June 21, 2004
I'll never forget the one and only time I saw Ray Charles live. This
was about 1962, in Kansas City. I'd seen plenty of all-black soul revues in
the municipal auditorium, but this gig was being held in the symphony
hall! It was also going for some outrageous price, like $15 or so (a
day's pay for a lotta folks), but I scraped it together.
I'd sprained my ankle in gymnastics class (I told 'em that shit wasn't for me), so I had a cast on with one of those rubber doohickeys on the bottom. Now, like I've said before, you didn't go to these shows in no Levis and white socks, so I had to very carefully cut the seam on my suit pants, put 'em on and then dear old mom did some skillful basting (that's minimal sewing, for you he-men out there) to make everything look right. She said, "Honey, I don't know who this is you're gonna see, but it must be godamighty important to go out in the damn rain to see him." I said, "Yes, mother, it is."
Naturally, I had to bring a little sumpin' sumpin' along to fortify myself against the elements, so I scored a half pint of bourbon by standing outside of Katz drugstore and waiting for one of the local winos to go in and buy it for me. I then managed to get to the hall on the bus, without getting too wet or too lit up and got to my nice, comfy reserved seat on the aisle. And, as usual, I'm not seeing a lot of white faces around me, but it's cool, I got my suit, my hat and my trench coat. And that klutzie cast and those crutches that are gonna be a pain no matter where I put them. But I didn't care.
There was a lotta buzzin' goin' on and you'd could feel that certain something in the air. All of a sudden, a voice said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ray Charles!" And the curtains opened and there was Ray right down front sitting behind a big Hammond B-3 organ, bobbing and weaving, a full orchestra behind him, the Raeletts over on stage right (that would be on your left if you're in the audience, for all you he-men out there) and they're doin' "I Got a Woman," a re-working of an old gospel tune, "Jesus, Light of the World" if memory serves me right, and the audience is on their feet and the place is going wild!
And it never let up. For two hours I sat there mesmerized, takin' a little nip now and then, watching the Raeletts with pure lust in my heart, sayin' to myself, "this is the real deal, Neal," rocking back and forth in my seat, almost in synchronicity with Ray. And everybody's waiting for that moment, which came, naturally, as the encore, when the first notes of "What'd I Say" rolled out from under his fingers and now it's just pure pandemonium, with everyone clapping, snapping their fingers, gyrating in their seats, dancing in the aisles and down in front of the stage. I'm feelin' like nobody's business, even though I realize that the cast has gotten soft from the rain and that doohickey is pressing into my foot and causing some major hurt. But somehow I don't care because I'm reelin' with the feelin'. And then it's over.
When the lights came up, you could see that look in a lot of faces that says, "I'm emotionally drained, but I feel great because I've just had an epiphany." Walking out of there was like leaving church after a particularly stirring sermon. I don't remember how I got home, but I woke up still fully dressed, my hat slightly crumpled under my head.
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America the 'beautiful' on Swans
Chili Bill is a reader of and contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser. This contribution was published in the June 16, 2004 edition of the weekly. It is re-published with the permission of Bruce Anderson, the AVA publisher.
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