“You sing about the woman, but you are really also talking about all the kicking around you’ve had, the humiliations that you’ve had, the throwing out of doors you’ve had, the hunger that you’ve had. You think about all these things, but you’re still singing about that woman.” – Ray Charles.
After his bust in Boston, Ray realized that he needed to kick heroin, not just for his health but also to prevent the judge from throwing the book at him. A Federal grand jury returned a “criminal indictment on four narcotics charges: two for possessing 3.17 ounces of heroin and 588 grams of marijuana, ad two for bringing the heroin and marijuana into the country.” (from Canada.) He faced a maximum of sixty years in prison and $40,000 in fines.
Ray decided he wasn’t gonna wean himself off of drugs but instead go cold turkey. He went to some clinic way on the outskirts of LA. The experience was about as harrowing as you’d expect. Left with no dope, his withdrawal started with him puking till there was nothing left to puke. He felt as if he were “vomiting pure poison and the experience was bitter. For two days, waves of nausea and diarrhea passed over him. ‘My body stunk,’ he said. “My sweat stunk. Everything about me stunk.” (This is what would likely happen if I ever gave up coffee – ME.)
Ray did manage to kick the habit. (Well, the smack habit anyway. He developed a lifelong habit of drinking coffee laced with gin.) When he went back to court in Boston, the judge took that into consideration and spared him any prison time, just putting him on probation.
It’s fair to say that during the British Invasion in the mid-Sixties, the 36-year-old Ray was not exactly soaring to the top of the charts. As great as he was, he was clearly seen as a relic of a different era. Hell, even rockers like Elvis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry weren’t hot on the charts. In fact, around this time there started a persistent critical belief that Ray’s Atlantic years were much better than his ABC years. Arguable, but there it is.
Before we get started back on Ray’s current career, I wanted to take a step back and mention something that I probably didn’t emphasize enough in previous posts and that was Ray’s jazz chops. For just one example, Ray did some recording with vibraphonist Milt Jackson. The recording quality here of “Cosmic Ray” isn’t the best ever but it definitely swings. That’s Ray on piano comping and then taking a terrific solo about halfway in:
Ray’s records weren’t selling like they used to but Ray was always ready, willing, and able to fly (in a private plane) around the world and play to adoring audiences. And Ray, the savvy businessman, started putting together Ray Charles Enterprises. He had his own studio built and even, for a while, had a specialty label of his own, Tangerine.
Ray decided to lay low in the year 1965 and traded one addiction for another. Ray got introduced to chess and he got pretty damn good, playing for hours against his band members and taking on all comers. (Ray even beat Willie Nelson in a couple of games.) According to his memoir, “the fellows (band) started at ten in the morning and often played till midnight.”
The year off the road apparently did Ray some good. He came back in 1966 with the Buck Owens tune, “Crying Time.” I don’t know who the woman singing with him is on the original tune. But I did happen to find a version that Ray did with Barbara Streisand. Streisand manages to do her best Patsy Cline on this one. Check them out on what looks like some TV show. Sounds great to me. Streisand clearly worships the guy. The Spotify version is from her Duets album:
Ray had hits in that same year with a couple of Ashford and Simpson tunes, “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” Unfortunately, neither of these versions is on Spotify. But I gotta play “Stoned” here.
As a reminder of how hard it is for a star from a previous generation to stay relevant in the pop charts, Ray released an album in June of 1967 called Ray Charles Invites You To Listen.
But no better example of how the winds of music shifted can be stated by the fact that in the same month, a band from Liverpool released Sgt. Pepper which pretty much sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Ironic as Ray’s album had a cover of “Yesterday.” (John and Paul, excited, wired him and said, “Ray Charles’ genius goes on and on. We love you heart and soul.” The Beatles used to play “What’d I Say’ and “I Got a Woman” in their live shows.)
Musically, Ray had a dry spell for the next couple of years and while some of his albums were critically acclaimed, by and large, he was one of those older performers who, sadly, became as much a nostalgia act as anything else. A great nostalgia act but nevertheless. Ray kept touring and, while still married to Della, had many girlfriends who genuinely believed that Ray loved only them. He had twelve children by ten different women.
Wikipedia: “Charles’s renewed chart success, however, proved to be short-lived, and by the 1970s his music was rarely played on radio stations. The rise of psychedelic rock and harder forms of rock and R&B music had reduced Charles’ radio appeal, as did his choosing to record pop standards and covers of contemporary rock and soul hits since his earnings from owning his masters had taken away the motivation to write new material.”
In 1971, Ray released an album called Volcanic Action of My Soul. I never heard of this until fellow blogger CB told me he dug it. If I didn’t know, with a title like that I would have thought it was a Shaft movie.
This is a nice little country number (who else does country, blues and jazz?) called “What Am I Living For?” with some sweet pedal steel. (No Spotify):
By 1974, ABC didn’t spend much time promoting a recording artist whose recording heyday was clearly behind him. Ray left ABC and went on his own Crossover Records. Ray won a Grammy for his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” (The two had met years before when Stevie played on one of Ray’s shows.)
Ray gets down on “City” with a synthesizer, modernizing his sound a bit. You can argue about whether it’s better or worse than Stevie’s but I find it mighty fine, mighty funky, and mighty pissed off. (No Spotify).
In April 1979, his version of “Georgia on My Mind” was proclaimed the state song of Georgia, and Ray did the song on the floor of the state legislature. (This is memorialized in the 2004 movie Ray starring Jamie Foxx who does a nice job. He won not only the Academy Award but every major acting award you can think of.)
Ray performed in the Blues Brothers movie and in 1985, sang on “We Are the World.” Ray continued to tour and record as long as he could. He had long since become an icon like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, or Aretha Franklin.
In 2003, he had hip replacement surgery. But eventually, maybe all those gin-laced coffees caught up with him. Ray died of liver failure in June of 2004, sadly just a couple of months before the movie Ray was released. His funeral took place on June 18, 2004, at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles with numerous musical figures in attendance: B.B. King, Glen Campbell, Stevie Wonder, and Wynton Marsalis each played a tribute at the funeral.
His final posthumous album Genius Loves Company consisted of duets with everyone from Van Morrison to Natalie Cole to Elton John and Norah Jones. It won eight Grammys.
A partial sampling of Ray’s honors include: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Kennedy Center honors, 17 Grammy awards including Lifetime Achievement. In 2010, a $20 million, 76,000 sq ft (7,100 m2) facility named the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center and Music Academic Building opened at Morehouse College.
The United States Postal Service issued a forever stamp honoring Ray as part of its Musical Icons series, on September 23, 2013. In 2015, Ray was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame.
In 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “Ray Charles’s version of “America the Beautiful” will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed.” Maybe so. It certainly is the most soulful.
I can think of no better way to end this tribute than with Ray’s “America the Beautiful.” Despite the indignities Ray suffered as a black man in America, he often proclaimed his love for this country.