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'

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

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own