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Jamie Foxx channels a legend

Industry buzz surrounds his performance as Ray Charles
/ Source: The Associated Press

Looking for inspiration, Jamie Foxx didn’t see it in Ray Charles — but he could hear it.

The 36-year-old actor is winning raves for his portrayal of the genius behind classics such as “What’d I Say” and “Georgia On My Mind,” who died in June at age 73, shortly after filming of “Ray” was completed.

Charles was renowned not only for his skill at the piano and his gritty, world-wise voice, but also for fusing the soul-soaring feel of gospel with the bad-boy attitudes of jazz, blues and rock.

Sightless since age seven, sound was his everything.

Meeting a legendPreparing for the role, Foxx was invited to meet with Charles. After talking a while, they sat down together at a piano.

“He came in and he put his stamp on me,” Foxx told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “We played tandem piano. We played the blues together. He said, ‘If you can play the blues, then you can play this part.’ So we played the blues.”

No musical slouch, Foxx is a classically trained pianist and credible singer who released an R&B album in 1994. Most recently, he sang the hook on the smash Kanye West/Twista rap single “Slow Jamz” — but that doesn’t put him anywhere close to Charles.

“I hit one wrong note and he stopped,” Foxx recalled.

“’Why’d you do that?”’ Foxx says in a dead-on imitation of Charles’ raspy growl.

“He said, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t hit wrong notes.’ And I was like, ‘Damn...I’m just learning.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no...don’t hit wrong notes.”’

That sour note on the keyboard resulted in a sour note in their meeting. But it quickly passed, and Foxx described it as a kind of revelation.

“I fixed it and that was the gateway to Ray,” he said. “Ray has to have sound in harmony at all times.”

Foxx discovered this talking to others who knew Charles intimately — both his sweet, charming stage persona and the backstage Ray, who could be temperamental, especially in a noisy, crowded room.

“People thought he was a [jerk] because he’d tell them to shut up,” said Foxx, adding that he was interested in why this annoyed Charles. “Really, if you can’t see then there is no way to tune it out.”

For Charles, cacophony was equivalent to having your eyesight overtaken with flashes of static.

“When you can’t see, every single sound is going on (in your head) and you can’t stop it. And it can drive you crazy. To hit a wrong note around him, that’s like taking a bat and hitting him in his knees. ... So we took that DNA from Ray and put it into every aspect of his life in the movie.”

‘Oscar gold’The result is an electric performance from an actor whose first starring movie role was in the disposable 1997 comedy “Booty Call.” An Entertainment Weekly cover story touted Foxx for “Oscar gold,” and David Germain’s AP film review said, Foxx is “so good, so earnest, so authentic...he IS Ray Charles.”

Foxx said he didn’t spend much time with the singer after their initial piano session.

“No, he came in one day and said ‘The kid’s got it,’ and then he walked out.”

Instead, Foxx immersed himself in Charles’ music and watched old tapes of his performances.

Director Taylor Hackford, who produced the Ritchie Valens bio-drama “La Bamba” and directed the 1987 documentary “Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll,” spent 16 years trying to get the film made. Charles himself was happy to indulge the filmmakers, and his son Ray Jr. also served as a producer. Much of his family attended the recent Hollywood premiere.

But some close to Charles take issue with the factual liberties in “Ray.” David Ritz, who co-wrote Charles’ 1978 biography, “Brother Ray,” recently wrote in the online magazine Slate that the film sentimentalizes Charles’ troubled marriage and eventual divorce. Ritz also took issue with the film’s portrayal of Charles’ peculiar relationship with two mothers — one biological, the stern but loving taskmaster who is portrayed in the film, and one of his father’s other wives, an indulger of the handicapped child, who is not shown in “Ray.”

Despite the diversions from his real life, the ailing Charles saw the finished film and gave it his blessing, and Foxx remained close with his family after his death.

“After he passed I took the family to dinner. His granddaughter would hang out with us. It was funny playing Ray because sometimes they wouldn’t want to hang out with you. One of his background singers was put off by it,” he said.

What was the problem?

Foxx shrugged: “Too real.”