Ray Charles receives his Hollywood Walk of Fame star in California.
ALBANY — With the late Ray Charles back in the news locally, it might be a good time to hear from the man himself and to clear up a few misconceptions about his life. In the summer of 1999, I had the opportunity to conduct a 40-minute interview with Charles for the now-defunct Albany magazine.
I caught up with Charles on a phone call to the Los Angeles studio where he was taking a break from a recording session to do an interview with CNN and then with me. When I thanked him for taking time to speak with me he said, “All I needed to hear was Albany,” followed by a laugh.
That led me to ask about his feelings for our city.
“I don’t remember anything about Albany because I was only 6 months old when my parents took me to Greenville, Fla.,” Charles said in my tape-recorded interview. Imagine my surprise when, years later, I picked up an Atlanta newspaper and read an interview with an Albany man who claimed to have been a boyhood friend and playmate of Charles’. That could not be.
What follows are a few comments from the renowned entertainer on a range of subjects covered in that interview, some of which may have pertinence today:
On money: “I make enough money for me. I don’t need 15 houses and five airplanes. I’ve got enough money to last me the rest of my life. If I got sick tomorrow and never played another note in my life, and lived to be 100, I wouldn’t be broke. And that’s all that counts. How much John makes, how much money Jerry makes, I really don’t care, man.”
On why he — a blind man — formed the Ray Charles Robinson Foundation for Hearing Disorders: “Most people take their ears for granted. I can’t. My eyes are my handicap, but my ears are my opportunity.”
On art: “What I like is sculpture, ‘cause I can feel it. As a blind person, I don’t get much out of paintings.”
It is not widely known that Charles was a generous supporter of the state of Israel. When I asked him why, he made a connection to his music in the eminent quote of the interview.
“Even though I’m not Jewish,” he said, “and even though I’m stingy with my bread (money), Israel is one of the few causes I feel good about supporting. If someone besides a black ever sings the real gut-bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool.”
When I asked Charles what memories he took away from his trips to Albany as an adult, he said, “The food, man.”
I asked in mock seriousness, “What food?”
“Neck bones,” he said, “collard greens, black-eyed peas and such. Ribs, yams, mustard greens, good biscuits — and I mean biscuits that don’t come from a can. I’m a Southerner, what do you expect?
“I will compare it to any food in the world. I’ve been all around the world, and there ain’t nothing like it.”
As the interview was winding down, I absentmindedly mentioned that I had met him before on the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives on the day in the 1970s when a joint session of the General Assembly passed a resolution naming his rendition of “Georgia on My Mind” the official state song. That melody was written by another Georgia native, Hoagey Carmichael.
Charles said he had some warm feelings about Georgia, and it showed that day as he played the piano and sang that song with heightened emotion before a packed house, bringing tears to many.
Charles had many other career connections to Georgia. It was in Atlanta in 1954 that Charles recorded “I’ve Got a Woman,” the song that launched his career. In the 1960s, Charles released a couple of country and western songs that music historians credit for spreading the popularity of that genre.
“I was born with music inside me,” he told me in that phone interview. “I just want to play my music.”
Charles died in 2004, but to our joy, he is still playing his music on the radio and every other sound medium, and he makes a sculptured appearance in Albany every day down at Riverfront Park.
I think he likes it there.
Ed Lightsey of Albany is a freelance writer and senior correspondent for Georgia Trend.