Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pandora brings back memories of The Genius

If you've never been to Pandora.com, check it out: it's a site where you can create a free, personalized, online radio station. You can program in some of your favorite songs and artists, and Pandora will only play songs that are similar in style. And if they play a song you don't like, you can give it a "thumbs-down," and they'll never play you that song again.

For me, it's the perfect for background noise while I'm writing.

And it's perfect for eclectic musical tastes, too, as opposed to traditional radio stations that play only one style. As an example - for the past few weeks, I've been jamming to tunes by The Killers, Elton John, Modest Mouse, B.B. King, Allison Krauss, Regina Spektor, The Cure, M.I.A. and, of course, my favorite performer of all time, Ray Charles.

Ray was the first artist to play when I clicked over to my Pandora page this morning, and it took me back a few years to when I was lucky enough to see Ray Charles in concert.

I've been trying to remember the exact date. I'm pretty sure it was between 2001 and 2003; Jamie went to the concert with me but it was before we were married, so it had to be in that window. He passed away in 2004, so the concert was in the last years of his life.

Ray was in town playing with the Kansas City Symphony. I phoned the Symphony office, by the way, and I was told that they played with Ray Charles in 1995, but nobody there remembered a more recent date. Maybe this is a sign that I'm losing what's left of my mind - but my wife remembers the concert, too, so that can't be it... right?

Anyway, the concert was magnificent. The symphony played for a while first, then Ray came out. I remember having a very stupid thought at that point. Ray was being helped on stage by an assistant. My first thought at seeing the frail, seventies-something man was, "That's too bad. Ray's not able to walk out on stage by himself anymore." A few moments later it struck me that he was being assisted to the stage because he couldn't see where he was going.

That was the last time during the evening Ray seemed frail. After he sat down at the piano, he was in constant motion. Maybe it was a result of his hard drug days, but Ray's legs never stopped moving. His voice was as strong as I'd ever heard it on a CD. And of course, he could play the piano like nobody's business. (I also learned during that song that Ray played a mean saxophone!)

My favorite memory is this: Ray started to play the song "Bein' Green," which is probably most well-known as Kermit the Frog's song. When started on the first line, most of the crowd laughed.

But if you've ever heard Ray's version, you know it's not a funny song. It's a touching tune about racism and coping in the world when you feel different from everyone else.

So the crowd laughed after that first line, "It's not that easy bein' green." Then he kept singing, and playing that lonesome piano tune, backed by the sweeping notes of the Symphony.

By the third line, nobody was laughing.

By the end, people were crying.

I've tried for years to find that song on an album, but it's proven hard to track down. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, this version - which Ray performed at a tribute to Jim Henson - is the best I can find. Check it out and try not to get emotional:

Everyone's talking about the loss of Michael Jackson this week. But I'm still mourning the loss of The Genius, Ray Charles.

I'm just glad I can say I saw him perform live.

--Matt Kelsey

1 comment:

  1. Amen, I wish I wouldn't have been so young and stupid when Ray was still around, that really is a memory to cherish seeing him live!!