Interview with Ray Charles and "My World"
Photo: Ray Charles, photo by Mark Hanauer. © 1993 Warner Bros. Records.
The Genius Of Soul. It's a term that for nearly a half century has described the work of one artist -- Ray Charles. A~ man whose talent, style and sheer generosity of spirit has sparked some of best and most enduring sounds in the whole range of American music, Ray is a true original. That much is history.
But, with Ray Charles, history is always in the making, and his new Warner Bros. Records release, My World,continues that tradition. Ten exhilarating selections, with the apt inclusion of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," are transformed by the master's touch. From the propulsive, and socially relevant, title track to' the quintessential Ray Charles ballad, "If I Could," My Worldstands with the best work of his long and illustrious career.
Produced by Richard Perry, My World hosts an all-star line-up of supporting players including, among the many, Eric Clapton, Mavis Staples and Billy Preston. The result is an album that showcases the timeless artistry of this living legend, even as it makes a case for his continued impact on the state of music today.
In a 1993 interview, Ray Charles talked about the making of My World,his place in history and other subjects, including the difference between being famous and being great.
Question: There are a few songs on the new album with very strong social messages. Do you think music can really change things for the better?
Ray Charles: Music is powerful. As people listen to it, they can be affected. They respond. But when I was doinq this album, I wasn't trying to create an overall message. That wasn't my intent. It just turned out that we got some songs that had something to say.
Some tracks, like "A Song For You" and "Still Crazy After All These Years" seem especially suited to you and your history.
You got that right. I love "Still Crazy." Personally, J think it's the best song on the album. By that I mean in the way it fits my style. We got the small band sound that I used to have in the early part of my career, back about the time of "Halleujah, I Love Her So" and "Hit The Road, Jack" ... '!ly old sound. It's a little different from the way Paul did it, but the song has always attracted me.
Any other songs you're partial to?
There's a sweet song there called "If I Could." I love that. "A Song For You," has that line about "living my life on stages, with ten thousand people watching" ... you could tell that fella had been there.
Did you have any special goal in mind when you did My World,something that you wanted to accomplish musically?
I'd love to say yes, but that wasn't how it happened. The best way to understand what I do is to think of an actor. You get a script, you read it and then you ask yourself if you can fit Into that script. "Can I become that character?" That's what I do with my songs. When I think about doing a song, the first thing I deal with is the lyrics: are they making any sense to me, can I put myself into this?
If the lyrics are saying something, then I listen to the melody. I ask myself if can I do anything with the melody, bring something of myself to it. I don't go at an album trying to prove anything. I'm the kind of person who absolutely can't do anything I don't like. I wish I could sometime, but I'm just not made that way. I've turned down a lot of songs that were good songs, maybe even hits, but just didn't do anything for me. So I try to get the song to where I like it. How can I expect you to like it, if I don't?
You do a lot of performing. Do you get more satisfaction out of being on stage or in the studio?
That's like talking about apples and oranges. When you're recording it's a different groove, a different mood, a different atmosphere. You're trying to please yourself, that's all. When you walk out on stage in a concert, the people expect you to be what they know you to be, what they've heard you to be. They've got expectations and that's what you want to satisfy. They also generate their own electricity and you can feed off of that. It's like in sports ... the home field advantage. They'll give you what you need to do what they want you to do.
When you're in the studio you there's nothing to feed off ... it's just you. You have to know when something sounds good, just like you have to know when you screw up. I hate to say this, because it sounds egotistical, but I know when I'm good. I don't kid myself. I'm very honest about my music. I remember vears ago, when I was at Atlantic, they told me, "When you make a record, ain't no one lookin' at you." When I record, I'm thinking about the people listening to me in their kitchen or their car.
A whole new generation is coming to know you through your commercial endorsements. Are you comfortable with that?
Very much so. I've been very fortunate in my career to be associated with quality products. I've picked the commercials I've done. It's nice to do business with companies that are well respected, that don't spare any expense in making something that folks are going to get excited about. Those Pepsi commercials are entertaining. That's why people remember them.
It's been said that whenever you have spare time you spend it in your home studio. At this stage in your career, you could easily get by on your past accomplishments. What keeps you coming back to the music?
That's like me asking what keeps you coming back to food. Music to me is not a sidelight. It's my life ... my bloodstream. Ever since I've come into the world, that's all I ever wanted to do. I never intended to do or be anything else. It's like breathing. If I can't play music, then what is there in this world for me?
People ask me when I'm going to retire. Retire? What would I retire . . to? As long as I'm alive I want to be active. As long as there's breath in my body, if I'm able to play and sing my songs, that's all I care about. At the same time I do realize that I'm not twenty-five anymore, so I control my work schedule. I don't overextend myself. You're never going to read in the paper where I passed out from exhaustion. If <you're self-employed like me, you learn to pace yourself. In my studio, I record my own music and do my own engineering and my own mixing. This album was an exception. I went outside to get a little different feel for things ... open it up a bit.
How do you feel about today's music? Are you hearing anything you like?
Not much. I'm just not into rap. What is rap? Nothing but somebody talking. I did rap back in the Sixties with songs like "It Should Have Been Me," "Green Back Dollar Bill," "Game Number Nine," all those. See, I call myself a musician, so I want something to trigger my brain and make me sit up and say, "Did you hear that?" Like Oscar Peterson would play something on the piano, or Charlie Parker when he was alive, or Milt Jackson would play something on the vibes and they could make you say "Oh, wow!"
That's what I'm looking for. I don't hear that in rap. I'm not knocking it. It's great for the kids ... they can dance to it and enjoy themselves and from what I hear some of it has good messages. But as a musician, I can't learn anything from it. If I can't gain anything, What's the point? I'm after style. When you put on a Duke Ellington or Count Basie record, no one has to tell you who .thev are. Why? Because they have a style all their own.
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