Ray told me once that he had been in the public eye for five decades and the only time he was recognized and stopped in airports was after the Diet Pepsi commercials had run. He wasn’t really happy about that. I think Al Merrin was responsible for the idea to use Ray for a musical campaign but everyone now makes some claim. I loved working with Ray, although things didn’t begin so well.
Al had written a commercial that had Ray’s band switching a Diet Coke for a Diet Pepsi. Ray was grumpy when he arrived on the set. I had asked for a script in Braille.
‘What do you want me to do.’
‘Let’s just run through the script.’
‘Ray Charles in his dressing room surrounded by…’
The idiots had given Ray a complete script, not just his lines. I had to take the heat.
‘I’m sorry, Ray, that’s the wrong script.’
Steam started to come out of Ray’s ears.
‘Give me a minute and I’ll work this out.’
I turned to the agency guys. Most of them had disappeared. I turned to Austin McCann my long time (lifelong) assistant director with a ‘We are fucked’ look on my face.
‘It never ends, does it?’
I turned to Ray and said ‘I’ll give you the lines, one by one.’
We started to shoot and Ray got the stuff perfectly in a few takes. Unfortunately we had to shoot a number of versions with different cans for different world markets. Ray kept asking why we had to keep doing it over and I kept lying.
‘The prop man didn’t give you the can properly.’
‘The cameraman (me) didn’t use the right lens.’
We finished in a few hours (Ray’s attention span) and the commercial won a Gold Lion at the Cannes Film Festival. I didn’t think Ray would ever want to work with me again but the commercial started the YOU GOT THE RIGHT ONE, BABY campaign and it went on for several years and there is no way to describe the joy and energy that Ray exuded. Ray was completely engulfed by his music. As soon as he sat by the piano he would begin to play. I would encourage the band to start to play along and they would play these mini concerts just for me to the chagrin of the agency producers worried about overtime. The campaign was enormously popular but was pulled from the air rather suddenly. When I asked why, I was told (in confidence) that the Southern bottlers didn’t want a black man representing the brand.
God Bless America.