Yesterday I met Ray Charles in Albany, Georgia. He was in a good mood. I was, too. I waved at him. He didn’t wave back.
I met him when I was walking on Front Street. I was bundled in my jacket, it was cold outside, and I heard music in the distance, reverberating across the smooth surface of the Flint River.
I followed the music until I found him.
Ray’s life-sized bronze statue stands downtown. He is depicted behind a baby grand, perpetually leaning his right shoulder into the downbeat. He wears a bowtie and Ray-Ban Wayfarer shades.
The all-weather sound system played Ray’s “The Spirit of Christmas” while a waterfall spilled beneath him.
I was close enough to touch the hem of his tuxedo.
I sat on a “piano-key” bench and listened. The next song was “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” The Count Basie Orchestra was kicking harder than a government mule, and Brother Ray never sounded so good.
I am a lifelong Ray Charles fanatic. When I was six years old, my father gave me the album “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music” and I listened to Ray sing “You Win Again” until the record warped from overuse.
At which point my father bought a replacement album. I wore that one out, too.
I learned to play piano at age nine when my old man bought a cheap spinet from the classified section of the newspaper. For my birthday he placed the waterlogged piano in our basement, next to the water heater. My mother made a cake with chocolate piano keys on it.
Daddy refused to pay for lessons because my father was a hick whose philosophy was, if the kid is meant to play the piano, he will. I was potty trained under the same system.
So I listened to Ray Charles records. The first piano tune I ever learned was “Hit the Road Jack.” The lefthanded bassline took me an afternoon to get right.
And when I first played the song for my father, he radiated with paternal pride such as had never been seen in my house.
He gathered all his buddies into the basement to watch his kid play. Many of these were blue-collar men who joyously sipped from aluminum cans and sang along.
I played the song so many times that my left hand went numb. After that night, the piano forever smelled like beer.
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, but he didn’t grow up here. He grew up in Greenville, Florida. Some Georgians will fight you with a razor blade if you tell them Ray was not a Georgia kid, but they’re just jealous.
Ray only lived in the Peach State for the first month of his infancy before his mother carried him a few miles over the line into the Orange Juice State. Ray was a Florida boy.
He first learned to play the old eighty-eight at age seven in the sticks of Madison County. He was taught keyboard fundamentals by a man who owned the Red Wing Café; a wooden plank building that was a combination general store, beer joint, and a place to buy pig’s-foot sandwich.
Against the rear wall of the Red Wing, stood an out-of-tune upright, damp from the Floridian humidity.
On Saturday nights, when the Red Wing was thumping, you could push your way into the crowded store, past a haze of cigarette smoke and close-dancers, and in the corner you might have seen a child toying with the instrument. His feet barely touched the pedals.
“I was born with music inside me,” Ray once said. “Like my ribs, my liver, my kidneys, my heart.”
As it happens, I saw Ray Charles once when I was driving through New Orleans as a teenager. I was with friends, piled into the cab of my ugly Ford. I was at a stoplight, fiddling with the radio when I heard the hiss of air brakes beside me.
I glanced out my window to see “RAY CHARLES” emblazoned on the side of a fifty-foot purple coach in bold white lettering.
I saw a lone figure seated behind the open bus window, wearing Wayfarers. He had a slight build, with cropped silver hair. And I totally lost it.
In my moment of excitement, I did something my friends will never let me live down. I cranked down my window and I waved to Ray Charles.
His bus pulled away and I suddenly realized what I was doing while my friends howled with laughter.
Still, even after all these years I’m not sorry I waved to a blind man. Because the strange thing is, I had this overwhelming urge to explain myself to Ray. I wanted him to know what his music meant to me.
I wanted to tell him about how an ironworking blue-collar man once bought his nine-year-old a junk piano, and how this man’s son sloppily learned the basics of an instrument simply by listening to a Ray Charles forty-five, played at half speed.
After spending half an hour at the statue in Albany, I rose and began heading back to my hotel. I was about a hundred yards away when I heard the familiar intro to “Hit the Road Jack” begin to play.
“I hear you, Daddy,” I said to the sky.
So I waved to him, too.