When 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 had there.
Things started 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.
Anyway, we 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.
Strangely 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.
That episode 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 events.
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.
During those 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 it.
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.
Eventually, 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.
During my 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.
After arriving 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.
When Lowell 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.
“Baby, 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 a smash.
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 Ralph Burns.
About that 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 The Raelettes.
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.