For forty years I’ve been Ray Charles’s private caretaker, helping make his dreams come true.
I’ll never forget the day Ray decided to be a musician. I’d sat him down in front of his best and only friend, the radio, when little Ray asked if he could make music too. So I pulled up a coffee table and told Ray to start playing. With each imaginary note he pressed, I’d sing, “Bum bum bum.” Of course, Ray was a natural.
After playing a gig at the hottest venue in the ward, “The Janitor’s Closet,” and listening to his favorite record, Ambiance and Applause, Ray was approached by a famous music producer. “I’m a famous music producer and I’d like to sign you,” I told him in my big shot music producer voice.
After scribbling on some papers with an out-of-ink pen, Ray’s contract was in place and it was time for him to move to the big city. The trip was easy: Ray flapped his arms as I blew cold air in his face.
The happiest I ever saw Ray was when he got to play at Radio City Music House: a school for the deaf I modeled after Radio City Music Hall. In a drafty auditorium, deaf kids watched Ray play his hits on a desk while Ray listened to me hum them. When he finished, the kids burst into applause, content with hearing exactly as much as Ray saw: nothing.
Eventually, Ray became more than just a musical pioneer: he became a civil rights activist. I couldn’t have been prouder listening to my brilliant white patient deliver impassioned speeches as if he were black.
It was time to reward Ray for his success so I offered him the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a five-pound weight I stole from the hospital gym. Ray accepted: “People ask me if it’s hard overcoming my disability. No. But it’s nearly impossible to overcome my anxiety that everyone I know has the same voice.”