Just for a Thrill

The Beatles just wanted to hold my hand. Ray Charles had other ideas.

Photograph by Getty Images
(Getty Images)

Listening to Ray Charles was the first subversive act of my adolescence. It happened before my first cigarette or kiss. Every Friday evening, I'd cloister myself away from my family, tune in the weekly broadcast on the black radio station and enter the smoky, forbidden world of adult love and debauchery.

The Beatles just wanted to hold my hand. Ray had other ideas. He howled "shake that thing" so we could "do it all night long," followed by grunts and groans that were erotic candy to my 15-year-old ears. Sitting in total darkness, I gamely went wherever Ray and his "Raylettes" backup singers would venture, from the aching brink of despair to orgiastic joy. Until then, my knowledge of human sexuality was limited to passages I had read in my older sister's books by Margaret Mead and whispers in high school corridors. Ray filled in the blanks.

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The irony is that these weekly musical seductions didn't take place in my bedroom. The best radio in the house was located in my father's dental office. Picture this: I am lying on a dental chair in total darkness, gyrating to "Let the Good Times Roll." The program always started with a haunting instrumental, "Hard Times," featuring the plaintive sax of David "Fathead" Newman and Charles on piano. To this day, that melody takes me into a deep reverie of unfulfilled longings and regrets.

Not all of Ray's lyrics were above my pay grade. Even as a lowly high school freshman, I understood the pathos of "To you I'm just a friend / that's all I've ever been / because you don't know meeeeeeeeee." And what teenager doesn't identify with 'I can't stop loving you," even if the source of their heartache is a pimply kid who sits next to them in biology.

My infatuation with Ray Charles occurred at a precipitous time. I had just graduated from collecting 45 RPMs to long-playing albums, from watching "Bandstand" to listening to folk music. The civil rights movement and Vietnam were on a low simmer. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary could only take me so far. See, Ray Charles wasn't about the civil rights movement. He was the civil rights movement to me. His music crossed the color line and made us white suburban virgins think dangerous thoughts.

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Like all addictions, I eventually needed to increase my dosage. Listening to Ray on the radio wasn't enough. I had to buy vinyl albums and play them over and over while intently staring at Ray's photo on the cover. His blindness was a mystery to me. How could he "see" so much from behind those thick black sunglasses? Of course, I didn't have Ray all to myself. My best friend Ellen was also besotted. When we heard that he would be appearing at a nightclub just an hour away, there was no question. We had to go. Just one problem: The nightclub was in the next state and neither of us had driver's licenses.

When my mother agreed to drive us to a Saturday matinee performance at the Latin Casino in Jersey, it was an act of courage and sacrifice on par with giving up one's life vest on the Titanic. Mom broke into a sweat just driving to the neighborhood shopping center. How could she possibly navigate major highways and drive across the bridge to Jersey? Ultimately, she did it while weeping profusely. But her tears were nothing compared to the river that ran down Ellen's face when Ray Charles sang "Georgia on My Mind": "Other arms reach out to me / other eyes smile tenderly / still in peaceful dreams I see / the road leads back to yoooooou."

"Why are you crying?" I asked.

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"Because he's so (sob) talented and he's (sob) blind," she said.

I don't recall how we got home. Perhaps my mother had given me money for a cab. Ray Charles wasn't the only crush Ellen and I shared. There was also Barry Moskowitz, a classmate with blue eyes and thick black lashes who called both of us on weekends and ended his calls with a pregnant pause followed by a single word: "Later." He drew it out just the way the host of "Friday Night" with Ray did when he signed off the air. I thought it was the epitome of cool. In retrospect, it was a silly teenage affectation. But so sexy.

I never outgrew my adoration for Ray Charles. Sure, there've been others. The Stones. The Grateful Dead. Warren Zevon. Leonard Cohen. My passion for Brazilian jazz. But Ray was my first.

"Although you're free and having your fun / to me, you're still the only one / because you made my heart stand still / just for a thrill."

Tags: music