Did you like the movie?
Yes, I enjoyed it very much. I thought that it gave a very fair and balanced depiction of a very complicated life that was filled with peaks and valleys. It caused us to see not only the tremendous impact that Ray Charles had as a musician, but sometimes the internal struggles in his private life.
Were any of those internal struggles easy to relate to?
Well, my life and his life were totally different. He was blind, and that creates a myriad of problems that thankfully I have never experienced. I did have the privilege of meeting him at the NAACP Image Awards last year. When I was given the Presidential Award, he was given the Living Legend Award. To the best of my knowledge, that was the last award he received before he passed. Meeting him was very brief because we were both on TV at the time. He left immediately after the award; it was obvious his health had begun to deteriorate, that he was there sacrificially, in terms of his physical condition.
Returning to his internal struggles, the movie depicts how Ray handled things like his brother's death, his drug abuse, and his affairs. At one point in the movie Ray says that he felt like God had given up on him after all these struggles. How did you respond to that?
Well, I don't know. I think he had a lot of influences in his life and some of them came from a church, but most of them were developed, based on the movie, from experiences he had on the road, learning his own brand of faith and theology. Having worked with professional entertainers, people in the industry, when people like that develop a relationship with God outside the church and outside biblical influences, they often develop a mutated understanding of who God is. I think that he struggled to feel accepted in the Lord and needed spiritual mentoring that he unfortunately didn't get, if the movie is an accurate depiction of his personal experiences.
The movie does depict him as having had some kind of religious background, at least in how he was raised by his mother. Do you think his being on the road as a musician made him lose that?
I think the dynamic that is most strongly depicted in the movie is a cultural dynamic impacted by the African-American culture at large. Because the community is a minority in this country, you cannot develop in our community and not have some spiritual experience at some point in your life. Our community is small and consequently the barriers between the spiritual and secular community are not nearly as high.
If you look into most of the secular artists that climbed into prominence, particularly those in the `60s and well into the `90s, they were birthed out of the choir stands of our churches. There's a constant communication between blues, jazz, and gospel music that has always been a strong part of the African-American church. When you look at the spiritual component of the movie, the deeper understanding of our culture helps to put in proper perspective that intertwining between the secular and the spiritual, as evidenced in that small, rural community that he was raised in, where the church is one corner and the honkytonk is on the other.
You're a musician yourself. How did that affect how you experienced the movie?
I love music, and I understand the conversation that has existed between gospel music and jazz for years. You cannot be an accomplished musician in one of those areas without seeing or experiencing infusion of the other. So there is a cross-pollination that has existed in this music that, quite frankly, is difficult to be written because it has a lot to do with the ear, with the emotions, and with the soul. Both genres of music, gospel and blues, have more to do with the soul of the person, the feeling, the emotions of the person than tightly written and scripted musical composition.
So as a musician, it was fascinating to see how Ray was able to borrow from all the different genres and then ultimately crescendo into composing music, where he used symphonies as a background. It was quite clear that this person who was obviously handicapped by his blindness had a keen intelligence and a great gift.
The great thing about Ray is that he ultimately transcended all barriers and all colors and cultures and had the kind of music that reminds me of what the Bible says about Joseph [in Genesis 49:22], when it says that Joseph is a bough whose branch reaches over the wall. Ray's music reached over the wall and beyond genres and impacted larger audiences and even dabbled into country music. This guy was a legend, and yet the movie really clearly shows that he had his own demons to fight from his past.
You talked about the cross-pollination between gospel and jazz and blues. In the movie, many people protested this music, saying that what Ray Charles did was sacrilegious. How did you react to that?
There's always been bantering in the church from both perspectives. Whenever secular music was rewritten and adopted into the church, there was always an outcry from certain factions of the religious community who thought it was inappropriate. Ray is one of the cases where it was done in reverse, where he took gospel music and took it to a secular audience and rewrote the words.. There's always been a bantering to decide where you draw the line--how much to borrow from the secular to develop the sacred or borrow from the sacred to share with the secular.
That [borrowing] continues to exist today. We're debating about it now with Christian rap music; we debate about it in the CCM [contemporary Christian music], with the more rock-sounding music that is prevalent. Elvis Presley certainly had a church undertone to his music and was open in talking about how his music was influenced by the church. It has gone on and will continue to go on.
One of the other major spiritual themes of the movie was Ray's perseverance through adversity. He experienced so much adversity because he was blind and so much racism, he really had to learn to depend on himself. What other themes like that did you take away from the movie?
Oh I think the major thing that really rang out to me was, here's a man impacted in his childhood by an experience that continued to haunt him and manifested itself in substance abuse,, sexual proclivities and other things...
You're talking about the drowning death of his brother?
Yes, the death of his brother [as a child] really continued to haunt him in a very tormenting and unfortunate way. I think that is not unique to him; that is a reality for many people. Perhaps it does not create some of the issues that he confronts, but all of us run into issues out of our past that continue to influence how we process love and life and intimacy and sexuality and other things. The great thing that the gospel provides is an opportunity to finally bring some resolution to our past.
Ray did seem to have some resolution at the end of the movie, a moment of self-forgiveness when he realized his brother's death wasn't his fault, and he could move on.
Yes, and that is a very significant thing. When the Bible talks about the Prodigal Son, it says he came to himself, and Ray comes to accept the things that haunt him. The implication is somewhere in the middle of his life, he comes to himself and goes back home.
Would you call that scene, where Ray comes to himself, as you say, in the mental hospital, a redemptive moment? He was redeemed and could live a better life after that.
I don't know whether it suggests he came to a place of redemption as much as it would be appropriate to use the word 'closure.' When we talk about 'redemption' to a religious audience, the implication is to be bought back, and as a Christian, by the blood. I'm not sure the movie really asserted that. I do think the movie was effective in saying that he found a place of closure in his life that was very important and significant to his well-being, and I certainly applaud that.