Some people bear the burden of being the namesake child of a famous person better than others. In his new book “You Don’t Know Me: Reflections of My Father, Ray Charles,” Ray Charles Robinson Jr., speaks candidly about the struggle of living in his legendary father’s shadow. Sometimes the burden was light to carry, but often it pulled Robinson under.
Robinson will be in Atlanta on Thursday for a 7 p.m. reading at the Central Library of the Atlanta-Fulton County Library System in downtown Atlanta. In this recent conversation, edited for space, Robinson, 55, talked about his family and the weight of being “Ray Jr.”
Q: Was this book meant to be an addendum to the movie “Ray” that you co-produced about your father’s life? So much of the book felt like good stuff that was left on the cutting-room floor.
A: At the time [of the movie] my father was still alive. And my mother was very apprehensive at first about talking to anyone before the movie. This is the first time that she has really allowed us to peek into the home, to go behind closed doors. Ironically, the part [in the book] where I find my father bleeding to death from a heroin overdose. ... My father and I wanted that scene to be a part of the film. Why? Because you really, really would have had an appreciation and understanding of what he went through. His internal battles within himself were monumental. He was constantly searching for the love he missed as a child and the relationships that would provide it.
Q: There are some really touching and haunting moments in the book, like when you describe going into your father’s study when he was away and finding the carpet, drapes and upholstery saturated by the scent of his cologne and cigarette smoke.
A: Our time together was so short and when he was gone [on the road] you just try to remember him, cherish those memories as much as you can, and that was just by his scent. I describe running my hands over all of his things. It was a part of him. It was just like touching him.
Q: In the book you talk candidly about your father’s drug use and his infidelities. But you wound up as an adult becoming a cocaine addict and being unfaithful to your first wife. What have you learned along the way to help you deal with the negative impact of celebrity?
A: It’s easier now because I’m not very public. I don’t hang out at a lot of parties. But as you’re growing up, nobody really sees you. It’s: “What about your father? What’s it like?” I just wanted to fit in. Sometimes people just didn’t allow you to do that.
Q: You talk about considering a music career as a young person but you didn’t see it through. Why not? Were you worried about being compared to your father or being as influential as he was?
A: Now I’m a frustrated musician. It’s sad because if I’d wanted to be an excellent musician, I could have been. I just don’t think I was disciplined enough.
Q: You say that in your father’s life music came first, his mistresses second, his family third. You have two grown children. How did your experiences with your dad influence you as a parent?
A: I was hands-on with my children. Feeding them, bathing them, making sure that they were at school. I was in the PTA. And then things just started to go left for whatever reason. My drug use started to take over from casual use to hard-core addiction. That affected my relationship with my children, ultimately. I had made the same mistakes that my father had made.
Q: Do you have good relationships with them now?
A: I have great relationships with them now. I can never take back what I’ve done in the past. I just try to be the best friend that I can and a father second. They love me, and I know that, and they know that I love them.
Q: When children tell their story about their parent’s life, particularly one as complicated as your father’s, there is a line. On one side there is catharsis and healing for the child. On the other, in the telling of intimate details, there is the betrayal of the parent. Do you think you successfully walked that line?
A: I walked the line.
“You Don’t Know Me: Reflections of My Father, Ray Charles”
By Ray Charles Robinson Jr. with Mary Jane Ross
Harmony Books; 288 pages; $24.99.
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