Ray Charles: Music Is His Life

Ray CHarles

Ray Charles just can't stop. At 72, he's still making music that grabs the soul.

Recently, he had West Wing-tips tapping at the White House Radio & Television Correspondents dinner.

"When I come out on stage, I can tell right away that the audience is with me," says Charles. "They are ready for me and that's important."

Charles can't stop the music because music, he says, is his life.

"Ever since I was 3 years old, music has always fascinated me," says Charles. "Music is number one in my life. That's it."

He studied all kinds of music, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker. Charles learned Chopin as a child and started off in a hillbilly band.

"There's only two kinds of music as far as I'm concerned: good and bad," says Charles. "I just sit there and get into the groove of what the music is dictating. If it's dictating country sounds, that's where I go. If it's dictating jazz, that's where I go. If it's dictating the blues, that's where I go. In other words, I follow where the music leads me."

And it has taken him and his fans on a fantastic journey through a revolution in American popular music.

However, it took him a while to find his voice. He recalls trying to imitate the sound of Nat King Cole because he loved that singer so much. But, he realized he had to be his own man.

"I woke up one morning and began to realize that nobody knew my name," says Charles. "I was very frightened to be myself because I could get jobs sounding like Nat Cole. But I told myself, 'You gotta do it. Because don't nobody know your name.'"

When he found his style with band and backup singers, the Rayletts, it was explosive and controversial.

"When I did that, it did have a spiritual effect and vibe in it," says Charles. "It did have a blues effect. But that was just me."

He created a sound so original, so timeless, that The Library of Congress recently picked Ray Charles "What'd I Say" as one of the most significant American recordings.

"I love it," says Charles. "Well, you know, when you do yourself, you gotta like what you do."

He was already a big R&B star when he decided to make a country album. His record label producers tried to talk him out of it.

"They said, 'Oh you're gonna lose a lot of your fans, Ray, you know, because people know you for rhythm and blues," says Charles. "My attitude was, 'Well, I probably may lose a few fans, but if I work it just right, I think I'll gain more fans than I loose.'"

And he did. "I Can't Stop Loving You" hit No. 1 in the country, R& B and pop charts in 1962 and Ray Charles was the most popular singer in the nation.

Ray Charles still embraces country music. And country musicians, like Willie Nelson, embrace Ray Charles.

"He did a country music album that was so good," says Nelson. "Country music took a quantum leap right after that. Thanks to Ray Charles."

"Thanks to Ray Charles" is heard a lot from musicians. Sir Elton John says Ray Charles' uninhibited soul and unrivaled versatility set many creative spirits free.

"He was one of the catalysts for me of music," says Sir Elton. "I mean as a piano player and as a singer, he influenced so many people. They don't come much better than him."

It has been a long road to success for Charles. He grew up poor and hungry. His brother drowned in front of him. He lost his mother at 15. And he used drugs for a while.

He hit the road at a young age, crossing the country playing clubs and concerts. He became a notorious womanizer and substance abuser. He had a heroin habit for years.

"But I was lucky enough to tell myself, 'One day, you got to stop. This is fine. I been there and done that, but it ain't good for you. You need to let it go,'" says Charles. "And I did exactly that."

He has no regrets.

"Everything I can look at as negative, I learned something from it," explains Charles. "I got something out of it. It helped me to do other things better."

But he has never described his blindness as hardship.

"I look at blindness like an inconvenience," says Charles. "I can do 98 percent of everything I want to do in my life."

He lost his sight at age 6 to glaucoma. His mother taught him not to feel sorry for himself, but to do for himself.

That's why, even today, a lot of people may swear that Charles can see some things.

"Because, I do too many things that normally blind people can't do, including starting my own record label," says Charles. "All the mixes that you hear from my records, I do."

He's had experiences enough to make a movie. The story of his life is in production now. Jamie Foxx plays Ray Charles.

"The good thing about Ray Charles is that he's ageless," says Foxx. "The reason he's ageless is because we, as people, when we get up in the morning, we look in the mirror. And its been a few years that's gone by and we say, 'Oh my face. I got a wrinkle. I got this.' He's never done that. So he can't really perceive what his face looks like or anything like that. He just knows that his music is flowing through him and time is passing."

Ray Charles is looking ahead, not back. He's still electrifying audiences and getting a charge in return.

"It really stimulates me. It puts the voltage into me and makes me go," says Charles. "And that's why, when I go out on stage, I give them all of me. Not part of me. I give them everything I've got. I give it to them."

(Original Airdate: May 4, 2003)