Since then folks from the media have been
asking for some personal insight on him. The most important thing
I can say about Ray was that he was a true one-of-a kind artist.
His musical influence was felt by several generations of instrumentalists
and vocalists, me being one of them. As I said, this is personal,
so this will be a personal tribute. What Ray had that many musical
artists today lack is style. He possessed his own personal way of
making a song his own. When Ray sang, it was immediately identifiable.
It could be nobody else. His ballads were slower than molasses,
and nobody but Ray could make songs work at that speed. When new
musicians came into the band, it took them weeks to understand how
to play at the slow tempos he chose. It was an elastic kind of flow
that is not common in pop and jazz music, or especially in soul
or R&B. In fact it's pretty much considered "wrong"
when anyone else tries it. That's why Ray cannot be imitated effectively.
And then he would burn on a tune so fast that you just had to hang
on for dear life and hope the band stayed together.
I had the chance to witness the creative
process with Ray on many occasions. He would hear a tune he liked,
and decide to perform it. You would catch him doodling around on
the piano, trying to come up with something different in the chord
structure or the melody. Again, making the tune personal to him.
He decided that he wanted to sing Paul Simon's tune "Still
Crazy After All These Years". I thought this was a odd selection
for him, and the first few nights that he sang it, it sounded awkward.
But gradually it began to sound like Ray Charles. It took many performances,
and it took him knowing the tune so well he could just let go and
be himself. And at that point, it was terrific. Ray has been termed
a genius, but to me this does not describe him. It was workmanship,
it was persistence, and more than anything it was a way of personalizing
In Ray's music there was no pretense. I think
that is what appealed to people. In the public's mind, Ray was "one
of them". One of his early hits comes to mind as to how he
expressed himself in a song. "I Believe It To My Soul"
is a simple blues that tells a story of relationship woes in three
short verses. It builds to the point where when Ray screams at the
end of the third verse in his raspiest voice "I believe to
my soul, you're trying to make a fool out of me!", it's not
just for effect, as so many lesser singers try to do. It's the ultimate
conclusion of the song, and it works.
During his later years on tour, Ray eschewed
playing acoustic piano for electronic keyboards. But on the blessed
occasions where there was a technical malfunction he would play
on a "real" piano. The difference was staggering. He had
a beautiful soft touch on the piano that we rarely got to experience.
But his playing during these times was gorgeous.
To his fans Ray was an icon who they could
readily identify with. To me he was a bandleader that always had
confidence in my playing and in my writing. I am grateful to him
for that. He taught me things about phrasing that could be learned
no other way. We all watched his feet and his body for musical cues,
and on those best nights, the ebb and flow of the time made the
22 musicians in the band seem like an extension of Ray's limbs and
body. He would turn to the band with a "yeah" that indicated
that he was happy with the music. I think he lived for those moments.
To that end he employed a band of 22 musicians when most other artists
had scaled back or used "pick-up" bands in order to save
money. But to Ray nothing was comparable to the sound of his hand-picked
band. We understood what he was after, we could read his movements,
we had the insight of working with him night after night, realizing
what he wanted and being able to accomplish it. And I was very lucky
to have an opportunity to be a part of that.
So that's my view from the back of the stage.