I’ve read two autobiographies lately by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and the blues and soul singer Ray Charles. Both are impressive books with characteristics highlighting their diverse experiences and unique backgrounds. Although very different in content and voice, they have many similarities.
Both the Rolling Stones and Ray have a background in playing the blues. I expected it from Ray but not from the Stones. As I listen closely to their music, I can see the blues influence. I’ve always been a fan of jazz, folk and blues music when listening to it live at a small club or bar, but I’ve never really paid attention to the classics. Both Keith and Ray mention Muddy Waters as being a great blues musician. An icon, a person to emulate. I know the name. I even named our floatation device in our archaeology lab, Muddy Waters. The name for me was obvious. We poured in dirt, the mud went to the bottom and the seeds floated. It’s important in archaeology when studying ancient diets and agriculture. Our Muddy Water machine was well used and famous in our department. But what about the blues star? How much did I know about him?
Muddy is considered the father of modern Chicago blues and he was a huge influence in the 1960’s British blues craze. He inspired not only blues musicians but also those who play rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock, folk, jazz, and country. He was notorious for his use of the bottleneck on electric guitar. His work from the 1950s and early 1960s are particularly influential. Songs such as: “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “She’s Nineteen Years Old”, and “Rolling and Tumbling” have all become classic songs, often covered by bands from many genres. Other songs he’s known for are “You Need Love” (which inspired “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin), “I’m Ready, “Long Distance Call” and “Rock Me.”
It’s a well know fact that Keith was a drug user, a junkie. But I had no idea that Ray Charles used drugs, especially heroin. I might have suspected marijuana and perhaps cocaine, but something as addicting as heroin. I was quite surprised when he talked honestly about this in his book. I give both of them kudos for their candor. And for being able to quit such a destructive powerful drug. I’ve never tried it, and never will. The reputation of this drug has always kept my curiosity at bay.
For me perhaps the most humorous part of Ray’s life was his sexual exploits. When he first mentioned how much he loved “pussy” I cringed. I laughed. Ray, really. Who would have thought. I’m not sure why I had this reaction, I certainly didn’t with Keith. In fact I expected more sexual encounters with Richards but it seems like Charles got more action, at least in his book. And that was prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.
As I mentioned they are both excellent books allowing a glimpse into the lives of two very talented musicians. However, given the choice between the two I would read Keith’s book “Life” before “Brother Ray.” Of course if you have the time to read both, then do so.