In 2002, American Routes host Nick Spitzer visited Charles in his Los Angeles studio, and talked with him about his life in music and his work with the nonprofit education group The Sir Charles Blues Lab. A portion of this interview appears below.
Q: You have been able to step into so many styles -- gospel and country and soul, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock and roll. How does somebody learn their way into all of those things?
A: Well, the key is how much you love music. If you notice, I said, music. I didn't say country, I didn't say jazz, I didn't say blues, I said how much do you love music. Music is huge, big. There are many things you can do. I've always loved music. Therefore, I wasn't paying attention to titles like you guys. I didn't even know what that was. I just knew I liked it when I was a kid. I just knew that my mom would only let me stay up past nine o'clock on Saturday night when the Grand Ole Opry would come on. She knew I loved that so she would let me stay up and listen to it. I didn't know it was country; it just sounded like good music to me.
If I'm listening, I hear music. I hear some people like Dinah Shore or Benny Goodman or Count Basie, it was just good music. It was always about feeling to me. Could I really get into that music? I honestly did not know. The only thing that I really knew that had a special name at the time was classical because that is what they told me I was studying. I didn't know all those other names! Jazz and the blues, I found that out later.
Q: When you listened to the Grand Ole Opry and country music, what were the little licks and chops that you had to learn to make the country sound?
A: Again, like I said, the thing is, the different branches of music had their own flavor. What you do, you listen to the flavor. Listen to the people that are doing it; what are they doing? How are they maneuvering? You learn if you listen to the music enough. I can hear pretty good -- I'm not bragging, but it is the truth, I can pretty much see. I can understand what they are doing, and I understand how they are doing it. What I do is say, "Is there any way I can fit into that?" I'm not a country singer. But I'm a singer that can sing country music. There is a big difference. I'm not a jazz singer, but I'm a singer that can sing jazz. I'm not a blues singer, but I'm a singer that can sing the blues. I guess what I'm trying to tell you is that I'm not a specialist; I'm sort of a utility guy.
Q: In this blues lab group you've got, why is learning the blues important?
A: Frankly, I think it is a very great beginning because you can express yourself and it is not something that is extraordinarily difficult. It is three chords and a feeling. That is the essence of the blues.
Q: How do you teach kids that today?
A: The thing is, with me, when you are dealing with kids, the name of the game is how much do they want it? When I was coming up, how much did I want it? I wanted it bad. I wanted that music. If you really want it, if you feel it and you know in your heart, you realize you are not as good as you could be, but you also know that if you work at it, if you practice -- and you know sometimes that is a dirty word, practice -- but I never met anybody that was good that didn't practice. You have to discover yourself. That is what practice does; it helps you do the things that your mind tells you.
My thing is to motivate the kids because there are people that need to be motivated into something that they like doing. In my case, I didn't need no motivation because everything was automatic, like my breathing. But it is not that way for everybody. Some people love music, but yet they don't know how to find their way.
Q: But these kids coming in, can they go into a structured teaching situation and learn blues? You learned your music on the side. It wasn't the school that gave you the music.
A: Well, yes, it was -- I remember, I did tell you I studied music. I studied classical. It just turned out that I decided that I didn't want to go that way. I did study. I did study arrangements, and I do write arrangements.
Q: Can they learn blues in a school setting?
A: Well, you know, they can if the school is teaching it. Today, unfortunately, so many schools are taking the music out of the schools. That is ultra sad. The schools are just not dealing with it anymore. The way I look at it, it is not up to me to leave things up to other people. What is it that I can do myself? This is what I feel I can do. If the school's going to help me, more power! If not, I do what I can do. I try to show the kids that this is what can happen and this is how it can happen. In the end, it is always going to be up to you.
Q: Can we talk about one other important institution, the church? When you were a very young man, I assume you spent a little time there in church. Learning the church music -- how is that different?
A: Music is music, man. You got to remember that each human being is different. But for me, music was just music. I didn't really dissect it the way that we do it today. I just knew I loved good church music. I loved the sound of it. When I was going to church, there was no organ or piano, the people of the church did the singing. The pastor would lead. The people of the church, not the choir, everybody sang! We were happy to do it. We didn't have a choir. In our little church, everybody did the singing. Strangely enough, when I look back, it wasn't bad. Everybody's in the church, and you know they aren't all singers, but as I remember the people could carry a tune.
Q: But later you were able to take church music, take the blues
A: Everything I do is always a part of me. It is just about being yourself. For many years I tried my utmost to sound like Nat Cole, and I got pretty good at it, but then I finally remember my mom told me, "Son, you got to learn to be yourself." I just decided one day, "I'm scared to stop imitating Nat Cole, but I know I can get some jobs, and if I stop I may not be able to work." But I knew that I had to start being myself. I couldn't keep on trying to be somebody else. When I just tried to just sing my way, all the sudden people were saying it sounded religious. Well, what could I do? So be it, that was me. That was just the way I felt. Later on, after I did it, then a few other people started doing it and then after that people started calling it soul. It was OK after that!
Q: New label!
A: Yeah, new label. When I first did it, they said I was bastardizing the church and all kinds of things.
Q: For the kids today who are learning the blues in the blues lab, and you are a professor figure, do they need church, too? Do they need other forms of music to make a mix for themselves? Are they going to get what you got?
A: No, people should start with what they love. You can't make people be like yourself. It is just no way. I don't even think that is even fair. What you are trying to do is get kids to be themselves. Let them do what they are comfortable with. All kids may not want to deal with the blues or with the church music. Some kids may want to specialize. They may not want to play anything but jazz. That's great.
Q: What about something like, "What'd I Say"? That seems to have quite a few elements.
A: That ain't nothing but three chords, that's all it is. I could play that when I was eleven or twelve. I could do that because I felt that. It is like a lot of the music today, and I'm going to shut up because I'm going to get in trouble and I know that, but it is like a lot of the music I hear today, it doesn't do anything to trigger my brain. It is not anything that grabs me and says, "Wow, did you hear that?" I just don't see that type of thing today like you used to see when you used to have somebody come out and open their mouth and they could sing two notes and you'd know it was Ella Fitzgerald, or they could sing two notes and you'd know it was Frank Sinatra, or they could sing two notes and
Q: They'd know it was Ray Charles!
A: I don't see that today.
Q: "What'd I Say" may be simple, but you sing it and you present it with authority and knowledge.
A: Well that is very nice of you, but in reality, I have to tell you, that song came about because in the older days we used to do what you call dances. They were not concerts; they were dances when people would come in and dance. You would start at nine o'clock, and it would go until one o'clock. Around 11:30, you would have intermission, and then you would come back and play the last hour. One night when I came back from intermission, it was about 10 minutes to one, and I had played everything I could think of. I told the guys in my band, "Just follow me." And I told the girls, "Just whatever I say, just repeat after me. It is crazy, but let's have some fun."
In the end, if you notice, the lyrics to "What'd I Say," don't represent anything. They are just different verses. They are not uniform. Normally, when you write a song, you write a song that is connected. "What'd I Say" is just some verses thrown together. It is that rhythm that seems to have gotten the people. You'd be surprised how many people know that little lick that I made up cause I had about 12 minutes to play! The people started dancing and went crazy when we started doing that. The next night I tried it again, and the same thing happened, so I called Atlantic Records and told them that I had a little thing I played every night and the people just loved it. So they said to come to New York to record it, and the rest is history.
Q: Do you feel like you are still learning things about music?
A: You can never know all about music, I don't care how good you are. You have to remember there are 88 keys on this piano, and I got but 10 fingers!
Q: How about in the world of recording? You are a producer, a recordist. Are there technologies coming today that you find yourself interested in?
Q: I use the technology that I like, that do the things that I want. You are in my studio now, you look around, you see the different things that I have in here, and all the things you see in here, I operate -- all the machines, all the limiters, all the consoles. I do my own mixing. All the records you've been hearing for the past 30 or 40 years that we've done here, I mix.
Q: Is there any new technology that you really like, on the digital side?
A: I don't like digital! You got to live with it. It is here to stay, period. If you ask me my preference in recording music, I prefer analog. I really do. Somebody said about digital -- which is a good sales pitch -- it is quiet. It is, but there are things that you don't get with digital. You can come close, and most people don't know the difference, but if you are really into listening to music, you hear it. You can't drive digital like analog.
Q: With the work you're doing with the kids in blues lab, all the music you are producing, what do you feel is the future of this rooted traditional work -- blues, gospel, soul, country. This big American river of music, is there a future for this river? Do we need to take better care of it?
A: The great thing about music, as far as I can read, music has always been with us. Music is always a necessity because it does so much. It can make people feel so much better about what is happening to them. Music can soothe. Or if you want to have a good time, music can help. Music is a powerful force. Music has been around too long. It is like trying to get rid of roaches, it ain't going to happen!
American Routes airs locally at 8 p.m. Sundays on 89.9 WWNO-FM. For more information about The Sir Charles Blues Lab, visit www.blueslab.org.