True Stories from my career #2August 18, 2013
I’ve told this story to friends and colleagues before, but it’s worth repeating here…..
It was the summer of 1976, and I was working my first “Professional” live sound season, at the Robin Hood Dell East, an outdoor venue in East Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. It seats around 5,000-7,000 people, with more on the lawn and back picnic areas. To cut a long circuitous story short (another time, perhaps), I had been put in charge of purchasing, assembling & operating a fairly large four-way sound system, newly installed that spring, in time for the “Summer Festival Of Stars”, as it was called then.
In July and August, Monday nights were Jazz/R&B, Wednesdays were usually Gospel nights, and Fridays were usually “Cultural” nights….anything from Eastern European dancers, to Bagpipes, to Hispanic & Caribbean Nights, to even an occasional night of marching bands, courtesy of the local PAL organization. But I digress….
We’d already had a number of High School graduations as a breaking in period for the new sound system in June, so by the time we’d gotten to opening night, (Ray Charles!), we were ready. I’ll leave the overly techie aspects out, but it was basically pretty good stuff for the time; a 16 Channel board with 2 monitor mixes, a bunch of new mics (mostly Shure SM 58s, 57s, RE 20s, and whatever else I could scrounge up from my available resources of the day…)
I don’t recall the opening act (if there even WAS one), but Ray and his band – along with the Raylettes, were the headliners. Real or inflated, the attendance numbers were put at 10,000 people, about 5-6k in the seats, and the rest all over the place, up on the lawn, in side hills, and anywhere anyone could squeeze in. As was the case in those days, with touring bands and the industry what it was, most acts (including Ray at the time) didn’t bring a lot of gear, leaving it mostly to the promoter to provide the basics, like grand piano, electric piano, bass amps, guitar amps, mics, stands, etc. We had it all covered, with mics on everything, ready to go. I had the normal complement of mics already set up on the drums, amps, singers, horns, etc.
We did as much line-checking as we could until the band was scheduled to arrive by bus; sometime around 6-ish. By today’s standards, this was cutting it pretty close, but that’s how it was in those days; pull up to the venue between 5 and 6, do a sound check if there was time; otherwise – as the old saying goes – “The first song is the sound check.”
I was ready for that, but I didn’t expect what happened next, when Ray’s road manager walked onstage, came up to me and asked: “Are you the sound engineer?” Replying in the affirmative, I heard him say: “See all those mics? They come DOWN or Ray doesn’t do the show….” I was stunned, and said: “look, they’re saying we’ve got about 10,000 people coming to see this show tonight, and there will be serious trouble if they can’t hear the music.” He wasn’t budging, and said: “Young man, do what I tell you, or Ray will know it, and he will stop the show and call you out! We want ONE mic on Ray’s voice at the piano, one mic IN the piano, one mic over on the Fender Rhodes Piano, and one last mic on the Raylettes, and that’s IT.” He made it pretty clear this was non-negotiable.
I was totally shocked, and more than a little freaked out…..here we were, brand-new sound system at the ready (remember, I had pitched it, helped them purchase it, and installed it for my bosses at the time, in the City’s Rec. Department. What were they going to do when there’s not much more than Ray’s voice coming out of the speakers?) I knew the quandary I was in, and at least told my stage & venue managers what was going on. In the end, no one could or would intercede for fear of Ray & Co. doing a walk-out over sound system issues. Better to have bad sound than a crowd upset over a no-show Ray Charles.
Well, as they say; the show must go on, and we (I) did what we could; I’d cheat the mic up on the Fender piano when Ray wasn’t on it, trying to get the band up a little bit; ditto for the Raylette’s mic, etc. In the end, it really wasn’t as bad (at least for the expectations of the era) as I’d worried; sure the band wasn’t full or loud enough, but there was nothing I could do. More than one person came up to me at the sound console to complain (I was out in the middle of the house; one of the improvements of that year was to put the console & lighting controllers out IN the house – a fairly modern idea at the time – so we could see/hear better during the performances.) I would explain to each what had happened, while pointing the lack of mics on the stage: that this was what RAY wanted.
I don’t think Ray ever knew this was being done on his behalf, and even if he did, I can certainly understand how they’d probably been burned by bad sound systems (and inexperienced engineers) over the years. Live sound reinforcement was still having growing pains in the 70’s. Being without sight certainly added to his legendary ability to hear everything around him; and bad sound probably drove him crazy in previous shows. I suspect the only answer in those days was to just nip it in the bud, and turn off anything that wasn’t critical. Sure, it was harder to hear the subtleties of the rest of the band, but that’s what they’d done for decades, long before mulit-mic, multi-channel huge sound systems became the norm for big shows. And Ray was always a LIVE guy, no question.
That first show was probably also the worst, in terms of heart-stopping terror with a huge crowd all around me, and not being able to get them the sound they were expecting. From then on, for the next three summers, I was treated like gold from (almost) everyone that came through; and was pretty much left to do the sound as I needed. In hindsight, this was probably the only serious “glitch of the mission”, for several seasons to come. Oh sure, there were quite a few other great horror stories for another post, another time, but my first time out in professional setting, with Ray Charles, of all people, was certainly one of the most memorable!