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 new version of Over The Rainbow, a duet with Johnny Mathis. 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 lectern 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, Elton John, Willie Nelson 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.
NOTE 1: The US Postal Service issued a Ray Charles “forever stamp” on Sept. 23, 2013, the 83rd anniversary of his birth. See details here.
Copyright © 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING