In his 13 years traveling with the great Ray Charles, David Hoffman experienced many things, from the hilarious to the poignant, from heartwarming remembrances of his friends and musical colleagues to the sublimely ridiculous difficulties of road life. Armed with a trumpet, a flugelhorn and a couple changes of clothes, Dave traveled the world with the notion that somewhere in these experiences there was a book to be written, not about Ray Charles particularly, but about the unusual life he led with the “cats in the band.” Dave takes you around the globe to regale you with tales of a world not seen by many—that of a traveling minstrel. “I never knew where I was going,” Dave says, “and it really didn’t matter.” Whether in Paris or Pittsburgh, there was always a story to be told.
“Too Fantastic Not To Tell.”
That’s how Jack Kerouac described his decision, no, rather his compulsion to tell the story of his travels. Jack was an observer of human nature, a thinker and a writer. I’m two out of the three. I have never claimed to be a writer by trade. But I also think that the story is too fantastic not to tell. Writing does not come easy for me, although I love it. I’ve worked on this book in fits and starts, getting a little further and then becoming sidetracked with life, or more of the time, I will stop believing that any of this is of interest to anyone except me. So I’ve stopped thinking about it. It is what it is. No more and no less. And it’s sometimes random, but I’ll excuse that with the observation that so was Kerouac. I’m not comparing, either. How he would have told these same stories had he been experiencing them! But he wasn’t, and nobody else from the band has come forward with their viewpoints either. So I guess it’s up to me.
I’ve struggled with what to tell, and more importantly, what not to tell. This book is not a “What was Ray Charles really like?” kind of story. To be honest, I don’t have a lot more to tell about that subject than has already been told. And Ray’s life and mine only intersected peripherally. Besides my time on stage with him, contact was not frequent or extended. That suited me fine. I have good things and not-so-good things I could say about him, and you’ll hear a little bit of both. Just a little. But this book isn’t about Ray Charles. Others have done that, for better or for worse. Ray has done that himself in his own autobiography.
Without question, I would not have had a chance to experience many of the things I write about without Ray, without his asking me to join the band and without his confidence in my sometimes limited abilities as a musician. I am under no illusion that there are not hundreds or thousands of trumpet players that could have done the job as well or better. But Ray happened to hear something in my playing that he liked. Whatever that was, it kept my gig.
I was loyal to the end. I played Ray’s final concert before he had to stop touring. I’m proud of that. Management did not make that easy. Nothing was easy on the road. The things that most take for granted were struggles, whether it be clean underwear or a hot meal before the gig.
Boxer Shorts, Missing Dentures…
Ray Charles once appeared on stage in his underwear. No, this was not a part of a hip new look, it was a result of Ray’s blindness, impatience and lack of tolerance for very loud bass frequencies bouncing around in his dressing room. It happened like this…
We were in Brazil, playing a large nightclub in Sao Paulo. The setup was kind of different. Even though there was a stage, there was no backstage area, and no wings. Ray’s dressing room was directly to the left of the stage. Since the stage was small, the bass amplifier was backed up to the wall of Ray’s dressing room.
Ray had been unhappy about the volume of the bass for a few weeks, constantly riding our bass player for playing too loudly. We generally played a few tunes on each concert before Ray came on to the stage. This night Ray had enough. The bass was bleeding through that wall like gangbusters. The next thing we (and the audience) saw, was the sight of the door opening, and Ray walking onto the stage in boxer shorts and a ratty old-man undershirt. Ray thought he was walking into the wings, not knowing that his dressing-room door opened directly onto the stage.
He was standing there cussing a blue streak, calling our bass player every name in the book, in his underwear and in front of the whole crowd. It’s when they started applauding and cheering wildly that Ray realized he had made a mistake in judgment, and exited the way he came in, only to reappear when our set was finished. No explanation was offered, and the audience got to see something rare: Ray Charles in his underwear cussing out a musician. It was very special.
Then there was the time that Ray’s valet left Ray’s dentures in the hotel room. That show was delayed for lack of teeth while someone frantically went back to the hotel for the choppers.
Why did I go on the road in the first place? Well, Ray called, and I said yes. I had no idea it would be a 13-year journey. My idea was “maybe a couple of tours.” But a couple of tours kept extending to more and more. In retrospect, there were many reasons for staying out there that long. I love to travel, to see the world, and to participate in seeing the world by being something other than a tourist. And of course, there was the music and the musicians.
In those 13 years, I experienced many seasons of what I call “April dread.” Our tours ran from June through December, with sporadic gigs through the off-season. Somewhere around April, I would start soul-searching. By that time I was entrenched in other gigs, ones where I didn’t arrive and leave by bus, and where the only destinations after the gig were the all-night taco stand and my own bed. “Do I want to do another tour? CAN I do another tour?” These and many other questions went through my head. I would dread getting that letter, airline ticket to L.A. enclosed, summoning me for yet another world tour. How glamorous. How terrifying. How…possible is it? The letter would come, and I would stare at it for a few minutes, looking at the drawing of Ray on the outside of the envelope. Then I would open it, look at the date on the ticket, and call Valerie at Ray’s office. Another tour was under way.
My time with Ray was an interesting and varied voyage, and one that most people do not have the opportunity to experience. The journey had its ups and downs, it is true, and there have been times that I would have given anything to be at home sleeping in my own bed. And being sick or broke or exhausted on the road is no fun at all. But I have tried to always keep my life from becoming predictable, and traveling with the band certainly accomplished that. You just never know what to expect from day to day, and sometimes you’re not even sure where you’re headed. “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m leaving here!” is something a longtime band member said almost every time he got on the bus, and it says a lot. The people that are able to stay on the road for any length of time are in love with the idea of just going. It really doesn’t matter where, just to go, although the time we didn’t find out we were going to Uruguay until we were headed to the airport was a little too much. I never did understand what all the secrecy was about.
Then there was the time we were either going to Russia or headed home—we didn’t know which. We were waiting at O’Hare Airport until an hour before our Aeroflot flight. We were outside by the check-in desk, chanting “Cancel Russia” to the tune of “The Volga Boatman” or one of those Russian-sounding tunes. It was the end of a long tour, and we were more than ready to head home. During that waiting time, our manager found out from a State Department missive that cell phones were illegal in Russia. In disbelief, we all frantically mailed our phones home, only to find out when we got to Moscow that practically everyone had a cell phone. That’s when we discovered that the State Department bulletin quoted was several years old. We did make the trip, having a grand time in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The thrill of being on stage playing with the Moscow Symphony was worth the hassles. There is nothing like the sound of Russian strings. It spoiled me, and now I compare all symphonies with that incredible one I sat in the middle of.
The band is as varied a group of characters as you could imagine. If a situation comedy about our lives was ever aired, it would be panned as seeming too unrealistic. Some of the members are veteran “road rats,” others come and go, and usually you have one or two that are so miserable with traveling and being away from home that they leave abruptly.
Once in Paris, we had an assistant stage manager become so disturbed that he was screaming in the hotel lobby for someone to “call the embassy, call the embassy, I have to go home RIGHT NOW!” We were worried about him—he really was becoming unhinged. We were within three weeks of being home, and we tried to get him to stick it out until we got back to the States, but he did end up calling the embassy, who partially subsidized his trip home. They took the money that he had and bought him a plane ticket to New York, and then he had to take a Greyhound bus cross-country to Los Angeles. It must have been a long and grueling trip.
I could see it coming with him, though. For weeks, he had just been becoming more agitated every day, and had a screw or two loose to begin with. I’ll admit that the band didn’t help with his problems. Weeks before that, he claimed he would not show up on film or video because he was “Creole,” so one of the band shot video of him, which we watched on the bus the next day. He showed up on the video, of course, and he was very silent for the next day or two. Sometimes there is a bit of cruelty to the humor on the road, and he was the brunt of it on this particular occasion. He was not adapting well to road life, and the stress of being in a foreign country just caused him to snap. It happens, and not too infrequently at that. Hopefully he is doing well.
I like to say that there were 22 members of the band, and 22 different reasons for being out on the road, from almost obsessive dedication to the music to the opposite extreme of really just wanting to see the world and get through the gig somehow. We had musicians that practiced eight hours a day, and others who rarely picked up their instruments between gigs. Some were so reclusive that they never left their hotel rooms, just ordering pizzas and reading Russian novels, and others were totally caught up in the social whirl of whatever town they’re in. Most fell somewhere between the extremes, including me.
What we all had in common was a fairly high standard of musicianship and an ability to adapt to the trials and tribulations of traveling. And that’s about the only things we had in common much of the time. We came from all localities and walks of life, and were probably more diverse than most bands, because we didn’t have to live in one area. It wasn’t an “L.A. band” or a “New York band,” and that is one of the things that made it unique. And there was always someone in the band that you had a hard time dealing with. We went through an entire seven-month tour with two band members not speaking to each other. It must have been a terrible strain. Such silliness tends to get out of hand easily, but it makes for some good stories in retrospect.
The Rules of the Road
- When a local promoter that you’ve never met decides to meet you at the airport, it generally means he has bad news.
- When your local promoter says “We have a nice bus for you,” it means “It used to be a tour bus until they retired it. Now they use it to haul around construction materials.”
- When the local promoter says “The rental agency was out of trucks, but there is plenty of room under the bus for equipment,” it means “I’m sorry, but you will be traveling 500 miles with a guitar amplifier on your lap.” I think that I may have “Fender” permanently imprinted on my chest.
- When the driver says “The bathroom will be fixed tomorrow,” it means “The bathroom hasn’t worked for 10 years and never will again in your lifetime.”
- When the driver says “Don’t worry, we’ll stop when you need to go to the toilet,” it means “I’ve got a bladder the size of Cincinnati, and I ain’t stopping for NOTHING.”
- When the driver says “We’ll be making a lunch stop soon,” it means “We are dangerously low on gas, which is the only reason we’re stopping.”
- When your local promoter says “We will have a nice meal for you at the venue,” it means one of two things:
- We will have a nice dinner for five people at the venue, even though there are 26 of you, or
- We will have a veggie tray from seven to 11, complete with some green dip that’s been sitting so long it’s developed a crust that’s impervious to penetration by chips and/or vegetables, except maybe a very firm carrot.
- When the local promoter says “We have a great jam session set up for you after the performance,” it means “I am trying to curry favor with a local club and look important by appearing there with members of the Ray Charles Orchestra.” It also means that he plays very poor (but loud) blues guitar.
- When you get to the jam session, the house band is either:
- The lounge band from the Holiday Inn Express
- The lounge band from the Ramada Inn Limited
- Buddy and his all-star 123 decibel blues band
- A keyboard player with a drum machine
- No house band, WE are the house band…SURPRISE!