When he describes Ray Charles as "a mentor, a teacher, friend," Ronnie Milsap is talking about a relationship that began more than four decades ago. Charles' death Thursday (June 10) resulted in an outpouring of sadness and praise throughout the country music community, including recollections from three people who knew him well -- Milsap, Willie Nelson and Travis Tritt.
After performing Thursday night at the CMA Music Festival, Milsap noted that he first met Charles in 1963 while he was a student at Young Harris College in Georgia.
"He said, 'You've got a lot of music in your heart,'" Milsap said. "You need to follow your heart. I did, and eventually I had my first R&B record."
Explaining Charles' greatness, Milsap said, "He had the interpretation -- as a performer and as a writer -- to capture more of the happiness, the sorrow, the joy, the despair, the disappointment ... all those emotions. And he was so believable. Why? Because I think he really lived it."
Milsap and Charles performed together for then-President Ronald Reagan at the Ford Theater in Washington in 1983.
"We did our set and finished, and you could hear the shuffling of feet out in the Ford Theater," Milsap said. "And I said, 'Ray, we've got to get up and take a bow. They're standing up.'" Noting that Charles was reluctant to take the bow, Milsap said, "He loved to stay chained to the piano a lot. So I just turned around, put my arms around him, picked him up [and] walked in front of the stage. We took this big bow."
Milsap also said, "There'll never be anybody that's had the impact on my life professionally as Ray Charles."
Nelson, who frequently collaborated with Charles, said, "I lost one of my best friends, and I will miss him a lot. Ray could kick my ass any day in a chess game. He gloated over that. Last month or so, we got together and recorded 'It Was a Very Good Year' by Frank Sinatra. It was great hanging out with him for a day."
Tritt describes his work with Charles during the 2003 taping of CMT Crossroads as "a lifelong dream" and "a high point in my life."
Tritt said, "As an added bonus, I not only had the chance to witness his overwhelming talent firsthand while sharing the stage with him, but I also found a new and true friend. He called me back in his dressing room after the special, pulled me in real close and said, 'I'm going to give you my number, and I want you to call.' And he meant it. We kept in touch, and he flew in to catch one of my shows."
Although he will always be remembered as a rhythm and blues pioneer, Tritt says Charles' impact on country music can't be underestimated.
"As soon as I heard Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music when I was a kid, the first thing I wanted to do was go home, rush home and see if I could sing like him. I remember hearing Ray do those things like 'Born to Lose' and 'I Can't Stop Loving You,' and I found that while I couldn't get in his world, I could sing that style of music. I could sing with that soul.
"As far as I'm concerned, he did more to open doors in the 1960s for a whole new audience of country music listeners than anybody since him or before. If they don't find a place for Ray Charles in the Country Music Hall of Fame, they're crazy."