Local Current Blog

I Made a Ray Charles Playlist, by Mark Mallman

Ray Charles (photo: Heinrich Klaffs, Wikimedia Commons) and Mark Mallman (photo: Nate Ryan, MPR)

I made a Ray Charles playlist in the middle of the night. It was two in the morning when I turned out the lights and hit play. Shortly after “Busted,” as “Mess Around” descended down its eighth note cartoon stairway, I began to see pictures in mind. I pieced together a piano man from performances I’d seen online, on television, and once in real life as a naïve teenager. I saw a tuxedo Ray Charles in 1963 black and white, smiling with the Raelettes beside him. I saw a polyester “Blues Brothers” Ray Charles at Fender Rhodes piano, smiling on a Hollywood sound stage. I saw a grey haired, “Live at Montreaux” Ray Charles, some brilliant marionette, swaying and smiling to “Song For You.” I saw a child in a movie version of Ray Charles, playing piano for the first time as a young boy smiling. Throughout my lucid dreaming, two things persisted: always piano, and always smiling. Suddenly, I realized, even I had started smiling. I did not need the light on to know, because smiles employ joy, not eyeballs. We smile even before we are aware that we are smiling.

I saw the “Lucky Old Sun” with nothing to do but roll around in heaven all day. Mythology states it was Robert Johnson on the Mississippi Delta who discovered the blues, but I’ve spent many tours in the deep south, and I’m certain it was heat. The blue note was forged in sweat under a smoldering white globe. It was a spiritual, political, and musical heat that melted the minor and the major keys together. Over a century later, that old blue note still swings joyfully from it’s wire between the scales, but it is shameful that we live in an America where once the Rhythm and Blues was called “Race” music. Listen to the major seven chords and blue notes in “Black Coffee” and let me know if you can tell the difference between the white and black keys. Racism is blindness. Anger and hatred are blindness. Music takes command of the senses, and a world of it’s own unfolds. Maybe a world without sight is a more loving world, in Ray’s music, it certainly seems so.

“Baby Grand” began to play, and I saw the piano of my formative years. The baby grand upon which my mother guided me to become the piano player that I am today. My fingers were too weak to even push a key all the way down at that early age. But then in a wink, I was suddenly a teenager playing “Georgia on My Mind.” She sang along from kitchen while drying off dinner plates. Then, in another wink, my mother was gone. It seemed like a speaker induced dream sequence as my tears broke through. Now when I sit alone at that piano, sometimes even Grandma’s ghost joins in to sing. Music has become a direct line to the people I love on the other side.

I saw my 1991, glass-eyed self in a crowd. The sight lines were so poor that concert, only the first few rows could possibly see Mr. Charles. With a wall of adults around me, one snarked, “They call him The Genius.” People were holding Instamatic cameras above their heads. But when, “What’d I Say” started, everybody closed their eyes and grooved anyway. So, it really didn’t matter. We don’t see concerts, though it’s common to say we do. In some ways, we don’t even hear them. Because, the next morning, or after the weekend, or 23 years later well after midnight, what we still access is the thrill.

When the playlist was over, I sat in the ringing darkness. The echo of songs was still floating over my head as I walked to touch the light switch. Music comes from a place of earnestness, not superiority. It is not an emotional high horse from which to preach. Music is not a math equation. There is something bigger at play, a force which our own brains lack the ability even to comprehend. Yet this force can be sung. It can be played. It can be danced. And it is so powerful, it can turn hearing into seeing. One night I made a Ray Charles playlist, and just like Ray, every sound in the world became a vision in my mind. And just like Ray, when I went to my piano the next morning, I realized I had been smiling the whole night through.