing.
Like, she would tell me, OK, I'm going to show you where this chair is - OK. Now, since you can't see that chair, you're going to have to teach yourself to remember that that chair is there, or you got to teach yourself to remember that that table is there. Or you got to teach yourself to remember to turn right when you get to da, da, da, da, da. And, of course, she started with me with that - with me when I started to lose my eyesight. So I gained an awful lot. And, of course, being that age, it wasn't as much of a shock as, say, it would be if I was, say, losing my sight at the age of 30 or 40 or something, where you've seen all your life.
GROSS: Did you go through a long period of depression afterwards?
CHARLES: No, because when I - by the time I started losing my sight for sure, I was going to a school for the deaf and the blind. And you know, children, you know - I'm sure you're aware of this - but children can be very brutal, I mean, to each other, you know?
GROSS: Yeah, no kidding. Yeah.
CHARLES: Yeah. You know what I mean? And so if you go in there - like, when I first went there, I was very homesick. And I was crying and - you know, what you go through, 'cause where I went to school was about 130 or 140 from where I lived, you know. So it was the state school for the blind and deaf, as I say. So I was crying and missing my mom and all that. And see kids were - instead of empathizing, sympathizing with you, they would pick on you and make you feel bad, you know. So, you know, they'll get you out of that kind of groove. And used to be...
GROSS: Did you have good medical care at the time?
CHARLES: Oh no, honey. You know, you're thinking about much later in life. I mean, I bless your heart. I appreciate the question. But no, no, medically - I mean, I don't think anybody in those days even knew what that was.
CHARLES: As a matter of fact, we had one hospital on the campus, and you won't believe this, but this is the facts, it was one hospital there, and it was only what they call the white side. It was not - we had to go over to the white side if we needed to go to the hospital. I mean, that was just the way it was. Nobody thought nothing about it 'cause it - hey, if that's the way it is, that's the way it is.
GROSS: Well, it's kind of amazing - isn't it? - that here you are going to school for people who are blind, and it's a segregated school (laughter).
CHARLES: That's right.
GROSS: So you're segregated by color, which you can't even see.
CHARLES: That's right. That's right. That's right. But, you know, that I'm - well, you know - we're - you and I - I'm sure you probably will never understand it 'cause I never understood, and I've lived a lot longer than you, and I can tell you, I never understood how somebody can be against me and yet let me cook their food for them, feed them, you know? Don't make sense, does it?
GROSS: Your mother must have been pretty determined to have you in the school, I mean, to - considering that she was pretty poor, that you lived in a backwoods area, to manage to get you to this school and maybe even force you to go because you probably wanted to stay home, it was pretty good on her part.
CHARLES: Oh yeah, which, as I said, she's very foresighted. I'm - I'll always love my mom when I stop to think about the things that she - you know, she really is responsible for me being what I am today because she instilled in me that it was vital that I be independent. It was vital 'cause she would always tell me, even people who love you - your friends - you know, you need to do things for yourself because, I mean, there are times when they're busy, when they might want to do it for you, but they don't have the time. And you need to know how to do things for yourself, take care of yourself.
And she did her best to teach me every little-bitty thing that she thought would be helpful to me in my life. Therefore, I know how to clean up a house. I know how to cook. I know how to wash clothes. You know, I know how to do things. That's why people are so surprised when they see me packing my bags. They say, you mean you pack your own bags? I say, yeah. Well, even if somebody else pack them, I have to tell them how to do it.
GROSS: Was it at the boarding school for children who were blind and deaf that you first learned to play music?
CHARLES: Exactly. Yeah, I started - I couldn't get into music class the first year I was in school because the class was full. So, I mean, I couldn't get into piano class, so I started taking up clarinet. That's how - that's why I can play clarinet and saxophone today.
GROSS: Oh, so you played clarinet first?
CHARLES: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: How'd you like the instrument?
CHARLES: I loved it. Well, I was a great fan of Artie Shaw. I used to love him. Everybody was talking about Benny Goodman, but I was an Artie Shaw man - I mean, 100%. And I was very impressed by what he could do with a clarinet. And naturally - he was my mentor - I wanted to play. But I - obviously, I wanted to be in the piano class. But since I couldn't, I think, well, OK, I'll play clarinet. And I did that. And, of course - but the next year I was able to get into the piano class.
GROSS: Did you give up clarinet?
CHARLES: No, I studied both. I kept studying both instruments. But naturally, my heart was with the keyboard because, I mean, that's just - 'cause there's so much you can do when you play piano. You - you know, I - by the time I was 12 years old, 13 years old, I could write a whole arrangement for a 17-piece band. See, that's the great thing. If you studied piano, it gives you a whole outlook on a lot of different things that has to do with music.
GROSS: Now, what kind of music were you playing in school?
CHARLES: Oh. Well, we were - they had, like, little, small, cute little songs from Chopin that we would play or Beethoven or something like that - the little - not the symphonies, but the little, small vignettes, or whatever you call those little things that you do, you know? And, of course, when I would write something, I would write some kind of a current song, you know, that was being played, you know, on the radio. I would just write an arrangement for the band to play it.
And I tell you, that's why I don't write a score today because I started out writing the parts first. You know, most times, when - what arrangers do - I'm sure you know this - I'm just saying it for the sake of the audience - arrangers write a score first. And then when they write the score, they write the parts. Well, I wanted to hear the music so bad, I'd write the parts first and write the score afterwards. It's kind of backwards, right?
GROSS: We're listening to my 1998 interview with Ray Charles. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1998 interview with Ray Charles. Last month, he was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. We spoke after the release of a box set collecting the complete country and western songs he'd recorded from 1959 to '86.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Now, how old were you when you left school and set off on your own?
CHARLES: I was about 15 when my mom died, so I left school that year.
GROSS: And what was it like for you to first be on your own like that?
CHARLES: Oh, it was tough, but I was lucky. I mean, I was lucky because my mom had a friend that lived in Jacksonville, which, as I say, was about a hundred-some-odd miles from Greenville. And my mom had always talked me about her and had told me that, you know, if I ever needed someone to talk to, this lady and her were very good friends. And so when my mom passed away, I fooled around for a little while in Greenville and Tallahassee. And then I decided I would go to Jacksonville because Jacksonville was a city, and I wanted to see if I could, you know, get started in music and do something. So I went there.
And this lady's name was Lena Mae Thompson (ph) and her husband, Fred Thompson (ph). They took me in and treated me just like I was their own kid. They fed me - because I sure didn't have no money, didn't have nothing. They bought me clothes. I mean, I was lucky, you know. And when I would get a job, maybe once or twice a week or something like that, I'd give them the money, you know, because, I mean, it wasn't that much money involved in the first place. And I know they spent way more money than I was able to give them back.
GROSS: Now, what were the early kinds of places you performed in?
CHARLES: Oh, they were like places - one way in and one way out.
CHARLES: You know what I mean? They were places like dance halls. And they were - and a lot of them would sell beer. And they'd sell fish and chicken and stuff like that. But like I said, one way in, one way out. So if a fight broke out, you know, it was all - it was kind of rough. Those were the days, I have to say, that they were good experiences, but I would not like to do them again, you know, because, like I said we would, we were playing dances in those days. And, of course, anything could happen.
GROSS: Well, I thought we could listen to the very first recording that you made, which is "Confession Blues."
CHARLES: Oh, my goodness. Where did you find that?
GROSS: Oh, in one of your box sets. It was easy.
CHARLES: Oh, brother. Yeah, that's one of the things where I was - you got me down pat. I was about, I guess I must have been about 17 years old at that time when I made that.
GROSS: This is 1949. Let's hear it, then we'll talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONFESSION BLUES")
CHARLES: (Singing) I want to tell you a story. Oh Ray boy was once in love. I want to tell you a story. Our Ray boy was once in love. And how the girl that I loved taught me of the happiness I dreamed of. She called me fine, sweet and mellow, but that didn't mean a thing.
GROSS: That was Ray Charles' first recording made in 1949. How did you start to get a sense of who you were as a singer and start to establish your own sound?
CHARLES: Oh, well around about - well, you know, I started thinking about it in the 1951 - somewhere in there in 1950 and '51. But I was scared to try it because, you know, I was - I could get a lot of work sounding like Nat Cole. You know, I could work in nightclubs, and I could make a living, you know, with his sound, you know. I could take the - amplify and tune it and add a little bass and a little bit of treble or something like that and sound pretty close, almost just like it, you know.
But then I was - I knew what - I woke up one morning, and I started thinking. I said to myself, you know, nobody, knows my name. Everybody said to me, hey, kid, hey, kid, you sound just like Nat Cole. Hey, kid. It was always, hey, kid. Nobody never said Ray - never, never, never. So I start telling myself, you know, your mom always told you to be yourself. And you've got to be yourself if you're going to make it in this business. You got to - I know you love Nat Cole, but you got to stop that. You know, it was just a question of thinking one morning when I woke up, people don't even know my name. I'm just, hey, kid.
GROSS: Well, your sound, you know, draws on rhythm and blues and also, I think, gospel music. Did you sing in a church when you were young?
CHARLES: Oh, yeah, sure. Yeah. Like I said to you earlier, I went to all the BYPU meetings in the Sunday school and Sunday morning service and the evening service and the revival meetings they would have during the week, you know, whenever that was going on. So I - no, yeah, I didn't star in the church, but I did sing, you know, a little in the choir.
GROSS: Is there a record that you think of as being the first recording that you made as yourself, really establishing yourself?
CHARLES: Probably "I Got A Woman." I mean, that was - because that - when I did that, that seemed to upset a lot of people. But it was really me.
GROSS: It upset a lot of people?
CHARLES: Oh, yeah. A lot of people thought that it was too religious and I was bastardized in the church and, oh, man, I got all kinds of criticism for that.
GROSS: Oh, you mean you were using too much of a sanctified sound for a sexual record (laughter).
CHARLES: Yeah, that's right. But it was really me. It was 100% me. And, of course, I just said, well, I have to be criticized 'cause I'm going to sing the way I sing. And later on, after some other people start doing it, then they start calling it soul music. (Laughter) It just goes to show you, I guess I was a little ahead of my time or something.
GROSS: Well, I think that's inarguable.
GROSS: Why don't we hear "I Got A Woman"? And this is my guest, Ray Charles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A WOMAN")
CHARLES: (Singing) Well, I got a woman way over town that's good to me. Oh, yeah. Said I got a woman way over town good to me. Oh, yeah. She give me money when I'm in need. Yeah, she's a kind of friend indeed. I got a woman way over town that's good to me. Oh, yeah. She saves her lovin' early in the morning just from me. Oh, yeah. She saves her lovin'...
GROSS: That's Ray Charles - a recording that he said was the first one that really sounded like his own style. The record that we just heard, "I Got A Woman," is one of your early recordings for Atlantic. When you started recording for Atlantic, what was it like for you to find your audience?
CHARLES: Oh, it was very - Atlantic was a great company. I have to tell you they - I mean, for me. Now, I'm only speaking for myself 'cause I know some people would say, oh, man, Ray, you're wrong. But for me, it was a great company because what Atlantic did - and they were smart in the sense that they never, ever tried to sway me in any way, form, shape or fashion as to what should I do when it comes to music. All they did was whenever I wanted to record, wherever I wanted to record, they would come and pay the bill. That's all they would do.
And it left me open to do - to record. Where in, like, a lot of kids today, they have producers, and they got to record what the producers say. And the producer says, I want you to sound like who had the last hit. So you don't have - when I was coming up, I didn't have no pressure. I could just - Atlantic just said, hey, you might not have a hit now, but you're going to have a hit. And it was true because I made three or four records for Atlantic before, you know - that didn't do anything. But then we came up with a song called "Doin' The Mess Around" - (ph) which was a big hit - and "It Should Have Been Me." And next thing, we had "I Got A Woman." So - but the first two or three records I made didn't sell. But you can't do that in today's age. You make two or three records that don't sell nothing, you out.
GROSS: I'd like to end our interview by asking you to choose a favorite, if you have one, from the new country music box set. There's a big selection there, but...
CHARLES: Yeah, that's true. And it would be very hard to find what I would call a favorite. But I can tell you one of the songs that I really love. There's an old Johnny Cash thing that I did on there called "Ring Of Fire," but I got it from Johnny Cash. I think it'd be real nice to play that "Ring Of Fire."
GROSS: I love that song. And it was written by his wife, June.
CHARLES: Oh, really? I didn't know that.
CHARLES: No kidding. Oh, well, thank you for telling me that.
GROSS: (Laughter) So we'll end with "Ring Of Fire." Why do you love this song?
CHARLES: Well, just think of the lyrics. Just think of the lyrics.
(Singing) Oh, love, love is a burning thing.
You know, oh, it talks, babe. It speaks to you, you know. I really didn't know what you just told me. But, boy, I have to say, I'm very happy to hear that.
GROSS: Well, Ray Charles, it has been so wonderful to talk with you. I really thank you so much for your time.
CHARLES: Well, Terry, it's been good talking to you. And I just want you to know not only is it good to talk to you, but I'm going to keep on listening to you, too.
GROSS: It is an honor to hear you say that. Thank you.
CHARLES: I really mean it. Thank you. Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RING OF FIRE")
CHARLES: (Singing) Oh, love, oh, love is a burning thing. Yes, it is. And it makes - you know, it makes a fire ring. Girl, you know I'm bound, bound, bound, bound by wild desire. That's what you do to me, girl. Because I done fell - I fell into your ring of fire. You got me, baby. I fell into the burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down, and all the flame went higher. And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, your ring of fire.
GROSS: That's Ray Charles singing "Ring Of Fire." My interview with Ray Charles was recorded in 1998. Last month, he was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The date of the induction ceremony has not yet been announced. There's also a new collection of newly remastered recordings called "True Genius" that's available as a box set and on digital platforms. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.