Just recently we were talking about gigs – great things you’ve seen, legends. And something came up about Ray Charles. Oh yes, I saw him, I announced to the table. And a friend was like ‘wow’. Turns out I hadn’t mentioned that previously and she had no idea I’d seen Ray Charles. And it was almost a big deal, in that she recognised that must have been special. It came up again at home over Christmas. My aunty was asking me about all the “big name” musicians I’d seen, your Michael Jacksons, Paul McCartneys and so on…and I mentioned Ray Charles. She shook her head as if in awe. Like she couldn’t quite understand that was a possibility, that Ray Charles had been here and was on my radar when I was young.
It should have been one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. And in a way it was.
But, in another way, it was one of the worst.
I was 17 – final year of school. Hawke’s Bay’s Mission concerts had just started. The year before they’d opened with Kiri Te Kanawa and the announcement that Ray Charles was playing the second ever event suggested greatness was to be aim. That changed pretty swiftly when Kenny Rogers and whatever was left of The Beach Boys trickled in, then some Boney M tribute band also named Boney M and a collection of roaches and cowboy shirts known as The Doobie Brothers and from there down to whatever muck they can find most years.
But to be there near the start, when Ray Charles followed Kiri, it really did suggest something regal; something special.
I had been listening to Ray Charles all my life. The Blues Brothers cameo, my mum’s CDs, before that the records in the house, I had some of my own Ray Charles CDs at 16 and at 13 and 14 I had tapes. I loved everything I heard.
A group of us from school went. It was a party. A few drinks. And definitely part of the idea of being there was just the party-aspect, the celebration. Probably some of my friends were just going to be part of the gang. But I was hopeful that this would be something special. The night before I’d driven over to Napier with a couple of friends from the high school jazz band; we’d been tipped off the local jazz club’s regular Friday night bash would see the drummer from Ray Charles’ band sitting in and one or two of the horns. We couldn’t spot them in a line-up but it felt pretty cool ordering a bourbon at the bar and listening to a swinging set of standards, good players, the locals included. All part of setting the scene, all part of the excitement of seeing a Living Legend the very next day!
And then I’m there and at Ray Charles and I’m wondering – kinda pushing it, sorta expecting to be let down – if he might play his version of The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. And he does! I’m taking a piss somewhere at the time. I’m slightly happy-drunk and when that song hits and I recognise it, well, it’s one of those moments of mini-euphoria. Stars have aligned, and yes of course he’s up there on that stage playing just that song. And only ever for me. Well, that’s how it feels, the moment of course can’t last and people start to singalong and one or two moan that it “isn’t in time”. When of course it is. And they aren’t. And anyway, Ray Charles makes his own fucking time.
The band was so shit-hot good. And the set was wonderful. Just to hear him. Just to see him.
And then, okay so it was brief, about 75 minutes or so, he leaves the stage. But that’s okay, because we’ve just seen a Living Legend. We were lucky to have that greatness in our town. One New Zealand show only. And we had it. Right on our bloody doorstep.
But the outrage – how dare he only play Hawke’s Bay for half an hour! People were already exaggerating the time of the show, cut on cask wine and full of farmer-hits-the-town-for-a-big-one bravado the audience turned on Brother Ray. God it was sad.
You could see the limo driving down the vine-lined driveway. The band still playing the curtain call-type music, the back-end medley outro, but Brother Ray was off for the day. And I didn’t blame him. He was old. He was a seasoned pro. He had delivered his show. He had done his night’s work.
Two days later the local paper would lie that he played for less than an hour. And because he never thanked Hawke’s Bay or told the people it was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen – remember people, he couldn’t actually do that! – the crowd turned. There was no encore. And that was the ultimate sin as far as these go-to-one-concert-ever-20-years know-it-alls were concerned.
It soured the experience.
And the most revolting thing of all – the thing that sits with me to this very day?
Right behind me, up on the hill, as people started throwing beer cans and scrunching up blankets, some self-appointed “leader”, some beer-gut Central Hawke’s Bay farmer-type, yelled out, his hands cupped as if calling his faithful sheep-dog. And he called, loudly, proudly – amongst all the booing – “get back up there on stage you: blind Black CUNT!” Each word arrived bigger than the one it overtook – and worse than that horrible sentence was that the boos then turned to cheers on that part of the hill. This guy, this coward, this shit-for-brains fuckstick was a hero. He had, apparently, been thinking what everyone was thinking. He was the Paul Henry of The Mission Concert in 1994. (It was a great surprise the Herald didn’t give him a weekly column).
I’ve never been so mortified about anything happening ever. To this day. It sits with me as the single worst thing I’ve ever heard, ever had to hear, ever had to be part of – tainted and tarred with that racist redneck brush. How could we – that audience – allow that sort of behaviour and then not only allow it but indulge it, support it? It makes me sick to think about.
I’m so sorry Ray. That concert should have been amazing. And one day I’ll remember that it truly was.
It Was The Worst started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page