#54: Ray Charles, "The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings" (1991)

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My Oma never stops singing.

Oma’s email address is omasings31. None of my family members can remember her passwords for anything, so it has been changed multiple times—endless strings of numbers after various landmarks in her past: barcelona, badhomburg, cartagena. But the singing, certainly, remains constant.

At the dinner table. While playing cards. When her blood sugar has gotten too high from eating an entire carton of blueberries that I accidentally purchased for her because she asked for it, and now we are watching her levels and fearing that she is going to stroke out because she is 87 years old, and her eyes get that glassy look to them before the color returns to her cheeks and she announces that it is time for her to go to bed. While driving her to the hospital after bringing her in for a routine check-up as a favor to my parents and being told that I need to take her to the emergency room immediately, except that me, the poor dumb millennial grandson, had simply dropped her off at the general practitioner before going across the parking lot to Starbucks, and so there I am, walking in with an iced latte in my hand and two missed phone calls.

I come from a family of musicians: radio DJs, All-State choral members, Disney Mouseketeers. I’ve sung a little bit in my time—I was the front man for a high school band for a season where I took some old center-justified poems and tried to scream them over some basslines. In middle school and high school, I sang in the chorus ensemble—a Tenor 2, to be exact. It is something that has never come natural to me, however—there is an ardentness to singing that is something that simply can’t be overlooked. I have difficulty being earnest: my wife jokes that when I want to say something sentimental to her, I put on my “sentimental voice” where it sounds like I am being insincere even though what I am saying is the truth. I filter my voice through layers: when I sing, I sing playfully—I get over-dramatic with my delivery when I am in the car by myself. I come up with ridiculous harmonies to songs on the radio. If I try to sing with gusto, I get embarrassed; my karaoke moments are few and far between and are only earnest at their most drunk, which is to say that they are already shielded in the mask of seven ciders. I pride myself on my ear rather than my voice—I’m able to pick out certain nuances in songs and patch them together with other songs when I assemble DJ playlists. I have a feel for music and tone, and yet I have difficulty replicating it with my own voice, let alone an actual musical instrument. Even in my choral days, I listened for my fellow Tenor 2 (there were, yes, two of us) and simply followed his lead, almost like an echo. Nothing about pitch feels particularly natural to me—I feel much more at home assessing music than I do performing it; whether that is through throwing smoky dance parties or by writing wistful dedications to my favorite songs and performers.

And yet I too never stop singing: I see a trio of words and decide that it needs to be sung out loud with a ridiculous harmony. My grandmother does this too; on road trips, she’ll see a sign for something, exclaim it outloud, and make up a song on the spot—Car Wash, Car Wash, King’s Time, King’s Time. I make up my own words to things: instead of exclaiming, I sing a few tone-deaf notes to my movements of the day. I can’t quite explain why I do it—my wife is used to it, but I find myself doing it in public, and, again, I feel embarrassed. It is something that I cannot help—sometimes it is just easier to sing Garbage Can than it is to say nothing and silently wheel the oversized green bin over acorns and overgrown grass.

My grandmother’s favorite singer is Ray Charles. Every time I see his name, I picture her saying it in her Catalan-German accent: it slopes downward in her pronunciation, the way a simple name can light up a face, can cause warmth. There are some words that are simply louder than others—I cannot see his name in print without thinking of her expressing her joy in hearing his voice.

When I am home for the holidays, Oma always asks me to check her spelling whenever she needs to write something—she speaks English fluently, but she knows that her writing skills are not the best. English, after all, is her fourth language, and so it can be difficult to keep all of the words together: grocery lists of blueberries, pan, Mr. Clean, gallettas. She jokes that her own grandson gave her a “D” on her writing—that letters often run together when they shouldn’t, or they are simply spelled phonetically when she doesn’t have the exact spelling.

Musicologist Henry Pleasants describes listening to Ray Charles as purely phonetic in nature:  

“Sinatra, and Bing Crosby before him, had been masters of words. Ray Charles is a master of sounds. His records disclose an extraordinary assortment of slurs, glides, turns, shrieks, wails, breaks, shouts, screams and hollers, all wonderfully controlled, disciplined by inspired musicianship, and harnessed to ingenious subtleties of harmony, dynamics and rhythm... It is either the singing of a man whose vocabulary is inadequate to express what is in his heart and mind or of one whose feelings are too intense for satisfactory verbal or conventionally melodic articulation. He can't tell it to you. He can't even sing it to you. He has to cry out to you, or shout to you, in tones eloquent of despair—or exaltation. The voice alone, with little assistance from the text or the notated music, conveys the message.”

In language studies, there has been a significant shift toward the act of listening. In the past, there was a much larger emphasis in reading things aloud—the speaking was considered to be the most important part. Even when we talk about language, we mention that we “speak a little” of something, rather than we “understand a little”—listening seems incredibly passive to us, and thus significantly less impressive. If we listen enough, we feel comfortable enough imitating a native speaker, and therefore, we begin to speak.

These are the facts we know about our grandparents when we are young—we attach ourselves to small details that make those we love more human; I might not understand the complexities of escaping Franco only to escape Hitler only to escape Franco, but I can comprehend how clear a voice can be; how I know something that brings happiness. Every gift a Ray Charles CD, a box set a DVD of Ray, complete with Jamie Foxx doing his best impersonation.

When I am older and I am privy to more stories, the one about learning English is a good one: through foul-mouthed landlords in Old Bridge, New Jersey, through flashcards with her children, though above all, through listening to Ray Charles on the radio.

What is it to have been taught language by an artist who simply conveys emotion in sound? As a writer, I subscribe to the Didion quote of “not knowing what I think until I write it down”—instead, what is it to not know how to express feeling except through noise—the breaks and shouts, the “unhhhhs” and “oooohs” of something that isn’t quite language but there’s truly no other explanation for it? Of how we are constantly at a loss for words, but never at a loss for sound: of comfort in singing on long car rides, or an “ooooey!” when seeing a frozen wasp in between the two panes of glass of a window.

What then does it say of my own language where I am scared to speak anything earnest—when I have to sing about being appreciative in a voice so far from Ray’s, instead of simply stating what needs to be said? My voice, unlike my Oma’s, and unlike Ray Charles’s is never spontaneous—if I am asked to give a speech, I make damn well sure it is written down and rehearsed. I put on my “reading voice,” I lock into my “teaching voice”—all different inflections depending on the words, the cue, the background singers chiming in.

A final note: my grandmother and grandfather met while singing. They sang in the Choir of Barcelona together—presumably performing songs in Latin and other languages that they did not know, but at least knew the tones; an alto’s middle note is known in any language.

When Oma leaves this earth to join a different choir, she has one request: that there be singing. I will try my hardest to hit the notes necessary—to follow my own echo to the best of my ability. I will practice, the same way that she did; repetitions of vibration, of intonation. Incantation.

In the meantime, I promise to sing the mundane. The backs of cereal boxes, the online recipes. I change the lyrics to anthems. Every word a song. I sing fake-loudly—shouts muffled. I promise that there is truth in these moments; that I sing to make the world accounted for. Street signs. Lonely avenues. In the time being, I make noises when I run: loud yelps and whoops when I feel tired, when I am so out of breath but need to exclaim a loud “wooooo” when moving up a slight incline past my old house and before the veterinarian’s office. Sometimes strangers turn and look. Sometimes I am heard.

—Brian Oliu