Steve Sigmund’s Brother Ray, A Letter (2004)
On June 11, 2004, the day after Ray Charles died, Steve Sigmund wrote a letter to David Ritz, co-author of Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story. In fact, the moving content of Steve’s story is complementary to Ritz’ eulogy The Last Days Of Brother Ray, the final chapter in the extended version of Charles’ autobiography (partially accessible here).
The letter was published in 2004 by Jazziz magazine, but it got (too) little attention. Sigmund granted me permission* to republish the letter here.
I don’t quite know what to say. We’ve never met before but we shared something wonderful in common. If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you just a little bit about my “Brother Ray”.
My phone rang on December 3, 1986 and the voice on the other end identified himself as Brother Ray. He proceeded to tell me that Clifford Solomon had given him a tape that he had listened to of me and that he needed a trombone player for some shows down in Florida over Christmas and wondered whether I could make it, I was 22 years old. In August I’ll be 40. He was a lot more hands on with the cats in those days. He still called new musicians himself.
I played the Ray Charles Show for the first time on December 23, 1986. I played the last Ray Charles Show on July 20, 2003 in Alexandria, VA. I played approximately 2000 shows with him over 17 years.
When we left to go out on the road in May of 2003, his hip was already bothering him badly. Having the Lear Jet he had recently purchased helped a little bit because like in the old days, he could once again travel where and when he wanted and when he felt like it. The doctors didn’t even want him to start that tour because they knew his hip would not hold out much longer, but you know how much he liked being told what to do – especially by doctors. We had fourteen weeks of summer tour ahead of us at that point. As June wore into July we could see him deteriorating quickly. As you know, he used to like to get out of the venue as soon as he could change his clothes at the end of the show. By the end of June, it would sometimes take him an hour to change clothes and gather enough strength to get out to the car. He needed help getting his pants on.
It never showed on stage though. From the time he stepped out from the side of the stage to the time he got safely into the dressing room he never stopped being The Genius of Soul. At the time we didn’t understand what was really special about July 20. It was different for us though because we hadn’t worked in a night club in several years. An intimate setting like that was really Ray. We all left the stage that night thinking that we had had not heard him sound so good in quite a while. I went by his dressing room after the show like I had done hundreds of times before. The past eight years or so, we had developed a little more personal relationship. I had copied music for him, helped restore some of his older arrangements. He loved to talk baseball with me. I grew up in the Bay Area and was a Giants fan so I matched up perfectly against his Dodgers. For the past several years, we had a standing bet on the baseball season. $50 for whoever went further, the Giants or Dodgers. I would also bring him new jazz recordings anytime I heard something I thought he’d like. I knew what he liked. He loved big band music with good ensemble writing. He would always tell me that when you had thirteen horns, you had to use them.
On July 21, he went home. He never came back. We went home nine days later on July 30. He sent word that he just needed to rest for two weeks and then we’d pick up with the California dates. I didn’t hear from him again until just before Christmas. The phone rang one day and a familiar voice on the other end said “Hey Zig”. He had been listening to a recording that I gave him several months before and wanted to know who the writer was. He said he wanted to buy the arrangement and use it on the show we’d play in New York in March. He sounded excited. He had the hip replacement and said he was feeling better. I silently wondered what was happening with the cancer. Most of us in the band had known about that since May.
January came and we got the official call from the office. On March 2nd at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, the big comeback show. We’d been off for eight months. I was hearing from people on the inside, that things were not going as well as everyone thought. Two weeks later came another phone call from the office, it was off. The official statement said that his recovery from hip replacement surgery was taking longer than expected. We knew. I was getting updates weekly from my friends that were on the inside. His bad days were outnumbering his good days.
I wanted to visit him very badly. Everyone told me that I would never get in. My only shot was if I could talk to him. I didn’t want to lose him without seeing him one more time. I had been talking to Vernon periodically and had recently told him my desire to visit. He thought it would be a great idea but that I’d have to talk to Ray first. After a week or so, a call came from Vernon, wait 5 minutes and call the office and tell the receptionist that Ray is expecting your call. I was so happy to talk to him, it was April and we hadn’t spoken since December. I told him that I wanted to come out to see him. Typical Ray, he said “you’re at home in Florida aren’t you?” I said yes. He said “You want to come all the way out here to see me?” That was on a Thursday. Ray told me to meet him at the office on Monday at noon.
The first person I saw at the office was Joe. I could see the look on Joe’s face. It seemed like all the years of animosity between Joe and the guys in the band didn’t matter anymore. It was the end and it was about Ray. He put his hand out and thanked me for coming. He said “I thank you and Ray thanks you”. We talked for several minutes. I thanked Joe also. It was the first time I had ever had a conversation like that with Joe. I was very happy about that. I then went upstairs. Vernon took me to his office. He was sitting on the side of the bed, dressed. I sat down on the side of the bed next to him. He quickly grabbed my hand and held on to it the whole time that we talked. He asked about my mom and my wife. He knew them both. He knew my wife since before we were married. He and Joe sent us a wedding gift when we got married. He asked me how I was doing and what I was doing. What I was doing was trying to hold back the tears. He told me he was very tired now all the time. After about 20 minutes, he apologized and said he would have to rest now. I didn’t know how to say goodbye. The last thing I said to him was “thanks for everything”, he said “I know”.
I walked out of that room and into the main part of his office. I was already crying at that point. I stood in front of his desk and looked at the walls covered with awards. I walked down the hall and went in the studio. I knew that I’d probably never be inside this building ever again.
On July 30, the day that we were sent home from New York, we went onto Ray’s bus to get our personal belongings. I snuck into his stateroom in the back and grabbed a bottle of his Dom Perignon from the cabinet that they hid it in. I took it home with me. At 12:15pm last Thursday, I put it into the freezer to chill it. After a quiet dinner with my wife, I told her that I needed some time to myself. I took the bottle and a glass and went to my music room and closed the door. I put on some CD’s, opened the bottle and toasted Ray. I loved him very much. I have a musical career because of him. I also am the man and the musician that I am right now because of him.
I was inspired to write to you after having read your beautiful “Last Days of Brother Ray” yesterday. Thank you for your beautiful words. I am sorry that I won’t have the opportunity to meet you at the memorial tomorrow but I live in Miami and am not able to get free to get out there. It’s ok though because I know that he and I are already good.
* Steve wrote: “This was originally nothing more than a personal correspondence between myself and David Ritz. […] As you read this, also please picture that Peter Turre accompanied me on the trip to Los Angeles to see Ray. […]”.