At first, Ray Charles imitated Nat King Cole.
This was the 1940s. Before “Hit the Road, Jack” and “Unchain My Heart.” Mr. Charles was a kid from poor, small town Florida who’d been raised on boogie-woogie piano, rural blues, and gospel. He was blind by the time he was seven, but when it came to music on the radio, his ears, as he said, “were sponges, soaked it all up.”
Especially Nat King Cole. He loved Nat King Cole. And he got gigs because he could make himself sound like Nat King Cole.
“Hey, kid,” people would say to him, “hey kid, you sound just like Nat King Cole!”
Then one morning, Ray Charles woke up. He was just laying in bed with thoughts going through his mind, when one thought hit him hard:
“Don’t nobody really know your name. They don’t know who the hell you are. You’re just a ‘Hey, kid.’”
Back in Florida, his mother, Aretha Robinson, had always told him, “Boy, be yourself. I don’t care what you are, but be yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not.”
And Ray Charles was not Nat King Cole. “I can’t keep going around imitating,” he thought. Which was terrifying. Because he could get good work sounding like Nat King Cole. “Oh man,” he wondered, “suppose I fail?”
But the conclusion he landed on there in bed would have made Aretha Robinson proud: “I have to sound like myself, good, bad or indifferent.”
He did meet Nat King Cole once. “It’s really, really nice that you’ve patterned yourself after me,” Mr. Cole told him. “But I have to tell you, in the end, you’re gonna want to find your own way.”
So it happened, in fits and starts, that Ray Charles took all the boogie-woogie, blues, and gospel he’d been soaking up, and started to find his own way.
And when he did, people knew who the hell he was.