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.


  1. Christina - December 1, 2021 6:25 am

    Your daddy saw the “Ray Charles” in you and we are all glad he did.

  2. Tammy S. - December 1, 2021 6:54 am


  3. Patricia Watson - December 1, 2021 8:16 am

    You weren’t waving to a blind man. You were waving at a person that inspired you and a person you admired. 😊❤️

  4. Suzanne - December 1, 2021 8:53 am

    Ray Charles had such a gift! My sister and I took a trip up north from Florida. Saw a sign that said “Ray Charles Childhood Home”, and we took a short detour to visit. One of my favorite things about your writing is that it brings back so many of my own cherished memories. Thank you.
    ps: I would have waved too!

  5. Mary Hoffert - December 1, 2021 9:35 am

    This story melted my heart ….you are the greatest story writer. God Bless You.

  6. Mark Lane - December 1, 2021 11:15 am

    Welcome to my current hometown! Grew up in these parts. Next time you’re passing through, please let me know.

  7. Steve McCaleb - December 1, 2021 11:46 am

    There’s a false rumour going around that Ray Charles is no longer with us. Untrue…he has just changed professions. He can be seen each Saturday in the fall officiating SEC football games along with his crewmates Stevie Wonder, Helen Keller and Ronnie Mildap.

    • John - December 2, 2021 12:49 pm

      Steve McCaleb: This made me laugh out loud!

  8. Dee Cook - December 1, 2021 12:14 pm

    Ray Charles. Georgia. It’s an old sweet song…
    Very near Thomasville, come sit a spell.

  9. Jeanne - December 1, 2021 12:18 pm

    You are memories of Ray Charles on this very cold winter day warmed my heart. I grew up hearing Ray Charles in the 40s and he’s been part of my musical life ever since. Thank you

  10. tmitsss - December 1, 2021 12:47 pm

    I was at the Atlanta airport waiting for my stepson to clear customs on a return from a summer visit to his dad in Europe. A driver was waiting with a sign reading Mr. Charles. Suddenly the crowd gets very quiet and Ray Charles appears being escorted out of customs. The crowd could not have been more respectful had it been The Queen of England. The FA had put my stepson in first class as he was an unaccompanied minor. He claims Mr. Charles was reading a Braille version of Playboy during the flight.

    • John - December 2, 2021 12:51 pm

      “…a Braille version of Playboy…” that’s rich! 😂

    • John - December 2, 2021 12:58 pm

      Of course he only read it “for the articles”. 😁

  11. Bobby - December 1, 2021 12:57 pm

    I was at court side of a college basketball Final Four several years ago and this guy came over to sign autographs dressed in a purple suit and wearing sunglasses. I thought it was Stevie Wonder. I asked my friend how he could see to sign autographs. He laughed at me and said —That’s not Stevie Wonder you knucklehead. It’s MC Hammer!

  12. Virginia Russell - December 1, 2021 1:15 pm

    Georgia will always claim him.

  13. Karen Spracher - December 1, 2021 1:46 pm

    What a blessing your stories are to me. This one warmed my heart. Love the learning too!

  14. Shelton A. - December 1, 2021 1:54 pm

    Love Ray’s music, too. The movie about him is in my collection. Ray was truly one of the greats. But why didn’t you just yell, “Hey, Ray!”?

  15. Dennis R. Shirley - December 1, 2021 2:26 pm

    My wife Jan & I are admirers of you writings !! Having spent five years working with and photographing Ray Charles, I too am a “fan” of Ray’s (to say the least) Since you have shared your work with us, I’d like to share my work with you in the form of an original Ray Charles photo taken by yours truly. If you’d like, please let me know if you are interested and where to send the photo !

    All the Best,
    Dennis R. Shirley
    334 790 1076

  16. Paul McCutchen - December 1, 2021 2:52 pm

    The closest I ever came to a famous piano player was in a Honky Tonk at midnight. Jerry Lee Lewis walked out and started playing. It was great.

  17. Cathy M - December 1, 2021 3:02 pm

    The movie about him was entitled RAY, if I remember correctly. It was heartbreaking on every level. Sad childhood that carried over into his adult life and cost him many personal relationships. Yet he took all that pain and poured it into music that will never be forgotten. My youngest son was traveling with me to visit my mother and Ray came on the radio with Hit the road jack. We both started singing and still today every time I hear it I think of that special time. That little boy is now a father of three and a wonderful husband. He loves music like his mama. Ray will never be too far away. Thanks for this walk down memory lane.

  18. Stacey Wallace - December 1, 2021 3:06 pm

    Thanks, Sean. I’m impressed that you learned to play the piano by ear. I’m taking piano lessons, and at times it’s tough. But it’s fun. Ray Charles was a musical genius. He must have had the music in him since he could play without being able to see.

  19. Gloria Knight - December 1, 2021 4:59 pm

    I also have stood near that statue & watched the Flint River rush by. Family history says 2 brothers from SC came down that river to South Ga. One settled in Grady County; that would be my great-great grandfather. Can’t beat ‘Georgia on My Mind’ by Ray Charles!!

  20. Mark3:26 - December 1, 2021 6:15 pm

    In 1984, while stationed at Scott Air Force base, 17 miles from Saint Louis, I went to the Saint Louis “Veiled Prophet” Fair. the concert attraction was both Ray Charles and the great drummer Buddy Rich. It was one of the most incredible musical experiences of my life and I was standing on the sidewalk when Ray Charles rode by in the limo so I know exactly how you feel. I wanted to wave too!

    • Mark3:26 - December 1, 2021 6:22 pm

      I need to correct it to 1985 for Ray Charles! The year before was Buddy Rich Orchestra…

  21. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - December 1, 2021 6:26 pm

    You play so well. I was privileged to hear you in Gadsden, Al a few years back. This is a great tribute to your mentor! And to your dad.

  22. JACK DARNELL - December 1, 2021 8:21 pm

    For the readers that do not know that is pronounced “ALL BENNY” by the locals, after all this ain’t New York. We lived there for awhile and did not know it was the birthplace or Ray Charles. HE was one of my favorite entertainers…..

  23. JC - December 1, 2021 9:12 pm

    Some folks can be taught. Others just gotta learn.

  24. Angel Bradford - December 1, 2021 9:42 pm

    I wish I had known; I work in downtown Albany. I would have taken you to lunch.

  25. Nancy Crews - December 1, 2021 9:46 pm

    ❤your writing! GEORGIA, GEORGIA ON MY MIND.

  26. Linda Moon - December 1, 2021 10:07 pm

    Like you, I would follow Ray Charles’ music and listen to the songs. And I imagined his downbeat in my head and in my eyes from the illustration, too. Wow. Ray Charles’ music and your daddy’s gift of an old piano reminds me of some piano-playing from two of my kin. And one of my others who’s so much like you, Sean, talks to his Daddy in the sky…a daddy like yours. Ray Charles, pianos, and sky-daddies…stories are right here from this life-affirming Writer.

  27. MAM - December 1, 2021 10:19 pm

    I smiled all the way through this great story, and I also had a chuckle at your waving to Ray. But I totally understand the sentiment and why you did it! You knew who it was and just wanted to say Hi and thanks!

  28. George B. - December 3, 2021 3:34 am

    We just moved from Albany after having lived there for 30 years. After I retired, I started walking every day and would regularly walk downtown and sit and listen to Ray. And my first Ray Charles album was Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. I, too, wore mine out listening to it.

  29. Cathy Mozley - December 7, 2021 1:38 am

    My Uncle George went to the Florida School for the Blind with Ray Charles. Uncle George enjoyed singing along as Ray played the piano. They occasionally kept in touch thru the years.


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