He worked with the lights out in an office with no windows, creating some of the most memorable music of the last 50 years. But now, for the first time in decades, the fully renovated offices of soul and R&B legend Ray Charles are seeing the light of day.
His wooden office desk still shows the markings made by his rings as the sightless singer guided himself toward incoming guests. Sequined suits hang in his wardrobe closet, each numbered with matching shirt and shoes so he could specify what (from memorized descriptions) he would wear to perform that night. The walnut Murphy bed in his study stands ready for a preshow nap.
“I felt it was time to pay homage to Mr. Charles and the history of the building,” says Valerie Ervin, president of the nonprofit Ray Charles Foundation. “He loved this place. It was his home.”
The renovation to the RPM International Building, already declared a historic landmark in Los Angeles, was completed to mark the end of what would have been Charles’ 80th year. He recorded many of his best-known albums in the pale blue studio here, including his final one: the multi-platinum duets record, Genius Loves Company.
Charles went blind at age 7, and he prided himself on his fierce independence. So there was only one accommodation to his blindness in the building. “He just preferred no windows, and that was it,” Ervin says. “He walked through this building just like you or I. Just don’t let him catch you off guard with the lights off. He’d jump out and scare you.”
Ervin was Ray Charles’ one-time executive assistant and the person handpicked to maintain his personal and musical legacy after his death in 2004. She remembers the 17-time Grammy Award winner as a “tough boss.”
“He was never ‘Ray Charles’ in this building,” she says. “‘Ray Charles’ was an entertainer on the stage. When he was in this building, he was either ‘Mr. C’ or ‘Mr. Charles,’ because it’s serious business here and [for employees] it’s ‘yes, sir.’”
Charles was among the first entertainers to run his own music production, publishing, touring and even motor pool, and he did so from this 1964 building, which Charles designed with his long-time manager, Joe Adams. One of the many historic photos unearthed from the building archives shows Charles standing in front of his personal plane with tail numbers that match his birthday. Ervin confirmed the legend that Charles actually piloted the plane (but only at higher altitudes and only with a sighted pilot at his side).
Dozens of other photos and awards, many unseen for years, line walls and fill custom display cases. His trademark sunglasses cover one shelf. The office renovations complement last year’s unveiling of a Ray Charles Library in the same building. The library's interactive exhibits are open to schoolchildren and other groups; however, Charles’ offices will be open to the public only by appointment.
During the renovation process, Ervin also discovered a number of previously unreleased recordings, many from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some of them are featured on the recent release Rare Genius: the Undiscovered Masters. They range in style from country to big band to soul, but share a single theme — loving and losing love.
“When he was off the road, Ray just loved to sit here and lay down tracks,” Ervin says. “I just stumbled across this music. In my opinion, it’s some of the best recordings of his career.”
The second-floor recording studio stands just as Charles left it, when he used to operate the mixing board and recording equipment himself, strictly by ear and the expert touch of his fingers. “He’d be humbled by all this [renovation],” Ervin says. “He’d be touched.”