Ray Charles: Best Funeral Ever
To date the only fresh corpse I’ve seen in real life, appropriately for my job as a showbiz reporter, belonged to a celebrity: Ray Charles.
I attended his colorful send-off in June 2004, and walked past his open casket on my way out as the sound system played his recent version of “Over the Rainbow.” Sporting his trademark sunglasses and a dark suit, Ray looked better than he had six weeks earlier.
That was when the Los Angeles city fathers conferred historic building status on his recording studio and office complex in an inner-city neighborhood. Ray, battling liver cancer, showed up late to the ceremony in a motorized wheelchair. He had to be propped up at the podium by handlers as he mumbled a few remarks. “I’m a little weak now, but I’m gonna get stronger,” he said. After posing briefly for photos with luminaries, including Clint Eastwood, he was whisked away.
Remarkably, his failing health never interfered with the work ethic that made him one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century. Right up to the end he worked on Genius Loves Company, a duets album featuring Norah Jones, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, and many others. I was scheduled to interview him at his studio in February after spending weeks with his publicist trying to nail down a slot. I showed up at the building wearing my best suit, and was walking up to the door when the publicist called to say Ray had been held up at the last minute and wouldn’t be able to speak with me. I didn’t mind too much since I assumed we would be able to reschedule.
A few days later, I received in the mail a typed note on classy Ray Charles Enterprises letterhead in which Ray said there had been an “unfortunate scheduling conflict” related to the recording sessions. “Please accept my apologies,” he wrote. “I would like to make myself available to you to reschedule, if you are available. I know the life of a newspaperman is busy, just like the life of a musician in the studio. Regards, Mr. Ray Charles.” Alas, it was not signed. Nor were we able to tee up a new time. When I saw him in the wheelchair at the ceremony, I realized we never would.
The ceremony came on the heels of a tabloid report in The Globe about Ray’s terminal prognosis. It claimed funeral arrangements were being made. A longtime acquaintance of Ray’s verified the information to me off the record. I had the difficult task of broaching the subject after the ceremony with Joe Adams, his business manager for 46 years. After beating around the bush with some soft questions — why isn’t the historic-status plaque written in Braille? — I asked about the report. Joe calmly said The Globe seemed to know more about Ray’s health than he did. But he admitted it was unlikely Ray would return to the road.
And then Ray slipped away on June 10, aged 73, in an unfortunate coincidence with the wildly over-the-top national mourning for Ronald Reagan, who beat him by five days.
At least Ray’s service was more fun than the multiple funerals accorded the former president. It was an old-school gospel show with performances by B. B. King, Glen Campbell, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, and jazzmen David “Fathead” Newman and Wynton Marsalis. Mourners at the invite-only First African Methodist Episcopal Church gathering included Eastwood, Johnny Mathis, Little Richard, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, actor Steven Seagal — a late arrival in his trademark purple kung fu jacket — Jesse Jackson, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, and actress Cicely Tyson.
Notice the absence of a key demographic? No young black stars came along to pay their respects. Where were Alicia Keys, Usher, Kanye West, Destiny’s Child, John Legend, and so on? Maybe they were on tour or detained in the studio. But there should’ve been no excuses. None of those acts would have a career without the man who virtually invented soul music, conquered pop, jazz, and country, owned a business empire, and crushed racial boundaries. At least the rapper Ice Cube sent a wreath. The no-shows missed a great musical and comedy gig.
(But wait! There’s more. Buy Strange Days here to see what happened next.)
Copyright 2023. Dean Goodman. All Rights Reserved.