"Playing Drums with Ray Charles"
by PAUL KREIBICH
Classic Drummer Magazine - January 2006
In 1985 I began working with Ray Charles and his orchestra with the Raelettes. The band toured around the U.S. and internationally. We recorded both live and in Ray's RPM studios in Los Angeles. The experience is still big influence on my life and music as I continue to make my living as a professional drummer.
On a cruise gig a fellow musician told me that Ray Charles had open "cattle call" auditions in May every year. I showed up at the studio on Washington and Western in L.A., not knowing anyone or even if he needed a drummer. It turned out that his drummer, Rick Kirkland, was leaving and the drum chair was open. There were many drummers there to audition. Some were excellent players and many were just clueless. The audition consisted of reading big band charts with the orchestra. That was the main skill required. All the R&B, soul, and vocal stuff came later. In fact, I didn't even play with Ray singing until after I got the gig and rehearsals began. There were so many drummers that I didn't even get a chance to play the first day. I was discouraged and almost didn't come back the second day. At a friend's encouragement, I showed up. Again, another batch of drummers played. There were a couple of guys who really sounded great and it looked like my chances were getting slim. Cliff Solomon, the band leader, finally let me play last. Ray Charles heard me and said, "Drummer, you're on the case!" from the control room. He came out and put me through the paces. He had me read some other charts and came over and tapped my drums with his fingers to hear their sound. He would sing a drum fill while touching the drums and ask me to play it in a certain spot. When I did this to his satisfaction, he would smile and light up, saying, "Yeah, that's IT, honey, I like it my damnself!" or something similar. Ray had a rep for being tough to please, but by the same token, when he liked something he would get ecstatically happy and almost jump for joy. When he knew that in addition to the having the musical requirements, I could also work with his personality and give him what he wanted, I had the job.
Ray was known as real taskmaster and particularly hard on drummers. I knew this going in and was prepared to deal with a temperamental perfectionist. That he was, and the going was definitely rough in the beginning. But after a significant "break-in" period, a positive, rewarding musical relationship was formed. I stayed on the gig for four years. Working with Ray Charles prepared me for all kinds of musical situations in many different styles; jazz, big-band, R & B, funk, country, and, central to it all, the blues. Ray had a powerful musical and personal presence both on and off stage. His knowledge of music was both intuitive and studied to a very fine degree. As many times as Ray Charles sang "Georgia," every rendition would be different, sincere and moving. He was about getting a natural, soulful feeling to his music. There were definite rules and formulas to the Ray Charles sound that he insisted be held to. Mostly they had to do with keeping the music simple, honest, and not too hard for the average fan to understand and enjoy. This didn't mean he pandered to the audience. Everything Ray did had some kind of musical integrity, in my opinion. You definitely had to play by the rules, but once Ray knew that a musician understood his purpose and was on his side, he would then encourage self expression. He wanted the soloists to reach deep and find their own sound. But you better not make a mistake in the arrangement, rush or drag a tempo, play too loud or too soft, or, worst of all, play without conviction. Then the wrath of the Genie would be upon you. ("The Genie" was one of Ray's nicknames; short for his moniker, "The Genius of Soul.")
Ray could be murder on anybody, but he almost delighted in messing with the drummer's head. You see, Ray's feet were always moving to the beat and tempo he wanted (or so he thought.) He wanted the drummer to follow his foot beat exactly, as if following a conductor. This worked some of the time, but the foot beat would change sometimes when he got into his singing and playing. You had to make him feel as if you were following him, yet still do what you knew you had to do- keep time for a 17 piece band! This led to all kinds of nasty fun. If Ray thought you weren't following him, he would drastically move his foot beat faster or slower to make you chase him around. Meanwhile the groove is going to hell and all the other musicians are giving you dirty looks. Sometimes he would even stop the band onstage to reprimand the drummer and start over. It could be very embarrassing. But he did those things, I believe, to make sure he had firm control over what was happening in the music. As time went on more trust was developed and I could relax and be myself more. It was fun and challenging working with Ray and the big band playing cooking music every night.
See the World!
As everyone knows, Ray Charles was one of the most famous entertainers around. We traveled and did concerts all over the U.S. and internationally. Ray has a huge following in Europe and Asia. We spent a lot of time in France and Italy. The crowds were plentiful and would always go nuts over the show. We got to see a lot of different countries, although usually not for very long since the tour was moving so quickly. After doing the circuit a couple of times we got to know people and made friends in many of the great cities we visited. Much of the time the scheduling would be brutal and exhausting with long bus rides and little time to rest. This was not a cushy rock star type tour. It was an old fashioned, "pay your dues", blue collar experience. We had to pay for our own rooms and sometimes "ghosted" with 3 or more musicians sharing a room. Ray's management came from the old school and were tough on the musicians. They knew we needed the gig and would benefit from our association with Ray. In return we were subjected to a lot of unfair treatment. If you were one minute late for the bus, one road manager would sometimes close the door and pull away, leaving you to get to the next gig on your own. There were fines for lateness, not having your shoes shined, etc. But once you scoped the scams, you could get "under the radar" and have a good time on the road.
Ray kept the big band working about six months out of the year. The rhythm section would work the other half of the year doing the pops symphony circuit. The conditions were better on those gigs because only the guitarist, bassist, and drummer were traveling with Ray and his valet. We'd stay in better hotels and sometimes even fly business class. A highlight was a concert we played with the Royal Philharmonic in London that was televised.
One of the most unforgettable (and scary!) experiences was when Ray's private plane crashed in Bloomington, Indiana. This story could really be an article in itself.
Ray Charles had his own passenger airplane for much of his career. This made the band a self contained unit that could "barnstorm" doing one-nighters in small towns across America that were sometimes difficult to reach with commercial aircraft. On these "hit-and-run" gigs we would fly into a town, do a local concert and then fly out that night to the next town. It was tiring, but at least we'd avoid a night of hotel rent. Ray Charles' plane was a 1959 Vickers Viscount turbo-prop that was quite outdated.
On the ground it was like being in a furnace and smelled strongly of jet fuel. In the air it was freezing cold and very noisy. If not luxurious, it was at least functional in carrying our 26 member entourage from gig to gig. The running nickname for the plane was "The Buzzard."
On Oct.24, 1985 at about 3:00p.m., we were flying into Bloomington with a full tank of fuel from Lexington, Kentucky for a hit and run at University of Indiana's homecoming celebration. It was raining and cloudy with poor visibility. The runway was very short for the plane and the pilot realized after coming out of the clouds that he had overshot the front of it. He brought the plane down hard and it slammed into the middle of the runway, hydroplaning over the wet surface and fishtailing out of control. We were used to some rough landings, but this was something else! I looked out the window and saw that we were heading off the runway. Soon the plane was on grass and mud but still not slowing down. Then, it seemed, all hell broke loose. It was like being in a washing machine. People were flailing around in their seats and things were flying out of the overhead compartments. I couldn't tell which way was up. Then we felt an impact and the fuselage cracked completely open about ten feet in front of me. It happened between the cockpit and the first row of seats. The plane had broken in pieces and you could see the sky, rain, mud, and cornstalks between the twisted metal and fiberglass of the torn fuselage. The plane had tumbled down a 30 foot embankment, hit the bottom, and broke up. It then slid on its belly another 100 yards, or so, through a cornfield that formed a buffer zone beneath the embankment. In addition to the break in the fuselage, the landing gear was snapped off and the tail was also broken when the plane hit the bottom of the sharp incline.
After the "buzzard" finally ground to a halt, there were a few shrieks from a couple of the Raelettes, but then an eerie silence overtook all on board. Was anyone hurt? Is the plane going to explode? Fortunately, some automatic fire extinguishers came on in the jet propeller engines and nothing blew up. We all got out of our seats and managed to knock out the rusted emergency exit windows. Everyone got in line to get off the destroyed aircraft, tired and grumbling just as if it were a late night hotel check-in or Shoney's buffet line after a long bus ride. I'm 6'5" so I just dove through one of the windows and slid face first down one of the wet, slippery wings. I saw one of the propellers, crumpled like an old piece of ribbon, with what looked like smoke coming out of the engine. Then my face hit the mud. I realized that since the landing gear was gone the wings were right on the ground and I had hit it. There we were in the middle of a wet, muddy, October cornfield in a jungle of 8 foot brown stalks. I tried to walk away from the plane, but soon got lost in the corn. I looked back to make sure I was not heading back to the crash. After finally reaching a clearing, I saw that the other members were gathering at the top of the embankment and trying to count heads to see who was safe. Ray Charles was playing chess at the time of the crash and was taken out of the plane by his valet. Luckily there were no serious injuries except to the pilot, who suffered a compression fracture to his spine when the nose of the plane hit the ground. The runway was quite a distance from the Bloomington terminal and it took a while for the rescue trucks to arrive. When they did, a paramedic got out with a big suitcase. We asked what was in it and he said, "Body bags. In an accident like this either everyone makes it or no one makes it."
We were taken to the local hospital and given doctors scrubs to replace our wet, mud-soaked clothing. There was no gig that night.
We took cabs to a local bar in our scrubs. Twelve or so of us "doctors" walked in and ordered double Jack Daniel's. The patrons looked at us like we had just beamed down. We told them our story and soon they were buying us drinks and the party was on. What a day!
The Fun Part
Amidst all this strangeness, the music had a great feel and I felt that no matter how tired or pissed off I was, every night I would give the best possible performance. Ray demanded that for himself and for all who played with him. That was the real reward of the gig. There's a recording out on the web of the band in Toyohashi Japan that was sent out live on the radio in1986. It shows how swinging the band was on its own and doing Ray's material. There's no substitute for a band that tours together for a long time and gets its own groove. That's missing in today's era of "pick-up gigs."
The musicians I met on the band were quite a bunch of characters. Clifford Solomon was the bandleader and a great sax player. His humor was like Richard Pryor to the tenth power. He kept us all in stitches while all the weird "company" stuff was going down. When Clifford wanted to eat some sardines, he'd say, "I'm gonna' get me a can of chorus girls!" He was a real road father and a friend to the end. Rudy Johnson practiced his tenor for hours every day and is a true Coltrane disciple and spiritual seeker. He was a serious influence on everyone. Bari sax player Leroy Cooper led the band one year. He was Cosby's inspiration for "Fat Albert" with a laugh that no one could copy. Leroy was from Texas and could talk straight through a 12 hour bus ride, keeping you laughing all the way. Example: "My girlfriend and I used to live next to each other. I had the apartment up front and she had a flat behind. I used to kiss her on the lips, but it's all over now!"
Ernest Van Treese, the Deacon, was the soft spoken organist from Nashville who had a handle on the whole thing. He kept the musical quality high and the groove soulful. Trombonist Ken Tussing and Bassist Roger Hines were the dodgers who could talk their way into or out of any situation. They could find you enchiladas in Alaska. And there were a lot of cats like myself, doing the gig, working on their music and paying their dues. Saxophonist Ricky Woodard, trumpeter Jeff Kaye, the late alto player Brian Mitchell and I got together and started a band after our days with Ray. It's called the Jazz Coop and we still gig and record today. Guitarist Jeff Pevar is now with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. There's no denying the influence that the "old man" had on his musicians. We all shared a lot of good times and camaraderie. If you could make it through a Ray Charles tour, you were ready for just about anything.
Recording with the "Genie"
Like everything else he did, Ray Charles had his own methods in the studio. He was his own engineer and it was amazing to watch a blind person run a mixing board and set up mikes. It took a little longer, but he did it. Usually he had most of the track done when I came in. I would replace a drum machine track on a song after the other players and singers had already recorded their parts. It seemed a little backwards, but the end result was usually pretty good. These sessions offered a chance for one on one interaction with Ray. He was kind of a vicarious drummer and had lots of interesting ideas for grooves and fills. The main thing was to play simple and keep it in the pocket. Ray would often say, "Too much foot, honey!" He preferred lighter bass drum and once told me to try tightening up the spring on the pedal for more control. It worked. He had a great, very loose sense of time in his own playing that gave everything that greasy, soulful flavor and spirit. That was the guide.
As far as equipment goes, I became a Gretsch and Sabian endorser along with Vic Firth sticks. I toured and recorded with a five piece antique maple Gretsch power tom kit that really kicked. Ray was big on dynamics and had hand signals for soft and loud. He could go from a whisper to roar in a single beat. You'd better be watching!
Ray Charles touched the lives of so many people with his music. Most every fan has his own favorite Ray song whether it's "Georgia" or "Hit the Road Jack". His influence on jazz and musicians was big, too. Ray Charles was able to combine a lot of styles and deliver each one authentically; to maintain a lot of musical integrity and still be popular and accessible. This, to me, was his true genius. For those of us who got to work with him (and survive it!) it was an unforgettable experience.