The music man

It doesn't take a lot of insight to realize that Ray Charles is an extremely versatile musician. It isn't just that he has recorded with everyone from Aretha Franklin to George Jones to jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson; simply looking at such album titles as "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," "My Kind of Jazz" or "Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul" says something about the range of music he has made over the years.

But as he sees it, there's really only one kind of music he makes: Ray Charles music.


"My music is always me, man," he says, over the phone from his studio in California. "Believe me, I don't get into fads. I do me. Period. Like I tell people, I'm not a country singer, I'm a singer that can sing country music. I'm not a blues singer, but I'm a singer that can sing the blues. I'm a singer that can sing jazz music, but I'm not a jazz singer.

"You understand? There's a big difference. In other words, I don't have no specialty, but I can do a little bit of all of it."


That's an understatement. Since he started making records, back in 1948, Charles, 64, has been one of the most inventive and enduring performers in popular music. His early singles, like "I Got a Woman" and "Hallelujah I Love Her So" are credited with laying the foundation for soul singing, while later hits, like "What'd I Say," "Georgia On My Mind" and "I Can't Stop Loving You" found him dealing in everything from dance music to country and western balladry.

"I've been very fortunate, in that the companies I've been involved with, they didn't restrict me," he says. "I didn't have a producer to come and tell me, 'Ray, you do this,' or 'Ray, you do that.' I was my own boss.

"When I wanted to record a country and western album, way back in the '60s, I went to Sam Kroc, who was the boss of ABC the time, and I told him I wanted to do a country album. He almost fainted. He said, 'Man, you're going to ruin your career, you're going to lose a lot of fans.'

"I said, 'Yeah, that may be true.' But I thought that I would gain more than I would lose. And that's what I told him. He said, 'Well, OK, man. It's your career, you do what you want.' "

He did, and his first country single, "I Can't Stop Loving You," topped the charts for five straight weeks.

Ironically, when Charles started his career, he made his money by sounding like someone else. "I used to dearly love Nat Cole," he says. "I mean, I loved the man, and I wanted to be like him. So in the beginning, I did everything in the world to imitate Nat Cole, man. And I got pretty proficient at it, too. People were saying to me, 'Oh, you sound just like Nat Cole.'

"That's what woke me up one time. I finally woke up one morning and said, You know, don't nobody know what my name is. They just say, 'Hey, kid, you sound just like Nat Cole.' Ain't nobody saying, 'Ray Charles.' They're just saying, 'Kid.' So once I realized that that's what I had to do, I've known that that was the key ever since. You've got to be unto yourself.

"I should have known, though," he adds, with a laugh. "Because my Mom always said to me, 'Son, be yourself.' I mean, she always told me that. And there's a greatness and truth to 'Be yourself.' So that's what I do."


Ray's World

To hear selections from Ray Charles' most recent album, "My World," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6221 after you hear the greeting.

Charles in Concert

What: Ray Charles and David Brenner

When: Sunday, Oct. 16, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall


Tickets: $35, $60 and $100; proceeds to benefit Lifesongs for AIDS Inc.

$ Call: (410) 653-5520