'I Met a Genius Once'
He was a friend of mine.
It's hard to say it in the past tense.
It seems just yesterday I was still using the present tense to describe
my remarkable opportunity to know and work with one of
the most legendary musicians ever born.
To the public, he was Mr. Ray Charles.
To us, in the studio, he was simply Ray, or, as he laughingly
referred to himself- the 'Old Man'.
Though I use the term 'friend' loosely, he never treated me like
I was just one of the thousands of people he undoubtedly met.
I say friend, because he behaved like one, a good one,
and he had a greater impact on people like me because of it.
It was August 1999 when I moved into a dinky little studio
on Burbank Ave., ready to try my hand at LA. I had the great
fortune to be moving in next door to Terry Howard, Ray's
producer, engineer and longtime friend. Terry had cut his
teeth working with Barbra Streisand, Fleetwood Mac
and Jimmy Messina before taking on Ray's primary audio tasks
in 1985. We had alot in common, and my studio interfaced
well with Ray's, so it was not long before I found myself helping him
with some of Ray's audio chores. Then came the day. The day I would
meet the 'Old Man'.
"Hey, hey,hey" came that familiar growling voice. I knew it all my life,
and here it was coming down the hall! There he was, silk shirt, sunglasses
and all, on a Sunday afternoon, in the studio to work on a tune.
"Ray, I brought my friend Brian to work with us today'", Terry says as he gently
nudges Ray in my direction.
"Put something in the pocket there, Brian" he said as he reached his
hand out for me to grab. "Good to meet you."
It was immediately obvious that the 'Old Man' didn't need us in the studio
just to get something done. He had full command of every knob and button
in the whole 96-track room. The genius the public knew of in his music was
matched equally by his knowledge and abilities as an engineer. He could do it
alone- and often did- but he liked to have Terry, Bill Kaylor, Ken DeSantis
and the guys around to help. It made it, well, easier. And also more fun.
The one thing he seemed to love as much as music was laughter. We had great
fun because there was always room for a joke. A pun. A non-sequiter.
Ray loved to laugh, and he was the only person I ever knew who used his
whole body to do it. Sometimes he would laugh so hard he couldn't stand up
anymore. They called it 'making Ray take a knee'. I was priveledged enough
to do it a couple of times.
Over the next 2 years, I worked with Terry, with and without Ray present, on
several projects and tunes in many capacities, from assisting on the Super Bowl
mix in 2001 to troubleshooting keyboards, dubbing tapes, even doing pre-production
music arrangements for Ray's cover of 'God Bless America, Again'.
And of course, the unforgettable experiences seeing Ray live several times,
including a show at the Hollywood Bowl. Ray even called me on my birthday
in 2000 and sang 'Happy Birthday'. He joked- "and that's for free!" I said I was
glad because I didn't want to pay Paul McCartney the 7 cents. Again, that familar
guffaw over the phone.
More than all that, I'll remember the 'Old Man' fondly for 2 specific times.
The first, while I was out in LA working around the studio, came when Terry
mentioned to Ray that I was a musician and songwriter. He immediately
asked me to give him some discs. Next time we came by, I brought him a
couple of CD's of my tunes. A week later, in the studio, he starts asking
me questions about the discs. "Is that you singin? Is that your guitar?"
Then he puts the CD on and advances up several tracks
"I- I think it was number 17."
It's one of my jazz originals- 'Rainy Morning'. He says "Man, that's a number one!"
He then bumps up to another cut " There was one more-". It's my cover of
Chuck Berry's 'Memphis'. "Yeah, I like that!" Next, a classical guitar solo piece
gets a workover- "see, you don't have to repeat that melody there, 'cause you're
already doing it twice- just go to the bridge". Then, when the same part comes
around the second time, "See? There? You're doing it again!!"
By July of 2002, I was back in Detroit to be primary hospice caretaker for my
dad, also named Ray. The 'Old Man' was still touring, and he made a stop in
the Motor City at Chene Park for the "Colors Festival'. Terry knew I was in
Detroit, and he arranged for the manager to get me a back-stage pass.
'The last thing the "Old Man' said to me was "man, I know what you're going through.
We're with you" as he shook my hand with both of his.
The following month, when we lost my father to colon cancer, the 'Old Man' sent
flowers. The card read 'He will be greatly missed. Sincerely, Ray Charles'
So, I do remember the 'Old Man' as a friend.
And he will be greatly missed.
Sincerely, Brian Ascenzo
copyright 2000 Pegwood
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