What keeps you on the road?
Well, I like it that, with my music, I can make people happy for about an hour and a half and that in return for an hour and a half, they make me very happy. That’s the key. When they come and tell me they enjoy the show and they’re excited about the music, that gets up my adrenaline and it makes me feel nice. It’s a two-way street: They love the music and I love them.
Do you think a live performance is more important for people to experience than a recording?
That’s an excellent question. I’ve never thought about that before. I don’t know the answer. The reason is that some people have a tougher time live because they can’t go back and make another take—you know, when you do it that’s it. Other artists prefer to have time to correct their mistakes. Me, I enjoy both. But you know, I’ve been doing it for fifty years so it’s nothing. I enjoy the live performance—I like that spontaneity. And by the same token, I like to go into the studio and play around. I like both sides of it.
Have live audiences changed over the years? Do they still whoop it up as easily as they used to or do they need to be riled up a little more?
I find my audience to be about the same.
Yes. It’s amazing to me. I can’t say why because I don’t know, but I find that my audience is the same as always. They get very excited about the music. In my concerts I like to play about 65 percent of songs people already know. I don’t do 100 percent because I don’t want a nostalgia show. They come to hear their favorite songs, and yet I give them 35 percent new stuff or stuff they’re not too familiar with that’s great music.
What type of songs have you been writing lately?
I don’t write too much. I used to write early in my career. I wrote out of necessity. I was successful when I did it; that’s why people think I’m a writer. But it would take me three or four days to write one song, and a good songwriter can write a good song in five minutes. I could never do that. What I wrote was very successful, but as I’ve gotten older, I just don’t have the time and I see a lot of good writers, so I leave it to them.
Do you remember the moment you hit the right blend of styles to make soul music?
No, I just know that there was a point in my life when I stopped trying to imitate Nat “King” Cole. He was my favorite, and I loved him so much. I wanted to sleep and eat and drink Nat King Cole. But then one day I woke up and I said, “Nobody knows my name.” Everybody’d say, “Hey, kid! Hey, kid! You sound just like Nat Cole! Hey, kid!” And I remember my mom always used to tell me, “Son, be yourself. Be yourself.” So I started thinking about that. I mean, nobody even knew my name, I was just a kid. “Hey, kid!” So I decided then and there I was going to sing in a way that came natural to me, and if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That was a hard choice to make because I was making money sounding like Nat Cole. But I decided to give it up, and fortunately for me, it worked.
Do you have any anecdotes from times you visited Texas?
I have to tell you I’ve been all over Texas. I know every nook and corner of Texas. We played Orange, College Station, Midland, Abilene, Big Springs, Arlington. We used to play all those towns when I was coming up, and when we got into concerts we were more limited in places to go. It’s pretty hard for the guys to make any money these days, so you have to play Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth.
Are there any contemporary groups or solo artists we might be surprised that you like?
That’s a good question. It really is. Because nowadays, being a musician, it’s hard because I don’t hear—see, when I was coming up you had people who were original. In other words, let’s say Frank Sinatra said two words, you knew it was Sinatra, or Ella Fitzgerald sang two notes, you knew it was her. People had their own sound. Nowadays I can’t find originality. I hear a lot of people out there—a lot of girls trying to sound like Aretha Franklin, but a lot of it sounds so much the same. So much alike. And we’re not even going to talk about rap. I don’t deal with that at all, period.
What’s your favorite song?
I don’t have one. I’ve made a lot—a lot—of records and a lot of things I wrote weren’t hits. I wrote a song called “You Got Me Crying” that wasn’t a hit, but I think it was one of the best things I’ve done.
What advice do you give young musicians who you think have great talent?
I think if he or she feels he or she has the talent, I would say two things: First of all, you’ve got to practice. I’ve never met a great pianist who did not practice! I don’t care how good he was, Oscar Peterson still cannot pass a piano without doing something to it. So the first thing is practice.