Ray Charles’ son reflects on living with a legendary dad

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Ray Charles Robinson, Jr. describes his childhood as a Norman Rockwell painting with African-American faces. As the eldest son of iconic musician, Ray Charles, Robinson Jr. lived a life of privilege. One that was also marred by struggle—his father’s drug abuse and extramarital affairs, and Robinson Jr.’s subsequent turn to drugs to escape reality. All the while, a son yearned for a relationship and acceptance from his famous father who died six years ago this month.

In his new memoir, You Don’t Know Me: Reflections of My Father, Ray Charles, Robinson, Jr. reconciles the joys and pains of father and son, in attempt to fill in the blanks of what wasn’t seen in Ray, the movie he co-produced, or voiced in his father’s memoir Brother Ray.

Now, as a 55-year-old father of two daughters, who now works as an executive at a California-based mortgage bank, Robinson, Jr. has moved on. His book serves as notes about his journey.

TheGrio.com conversed with Robinson, Jr. about forgiveness, his first bike, and the power of choice.

The Grio – This didn’t seem like it was an easy book to write. How was the experience of putting pain to paper?

Robinson, Jr. – It was extremely difficult. I had to relive my life all over again, both the successes and failures. But to take the power out of anything you have to expose it. I found a lot of peace writing this book.

You wrote that it was both an honor and a burden to carry your father’s name. What has this dichotomous experience been like for you?

It’s great being Ray Charles Robinson, Jr. Has it been a lot of pressure? Yes. Most sons of famous individuals and or “juniors” experience tremendous pressure. My father was extremely famous at an early age, and I was aware of it as a child. Through my teens, it was very difficult because I didn’t know who was around simply because I was Ray Charles Robinson Jr. It was also very hard, because of the many traumatic things going on within our family.

Often though, the challenges are inside our head: what we have to leave up to, what we feel we have to do, what others expect of us. There may be pressure to follow in your father’s footsteps. I truly wanted to be a musician, but at the time, it was intimidating because of the greatness of my father.

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Your father’s studio was the place where you built and strengthened your relationship. Can you talk about the role music played in your relationship with your father?

We became closer through the music; it was how we connected when I was a teenager. I would watch him as he worked the soundboard. I watched him cut the tape and edit it himself. He loved to talk about music. It was his way to share himself in a world that he could control.

To you, your father’s greatest gift wasn’t his musical ability, rather it was his strength. How would you describe his ability to overcome obstacles?

He was such a strong man. He believed in himself. He knew that he was great. He knew what his music was and he stuck to that regardless of trends. He found his way back to the groove time and time again. But his strength transcended his music. It’s an unbelievable task to navigate in the darkness all the time. There’s no escaping for a blind individual or for a genius who is always in his head. Yet, one of his signature statements was, “I’m not blind; I just cannot see.” He got so much joy out of hearing [his family]. He would sit down with his head down, glasses off, in his robe, being in the moment. That’s what people never spoke about in regards to Ray Charles the person.

A thread of humanity runs throughout the book. Was it challenging to illuminate your father’s complexity?

I wrote this book to show the genius of my father and the fine line of that genius. My father dealt with a lot of pain—the death of brother George and his mother at such a young age.

I had to talk about the addiction to show how great his triumphs were. He too had to learn to deal with his own issues, and he did that. He kicked heroin cold turkey once he figured out what it was doing to his life. He made a conscious decision to stop and it was over. That in itself was an accomplishment.
His humanity was easy to write about because of who he was, regardless of his dysfunction. There were a lot of things that he couldn’t do as a father. The best way I can put that, is from his song, “If I Could.” I know he had a rough time showing his emotions, if he truly knew how, if he had had a father to show him, he would have.

Your father eventually had twelve children, many of whom you didn’t meet until you were an adult and your father called you all together on one monumental day several years ago. Are you close to your siblings now?

We’re getting there. It took a long time to get in that room. But it was a great experience and I was pretty excited to meet my siblings. I searched to see what traits they possessed of my father’s—how they were built, their voice, and mannerisms. We share the same blood. My father was very relieved to have all his children together. We try to remain in close contact with one another.

It was your mother who encouraged you to respect and love your father despite his issues. What role did she play in the relationship between you and your father?

She respected him and she loved him regardless of money and fame. She was his protector and our protector. She was the glue and stability who held everything together. I just don’t think he would have made it without her. She exercised a great amount of control and understanding of what his issues were. She chose to deal with all of him.

How did you reconcile your love for your mother and father with your father’s extramarital affairs?

It was confusing. Ultimately a lot of the resentment started to build when I became a teenager because I knew that my mother loved him very much. I knew he loved her, but did he respect her enough to keep his affairs private, as she asked him to do? I didn’t understand that, and didn’t like it. It was difficult as a child, because people whispered, especially with all the publicity surrounding his two paternity suits. It was hard to see my mother cry and to see her so upset.

Often, when we’re children, we vow never to make the mistakes our parents made, but then find ourselves as adults repeating that cycle. What made you turn to drugs despite the fact that you saw your father struggle with addiction?

In college, I started to socially experiment because everybody else was. I had thought I was so square. That’s one of the message that I want to send to young people: It’s okay to be you and not do everything that everybody’s doing. I tried it, but it wasn’t necessary. It was a bad decision especially knowing the perils of drug addiction from my father’s experience.

As I got older, I started using drugs for an escape. There’s no such thing as escaping life. Every time you’re done, who shows up in the mirror? You.

My father’s addiction had nothing to do with my venturing into drugs. I had to make a choice. I made a bad decision. Life is about good and bad decisions. I don’t hold him accountable, and I made sure to let him and my mother know that. They did nothing wrong. It was not their fault.

What did you learn about being a father from your father?

I learned to transition from being a father to a friend for my children, so I always maintain a line of communication. I talk to them a lot about life. My father wasn’t always physically there and I understand why, because he was working. Music was his muse. It was his first love. I don’t have a first love; spending time with my family is extremely important. God is first. Then you take care of yourself and your family because you can’t take care of them if you haven’t taken care of yourself. When life was challenging, I put my family first. I thought it was about money and making sure they were taking care of. But they must also be taken care of emotionally. That’s where I’m at today. Being there and being a father.

When your father died you were filled with regrets about all the things that could have been said and done. How did you overcome this guilt?

Mainly by moving forward with my life and being all that I could be. In retrospect, as a son, I was being selfish. I wanted the relationship that I wanted it. The relationship was there, I had to accept it on its own terms. We both lived inside the music; that was our relationship. It was a great relationship because we could share about his pains, joys, and insecurities. Everything that I wanted to do, he made sure that they happened. I had the relationship, but regret that I didn’t take advantage of it more. That’s my message to any sons: nurture the relationship that you have with your parent in the form that it’s in.

At what point did you embrace forgiveness?

I understood forgiveness the day that my father called me when I was in Russia, finishing a film I produced called The Black Prince. I had left the set of Ray. I had read on the internet that he was having hip surgery and that he cancelled his tours. When he called, he said something to me that he had never said before, “Son, it’s just nice to hear your voice.” I knew something was wrong. He told me he was calling to check on me. He said he had been to a doctor and the chemotherapy had been rough, but it was nice to see another day.

At that moment, I knew he was dying. Everything started to flash in my mind—all the things I wouldn’t be able to say, all the things I envisioned that we were going to do. I realized that he was mortal. He wasn’t going to live forever like I thought he would. I was no longer angry; all was forgiven.