Sunday, February 14, 2010

Way To Be Ray: Tell Me What'd I Say?

Ray Charles' music represents the marriage of a variety of traditions across barriers among segregated communities. He blends secular lyrics with religious music. He grows up listening to blues, gospel, and country. He learns from classical musicians and jazz musicians. He plays with country bands and R&B bands. By keeping open ears and learning from others through musical communication, Ray Charles' music breaks through racial and geographical barriers. Ray Charles as a musician learns to balance keeping his music authentic, learning from listening to other musicians, and catering to the desires of his audience.



Ray did not always cater to everyone though. "I Got A Woman" was Ray's first major hit and controversy. Combining sexual lyrics with gospel apparently is sacrilegious but would you want to be right when it feels and sounds that good? (sorry that the dialogue is in Croatian)
Charles' attitudes reflect the popular debate between the ideas of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois about how to overcome the obstacles set by American segregation. Ray's mother, Mama, echoes some of Washington's “bootstraps” based philosophy telling Ray he must obey the rules in order to survive in the world. Charles learns self-discipline in the country but he goes through great pains to achieve his goals. He experiences great joys from the value of hard work, whether it is learning a style of music or his Mama forcing him still to do chores despite his blindness. Church and gospel music instill a strong sense of right and wrong in Charles. Even if he does not necessarily agree with some of the teachings of the church, he obeys them. He learns to play piano by ear from listening to music. He adjusts his style to suit the likings of the people who let him play for them.


However, Charles' also learns that no one is going to give him anything unless he works for himself. Mama says, “There's two sides to life.” She warns him that “I'm not always gonna be with you”(58). Charles learns first-hand that there is suffering in the world. He lives in poverty in Greensville, Georgia, has an absent father, loses his brother early in life, goes blind at an early age and gets separated from his mother and the only home he ever knew to go to a state school for the blind. He learns to control his own destiny, saying that praying was not his “style” and that when he was going blind he didn't “turn to God” because it seemed “that those items were His concern.” He learned how to rely on himself instead of depending on “supernatural forces” (25).

After his mother dies, Charles makes a key decision for himself. He leaves school at sixteen to try playing with jazz musicians. He learns a new kind of freedom from the constrictions he knew at home by moving to bigger cities. First, he moves to Jacksonville, Florida and strives to learn different styles of music to entertain a variety of audiences. Charles may be blind to skin color but he learns a sense of segregation by admitting that “country folk” like him thought there were “two types of sounds” and those were “race records” and “radio music.” He explains how at this point in time he was often covering songs that white musicians had learned from black musicians. Charles explains that he played the songs in his own way to “reclaim” and “[bring] 'em back to where they started out.” He claims “It wasn't that I was angry at those white cats for taking from blacks. I've always said, just 'cause Bell invented the phone doesn't mean Ray Charles can't use it”(72). Charles recognized that he had learned his ability to play music from playing other musicians songs and “gave those ofay boys some credit for having good ears” admitting that he would be “playing with a white hillbilly band myself” in Tampa (73).

Ray Charles exhibits the value of asserting his dignity through his abilities. He shows musicians that he “could play the music right. [He] didn't give 'em anything to laugh at.” He also feels as though his blindness made the white men less threatened because “in their minds there was no way I could be checking over their ladies.” Charles said he was “happy to let 'em think whatever they wanted” as long as he was “making a living playing music.” He enjoyed playing “hillbilly music.” He explains that he treated playing with white musicians “no different from when [he] played with black bands” where he was a loner anyways. Charles explains while he “knew about segregation in those years... it didn't weigh on [his] mind.” He had been taught to accept the way of the world, lamenting that it had been that way “ever since I was a little kid.” He simply was “just too busy trying to stay alive to let it drive me crazy” even though he knew the system was “rotten” (88). He remarks that he did not like the attitude of jazz musicians who said to their audience “This is my music. If you like it, cool. If not, fuck it!” He thought these “people give you their bread and are entitled to some kind of musical return on their dollar. I don't mean you got to give them exactly what they want. But you do have to keep them in mind” (100).

While Charles' autobiography reflects some of DuBois's concepts about blacks maintaining control of their own destiny by creating an independence from whites, he does not seem as stuck in the soul splitting duality of DuBois' “double-consciousness.” He explains “race consciousness was something which was just starting to develop.” As he saw more of the country, the “awareness of race came late” because he “simply couldn't see it.” He moves from Florida to Seattle. Not only does his music free up from playing “hillbilly” music to blues and jazz, playing for a predominately black audience, but Ray explores his curiosities including the freedoms of drugs, alcohol, and women in ways that his restrictive life in Greensville or in school had never allowed him.
Upon returning to the South to tour, Charles says the experience “gave [him] eyes [he] hadn't had before.” He said in “coming back to my home turf, I was aware of the ugliness of prejudice for the first time.” He says he “suddenly saw the divisions: It was white toilets and black toilets; it was white restaurants and black restaurants; it was white hotels and black rooming houses.” He lost his innocence and realizes that his “little country town of Greensville was so quiet, so peaceful, so backwards that I grew up without any idea that there was actual hatred between the races”(126).

Charles considers self-dignity to be an obligation to the concepts of right and wrong he had learned from Mama and church. He knows to stand up for himself while maintaining a level of self-discipline. He explains that sometimes he let his anger get the best of him and describes an incident from his school days:
“At school, I remember a white kid once called me nigger and I knocked the shit out of him. But that wasn't because he was white. I would have done the same thing to a black kid if he had used the word. I had been raised to believe that nigger was obscene language, and that no one should use it—me included.”



I wonder how Ray would feel about John Mayer covering "I Got A Woman" now that he said this...
Charles demands others to give him the equal respect he gives them. He trusts most people but learns that often times things do not necessarily end fairly. He recounts an incident in Texas where he and David “Fathead” Newman get harassed by cops. Fathead gets arrested and Charles is left with his car. He does not protest their actions, explaining, “the worst thing you could do was talk back. Try to explain, try to defend yourself, try to reason—that's all the excuse the cops needed to bust you upside the head. If you didn't want to get fucked up, you just kept quiet and bit your tongue.” Charles pays the charges to bail out Fathead. Charles says, “we were a black band, and America wasn't exactly embracing us with love, affection, and equal opportunity” (164).



Ray Charles success enabled him to expand his band to a much larger operation than most record companies would allow. Ray sometimes had up to thirty musicians touring with him, allowing him to arrange what he thought his music needed.

Eventually, Ray Charles manages to use the power he gained through his musicianship to command respect. He makes his own decisions musically and bargains with his fame to gain more control over his music and his money. He runs his band in a way that does not deny anyone from enjoying themselves the same way he enjoys himself but he maintains a sense of discipline. He controls his music by forcing his musicians to do their best while they work for him on the bandstand. He has the luxuries available to speak truth to power. Despite a breach-of-contract lawsuit that costs Charles nearly 1500 to 2000 dollars, he refuses to play a segregated gig in Georgia. He suggests to the promoter that the audience could be segregated as long as the “whites go upstairs and the blacks sit downstairs, in the so-called best seats.” Charles remarks, “After all I was black and it only made sense to have the black folk close to me.”
Charles remembers the advice of Mama when she told him “Don't burn the bridge that brought you over” as he stands up for the people who had been attending his gigs on “the famous circuit of black theaters for years and years—the Apollo in New York, the Regal in Chicago, the Royal in Baltimore, the Howard in Washington, D.C.” His band was “spending most of [its] time in the South, performing before strictly black audiences.” Charles explains that “whatever little name I had, I'd earned by playing in front of black people. They were the ones who'd been supporting me, and I wasn't about to insult them”(164).

Charles is one of the first musicians to refuse to play a Jim Crow gig and the band successfully forces promoters into integrating events in places like Nashville and Baton Rouge. Charles says “I never blamed all the white people in America. I didn't fault all of any one group.” He understands that the laws and pressures of society had forced many whites to risk their lives and businesses in order to stand up for what was right. He notes that he was not bothered by the popularity of rhythm-and-blues and its adoption by white artists. He describes it as “just one of those American things. I've said before that I believe in mixed musical marriages, and there's no way to copyright a feeling or a rhythm or a style of singing. Besides it meant that White America was getting hipper” (176).

Sometimes, the covers from whites assisted in breaking the censorship that was harming his music. When “What'd I Say” was released, it was banned by several radio stations. Charles agreed that the song was “suggestive” but later heard white artists covering the tune, which seemed strange “as though white sex was cleaner than black sex.” He says, “these bans didn't bother” him because “once they began playing the white version, they lifted the ban and also played the original” and he could “see, feel, and smell the royalties rolling in” (191).


Did you know Ray played clarinet and saxophone?
Ray says if he had to “shoot craps on anyone's philosophy”, he was “putting [his] money on Martin Luther King, Jr” (272). Ray's integration of different musical styles represents many of the ideals from King's nonviolent approach to fighting. He learns to speak the language in order to win over a wide variety of audiences while refusing to censor his perception of the way things ought to be without fear of offending anyone. Charles's joy in finding and mimicking the good in others whether it is through a jazz lick, a gospel melody, a country standard or boogie-woogie blues riff exhibits an ideal of sharing our experiences with others. The anger against any use of music serves to show how absurd those barriers between people were. Charles may not have adhered to all his religious upbringing but he said he was inspired by King's use of nonviolent resistance to prove a point and draw a contrast against the segregationists' violent reactions defending their system. Charles said he could not “tell anyone not to be angry” but he thought militancy, while pointing to the problem, can be counterproductive. He saw King's approach as a positive method of uniting all people as “the clearest and the furthest vision.” Even an untimely death from assassins “couldn't make us forget his lessons,” Charles explains, “he taught us, we listened, and now we know”(276).

While Charles admits knows how to get along well with others, he claims he was never trying to appease anyone. He remarks that he makes decisions according to what feels right to him, refusing to limit himself to any label given to him by radio and fans, recording albums of jazz, country, blues, and R&B. He retained control over his music while learning from the music of others to suit his feelings; Ray was just being Ray the way he knows best.



All citations come from Ray Charles' autobiography co-authored by David Ritz, Brother Ray.