Ray Charles – Part II – Life on the Road

Cigarettes and smack (heroin) are the two truly addictive habits I’ve known. You might add women,” he said. “My obsession centers on women—did then (when young) and does now. I can’t leave them alone.” – Ray Charles

Once again Ray was on the move. One of his musician buddies had a girlfriend on the West Coast so they moved out to Seattle, Washington in early 1948. Seattle was also a port town and it was also jumpin’. (You got sailors, you got action.) Fifteen-year-old Quincy Jones had just moved there from Chicago. He got to know eighteen-year-old Ray and this led to a lifelong personal and professional relationship. (What are the odds, right?)

Ray formed a band with that friend, guitarist Gossie McKee and bassist Milton Garrett. (No drums, interestingly. They called themselves the McSon Trio.)

In 1949, the band recorded Ray’s “Confession Blues” which became his first national hit, hitting number 2 on the Billboard chart. But that was as part of a band and no one at that point had heard of Ray Charles. Ray moved one more time – this time permanently – to Los Angeles. He spent the next few years touring as musical director with bluesman Lowell Fulson.


Two things to mention here – one is that this was music made by black musicians for a black audience. There may have been a few white hipsters who dug it but largely the music scene – like America itself – was segregated. And Ray and his band’s stories of abuse while traveling in the Deep South are all too familiar.

“When you grow up in the southern states of America where anyone colored is treated like dirt,” said Ray, “you either grow to accept it or become determined to find something better – even if it kills you.”

Of course an occupational hazard of musicians the world over – besides the hazards of travel -is substance abuse. The guys in the community were getting high but no one wanted the responsibility of having to care for the blind guy. But they soon got over that and Ray enjoyed his pot and then shortly thereafter, heroin. Which led to a seventeen-year addiction.

Ray had a girlfriend from back home named Louise who got pregnant. They had a nice love story for a while but Ray eventually had to put her on a bus back home. During this time Ray met a guy from Down Beat (no relation to the jazz magazine) records. The guy sent him a recording contract and a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Ray had found his home and never looked back.

Ray had always wanted a big band and while an eight-piece ensemble wasn’t – strictly speaking – a big band it was a move in the right direction. During the day Ray recorded and arranged and in his off time, he played. “Women found Ray intensely attractive, and blindness proved no handicap in bed. He often carried out two, three, or more affairs at once and still responded to the willing ladies whom he met as a traveling entertainer.” (Turns out that sex with groupies was not invented by rock stars.)

If you read about Ray’s life, the next years all throughout the Fifties are a blur of life on the road. Ray was a traveling musician in every sense of the word – buses, Cadillacs, nice house in LA with a wife, girlfriends on the road. And an ever-persistent heroin habit. He definitely missed some shows but it’s amazing to see how well he functioned given his habit.

The band kept getting bigger in pursuit of the elusive big band sound Ray had in his head. Jazz great to-be Stanley Turrentine joined them for a while at only 16 years old. (How do these guys get away with this? I was in high school at that age.)

Here’s a cut with Turrentine blowing in the background called “Kissa Me Baby.” How is it no one ever says that Ray was early rock and roll?


More songs were released (but not yet that big hit)  and by the early Fifties, Ray – though not yet famous – had an LA recording contract and New York representation. So things were starting to happen.

Ray and the gang made their way to New York City where they inevitably played the Apollo Theater. Now, as good as Ray’s music was, it wasn’t burning up the charts. And so his label, Swingtime, made it clear his contract was up for grabs.

Which was fortuitous as the by now five-year-old Atlantic records was looking to make an impact. Co-founder Ahmet Ertegun had previously said, “I want a piano player like that on our label.” And so in 1952 for the princely sum of $2500 (about $25,000 in today’s dollars), Ray Charles became an Atlantic recording artist. This moment is, to say the least, pivotal.

The story of Atlantic Records is incredibly important and likely deserves its own post. But let us just say that what Turks Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun, Herb Abramson, Jerry Wexler, and engineer Tom Dowd put together is one of the greatest labels in recording history.

You know what? Let’s keep this post brief and save that story for the next post. I’ll leave you here with the tune, “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand,” that made Ahmet say he wanted a piano player like that on his label. (Ironically the guitar is featured here more than the piano.)


Sources: Ray Charles Memoir by Michael Lydon, Wikipedia

18 thoughts on “Ray Charles – Part II – Life on the Road

  1. Again, while I don’t want to romanticize it, one thing seems to be clear: Ray’s blindness did not slow him down much if it did at all. Apparently, it didn’t deter the ladies either.

    I hadn’t realized how much of an addiction problem he had. It’s pretty incredible how he still managed to function as well as he did.

    As for “Kissa Me Baby,” I agree there’s a good dose of rock & roll in that tune amid the jazz.


    1. No, it didn’t slow him down. And he had no end of girlfriends or – let’s be honest – sex partners. As to his addiction, I haven’t gone into it heavily as I wanted to put just enough in to convey the idea. But he missed a fair amount of gigs and recording sessions either because he was high somewhere or because he was trying to score. Recall how prevalent heroin was back then, especially in the jazz scene .

      There’s one harrowing story in his memoir where his son walks in on him while he’s high. Ray is bleeding all over the place as he managed to smash a glass table and sever an artery. The kid basically saved his life or Ray would have been a gomer .

      As to his music, I spent a fair amount of time listening to that Spotify list I posted. It’s the early Swingtime/Downbeat albums. Hardly the Ray we would come to know but very enjoyable, very smooth, very bluesy. Not dated at all.

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  2. Good stuff. Rays early music jumps, reason I like the guy. Had no idea about Turrentine (Big fan) and Fulson. Always get a kick out of the 6o’s and on wards talking about drugs, sex and booze like they invented it. Those jazz/blues/country people were doing it hard way back They were travelling pharmaceutical shows. It’s amazing how a guy like Charles managed to function. People around him keeping an eye and just luck he survived. Bottom line, Ray was a unique talent and going back to early middle stuff is where I listen.


    1. Turrentine came as a complete surprise to me too. If you look in Wikipedia they mention Fulson but not Ray. But, one big happy family. As to the sex thing, I think Ray invented it. He’s got twosomes, threesomes – you name it. I do not know how the fuck Ray managed to function. Most junkies just sit there and stare at their shoe. If you haven’t listened to that Spotify list, highly recommended. Doesn’t sound like the Ray we know today but it’s mellow, bluesy. Nice.

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      1. I listen to all the old Ray stuff. It’s on my spin cycle. You’d be amazed at how many functioning addicts there are. It’s also amazing how much abuse (Why they call it alcohol and drug abuse)the human body can take. When Burns did his ‘Jazz’ doc, the issue was dropped in like an anvil. Some survived and some didnt. Just a microcosm of society. The over dose deaths up here way out number the current virus thing. Rant over. ‘What i Say?”


    2. BTW, when I watched the Zappa doc, he said that he had an “open” marriage which I interpret to mean he was getting as much as he wanted and his wife knew. And they would both get penicillin if he came home with an STD. Not sure how well that worked in the AIDS era.

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      1. I knew Frank was bent that way. I knew some of Rays story but it never detracted from the music. Of all the shows I’ve seen there has been a very low rate of being disappointed because of substance abuse. Lou Reed was one. There was nothing cool about him being so loaded he couldnt perform. Rip off. Then on the other hand when I seen the Pogues, McGowen was so pissed he had to hold himself up with the mike. But it was an awesome show. The band cooked and he still managed to contribute.
        Back to Ray. I seen him in the 80’s and he was worth every penny. Respect for the music and the audience. He came across as the cool uncle. You musta seen a few blowouts in your day.


        1. Oh yeah it was great. A riot. I am going way back in the memory banks but I remember him singing “Alcohol” and staggering about. A splendid time was had by all!

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        2. Well that’s different. Kinds of a good time, a little greased up. Lose and relaxed. Yeah I’ve been to a few shows like that.
          Just had a work out and listened to an old Ray album that a neighbor gave me a while back. First time. ‘Volcanic Action Of My Soul’ One of those mish mash things but still a few good cuts. Glen Campbell is on it for a cut. Just looked it up.


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