Bank Statements on My Mind
They don't call him a genius for nothing. Ray Charles' synthesis of gospel, jazz, and even a little bit of country & western became what we call "soul." But even while Charles chalked up hits like "I Got a Woman" and "What'd I Say?" he was mastering the business of music and running his own label. Here he talks about the tricks of the trade, finding his own voice, and dealing with racism in the South.
VH1: What were your experiences with the music industry during the early days?
Ray Charles: The guy that made my first record for me had a company called Swing Time. He never paid me any royalties, but he liked me. He loved to gamble. I would be out with him sometimes. He'd be having his fun. I'd say, "Hey Jack, let me have $500. I'm going to get in the game." He'd give it to me. That's how I got extra money. But he never paid me a penny of royalties per se.
VH1: Was that a common practice?
Charles: The guy had a little company. I would figure in those days, it wasn't very much different. Most artists didn't hardly get paid any royalties. That's the way it was.
VH1: How did that change?
Charles: I had a little luck. Atlantic bought my contract from Swing Time. By the time I got to Atlantic, I had learned a few things from talking to other cats. One thing I had learned was that if you're going to sign with somebody, whatever you do, have it in your contract where you can audit the books at your expense. Then at least you can halfway know what's going on. Then in 1959, I signed a contract with ABC. I went to Sam Clark, who was the president at the time. We were negotiating the contract. My mom always told me, "Ask people. They can only give you two answers: yes and no. You respect both of them." I said to Sam, "I'd like to own my own masters." He said, "Oh my God, Ray, I don't know about that. We've never done that before. I'm going to have to go upstairs and talk to Mr. Goldstein." I said, "OK, you go and talk to him and see what he says." What they didn't know was I was going to sign the contract anyway because it was very lucrative. Seventy-five cents out of every dollar? That ain't bad! But he called me back in about three days and he said, "Man, you're the luckiest person in the world. I talked to Mr. Goldstein and he told me whatever Ray Charles wants, give it to him." I got lucky and that's one of my mainstays even today. I own all my old masters. Record companies don't give that up today. That's a no-no.
VH1: What inspired you to mix country with R&B?
Charles: The only inspiration for my combining the two musics together was that I've always loved country music. I didn't want to do country western, like, roots. What I wanted to do was take these country songs and put some strings behind it and put a choir behind it and just sing them that way. My attitude was if I take these country songs and modernize them, something might come of it. Sure enough, as it turned out, it did.
VH1: How important was your first major R&B hit, "I Got a Woman," to you?
Charles: That's the song when I started sounding like myself. All I was doing was just being natural. Before that I was trying my best to sound like Nat "King" Cole. I slept Nat "King" Cole. I ate Nat "King" Cole. I drank Nat "King" Cole. I was pretty good at it, too. Everybody was like, "Hey, kid, you sound just like Nat 'King' Cole!" That's what stopped me. That word, "kid." Nobody knew my name. I woke up one morning and said, "This has got to stop. Remember what your mom told you. You got to be yourself. You got to stop this. Because you're not doing nothing for yourself." So I said, "OK, I'm going to sing naturally." You dare to be different. It wasn't like, "Now I am going to take country and western and put it with this, or I am going to take jazz and put it with that." All I said was I'm going to be myself and sing the way I feel. That's it.
VH1: Did you experience a lot of racism when you would tour the South in the '50s and '60s?
Charles: No more than anybody else. I was treated no differently than any other black person. I went through everything everybody else went through. You got to stop at a restroom, and there ain't no restroom. Or it says for whites only. What are you going to do? You can't stop in the middle of the highway because if the cops catch you, then you're going to jail. The only thing I can say about that time in my life is thank God for music. If music hadn't been there to help me through all of this, I wouldn't have made it.
VH1: Was there a difference between the way you were treated onstage and off?
Charles: The main problem I had once white people started coming to my concerts is that they would make the black people go upstairs. Then I wouldn't do the concert and get sued. Naturally, I lost. I'd say, "Look, I don't mind playing my music for anybody, but I'm not going to play and have my people who made what I am sit upstairs." So I got sued a lot.
VH1: Can you tell us how you set up your own record company, Tangerine?
Charles: I wanted to see what it felt like to own my own record company. Since I owned my own masters, I said to myself, "Why not?" I wanted to learn what is it that these people are doing in the record companies. One of the things that you see up front when you start to deal, you see where record companies will give somebody an advance. "Man, this guy, he got $200,000 in advance!" But when you stop and think about it, it don't mean nothing. Because you're not going to see a nickel until that record company has collected every dollar of that money back. When I go to record companies, I say, "I don't want no advance. You give me a bonus. Un-recoupable." You learn things like that.
VH1: Who was on your label?
Charles: Ike and Tina Turner was on my label. Louis Jordan was on my label. I had a group called the Vocals; eventually they became the Fifth Dimension. Percy Mayfield. I had about 10 or 11 artists.
VH1: Was it exciting for you in any way?
Charles: I really enjoyed my little record company. The sad part about it is that I couldn't keep it because I couldn't be in two places at one time. If you really want to be successful with a record company, you really have to stay on the case. You have to stay on top of it all the time. I couldn't do that because I was performing. I didn't lose no money. But you just have to say to yourself, "I love to do this but I can't do this."
VH1: How important is the business side of being a recording artist?
Charles: I think it's very important. But every artist is not the same. There are far more artists who don't want to hear about it. I have people that work for me like most people who are in the business. I have lawyers and accountants and all this kind of foolishness, but I never turn over all of anything to anybody and say, "Hey, you got it." If I got a million dollars in the bank, I want to know what's happening to it!