My Ray of sunshine

The Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun liked Ray Charles so much, he signed him twice. He tells Pierre Perrone the new biopic is broadly right - though the singer didn't call him 'Omelette'
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The music-industry mogul Ahmet Ertegun knows talent. He signed Bobby Darin, Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones - the latter, famously, in his sleep in 1970, after nodding off at the Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles, while talking to Mick Jagger into the small hours. He distributed the Stax label and helped Aretha Franklin to become the Queen of Soul.

The music-industry mogul Ahmet Ertegun knows talent. He signed Bobby Darin, Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones - the latter, famously, in his sleep in 1970, after nodding off at the Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles, while talking to Mick Jagger into the small hours. He distributed the Stax label and helped Aretha Franklin to become the Queen of Soul.

But now, just two years shy of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Atlantic records, the label he co-founded, and a few days away from his 82nd birthday, Ertegun maintains that Ray Charles was the most talented musician he ever worked with.

"Ray invented his own sound and style and approach," Ertegun says. "His whole being was in his music. He was able to take any piece of music and make it his own, and it became a Ray Charles creation. The first time I heard 'Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand' by Ray on Swingtime Records in 1951, I said, 'That's the best thing I ever heard. We have to get that man somehow.'

"And we managed to buy his contract. Swingtime didn't mind, because he wasn't selling any records. Ray was not a headliner before we signed him up: he toured with other bands," Ertegun stresses; his memory is as sharp as ever when it comes to Ray Charles. "But it wasn't a big gamble for us, because we knew we had a great artist who had the talent and who could play the kind of music that would reach and touch an American audience. And, after he made his first few American hits, he became a big star in Europe, too.

"I remained friends with him throughout; I was with him a few months before he died. Through everything, ups and downs, our personal relationship meant more than any business. He was a wonderful man. We had great times together; we both loved jazz. Atlantic's history is deeply tied in with Ray Charles. He even came back on the label."

The "genius of soul", who died last June, became a household name. He's now portrayed by Jamie Foxx in Ray, the biopic directed by Taylor Hackford. Ertegun couldn't help but be impressed by the actor's metamorphosis into his friend. "It's a fabulous, fabulous performance... that deserves an Oscar. The film is a big success, much bigger than anybody expected, and it has helped to bring Ray Charles to the attention of a lot of young people," he says.

Ertegun can vouch for the accuracy of Foxx's portrayal. "Ray was alive when the movie was being made, so Jamie Foxx had the chance to meet him. However, I think that Foxx was careful not to be too much influenced by the Ray Charles he met, who was much older than the part. He took a lot from the videos and the existing footage that he saw of the young Ray Charles."

Compare and contrast Jamie Foxx in Ray with the black-and-white performances on the DVD O-Genio: Ray Charles Live in Brazil, 1963, and the resemblance is uncanny. Ertegun, who witnessed at first hand many of the incidents depicted in Ray (he's played by Curtis Armstrong in the film) can even forgive some of the liberties that Hackford took.

"Ray Charles never called me Omelette: Otis Redding did. The director used that because he thought it was funny," he says. "And the movie makes a big deal of me talking to Ray about his drug problem, but the only person I had that kind of conversation with was Eric Clapton. They took it from that. Ray's drug habit was a major part of his life. Being blind and a junkie is a tough thing, but he conquered both of those."

Never mind dramatic licence, the judicious use of live recordings was crucial to the success of Ray, according to Ertegun. "I went to a lot of shows on the road with Ray Charles and his band. I saw them perform in tobacco barns in the South, small towns in Georgia, places jammed with people where Ray really tore it up," he remembers. "On many occasions, there would be tremendous fervour around the band, it was almost a religious experience. Ray Charles became like an idol for the people. Women would scream, 'Let me touch him, let me touch him!' He was the man!"

Born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, in 1930, he grew up "poor with a capital P" - as he says in his autobiography Brother Ray - in Greenville, Florida. He began playing the piano when he was three. Two years later, he saw his younger brother George fall into a washtub and drown. Ray contracted glaucoma and went blind in 1937, but he studied music at the St Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind in Orlando, Florida. By the late Forties, he'd moved to Seattle and became a Nat King Cole wannabe with the McSon trio, eventually signing to Downbeat/Swingtime Records and spending two years on the road as Lowell Fulson's musical director.

Charles released a few 78s, but he hit his stride in 1952 when he joined Atlantic, which Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson had built into the R&B label par excellence, with a roster including Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, The Clovers and the songwriter-arranger Jesse Stone, who would soon be joined by the producers Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun, Ahmet's brother.

In 1953, Ray Charles released "Mess Around", a song written and co-produced by Ertegun, who plays down his involvement. "I'm an old blues collector and 'Mess Around' is based partly on Cripple Clarence Lofton, partly on Clarence 'Pine Top' Smith and partly on Charles 'Cow Cow' Davenport. If you know who those people are, and what their music is, you'll understand the genesis of that song," he says. "I asked Ray if he remembered 'Cow Cow Blues', and he said he'd never heard of it. So I started to hum it and he started to play; he had it, he must have heard it as a child, it was in his subconscious memory. People played that kind of piano in those days, the early boogie-woogie piano players."

"What'd I Say", Charles's signature tune, evolved from a similar jam in 1959. "That one really knocked me out," Ertegun recalls. "It grew out of the same kind of boogie-woogie music. 'What'd I Say' was the most exciting track that we ever recorded. Apparently, they'd been doing it on the road but we didn't hear it until he came in and did it in the studio. We knew that was gonna be a multi-platinum all-time hit."

Ertegun had watched Ray at close quarters and seen him blossom into an artist capable of tackling any type of material, from blues to country via gospel and standards, going on to influence everyone from Van Morrison to Stevie Wonder and Joe Cocker. "In the beginning, we did a lot of the direction but, once he got his own band, he had the luxury of rehearsing the new material on the road so that when he came in to record, they would be very right on it. Ray was very intelligent and he had a terrific ear. He could pick up any mistake that was made by any member of the band. He would stop and say, 'OK, you know, bar 16, the third beat.' He always heard everything very well, so he was a very astute musical director himself."

Atlantic and Charles suited each other. He certainly made his best records - "It Should Have Been Me", "I've Got a Woman", "Drown in My Own Tears", "Hallelujah I Love Her So" - with Ertegun and company but, in late 1959, the label couldn't match the royalty rate and conditions offered by ABC Paramount, and Charles left.

Ahmet signed Charles again in 1977 for the True to Life album, and he likes the recent duets album Genius Loves Company, but he concedes that his friend made some syrupy records in between. "I think 'Georgia On My Mind' is one of the greatest records of all time. I just don't like the male voices in the background. It's very square, untypical of Ray Charles. But his singing and playing are fabulous, and we may remaster and remix that."

Ray has proved such a success in the US that Ertegun has already helped to compile a second volume of the soundtrack. "Then we're putting together a complete box-set of all the Atlantic recordings: that's the really golden period of Ray Charles. It will have a lot of unreleased takes, something special for all the collectors around the world," he muses.

"I love '(Night Time Is) The Right Time'. We had several takes for that; I think they're all good. I remember watching my brother Nesuhi direct a session when Ray made 'Let the Good Times Roll', which was very exciting. The Genius of Ray Charles album has almost everything in it. Ray was not especially happy that we put that label on him, but we saw that he was a genius.

"Nothing surprised me with Ray. The only thing that surprised me is that he did not become bigger and bigger, because his music was so great. Forget Elvis; the only person you could compare him with is Louis Armstrong. Ray Charles was a great gift to American music."

'Ray' is in cinemas now. The DVD 'O-Genio - Ray Charles Live in Brazil, 1963' is out now on Warner Vision. A limited edition of the CD 'Genius Loves Company' is out on EMI