I’m known for having numerous what-the-truck stories about unlikely encounters with the greatest heroes of the day. I used to have an ego about it. Who could blame me, when everyone dreams of meeting and befriending rock stars, and as a teenager it was already happening to me.
At 17, I met Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell on the same damn day. I bragged about it the next day at high school, and a few people thought I was a badass. When you go to the Led Zeppelin reunion in London, people make a fuss about it.
But my rock-bragging ego died forever in the early ’90s, during a visit to my father’s house in Tyler, Texas.
While walking through a hallway littered with photos of relatives, I noticed something out of place. There, in a cheap drugstore frame, was a crappy blow up of an instant photo showing my dad with none other than Ray Charles.
My dad had never told me that he and Ray Charles had met. As far as I knew, Charles wasn't a part of our family tree. Or was I in a parallel universe where my Uncle Ray — my dad actually did have a brother named Ray — was Ray Charles instead of Ray Burnett? And why was parallel Uncle Ray sitting in a dental chair?
As I marched toward the living room where my Dad, Corky Burnett, was reading the newspaper, I yelled out, "Hey Dad, what’s the deal with this photo in the hall?” He didn't know which photo I meant. “The photo of you and Ray Charles," I said. "What’s the deal?”
“Oh that," he replied. "He came by the office, needed his tooth fixed.” I asked him when the hell this happened and why I was just now finding out. "1986," he said, to the first question. To the second, "How would I know?" He didn’t so much as look up from his paper.
We’ve discussed it a few times since, but not in much detail. But 30 years later he’s agreed to spill every last bean for my column. And it’s about damn time.
It was May 1986 when Ray visited my dad's dental office. "It was about 4:45 p.m. and we closed the Dental Center at 5 p.m. every day," he says. "The phone rang, and the receptionist, whose mom worked at the Holiday Inn, asked her daughter to ask me if we could stay open an extra hour, as Ray Charles was at the hotel experiencing tooth pain, and needed to see a dentist before his show that night in town, or he would have to cancel his performance.”
If the receptionist's mom hadn't worked at the hotel where Charles happened to be staying, the run-in wouldn't have happened. My dad enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity. "I said, ‘HELL yes,'" he says. Just that, I asked? “Hell yes it was just hell yes. It was Ray Charles!”
Upon making the appointment the receptionist was sent home to fetch a camera, and she returned with a humble Kodak Instamatic with a flash cube on it. The entire staff stayed late, drinking sodas out of the fridge and yacking. And then he arrived.
At 6:15 p.m. a limousine pulled into the parking lot. My dad opened the front door and watched his hero, Ray fucking Charles, being helped from it by a large, well-dressed man. They walked slowly toward my dad, who asked, “Mr. Charles, what’s your problem today?”
“Well," he recalls Charles saying, "I broke the tooth off my partial. If my mouth ain’t right, my singin’ ain’t right.” My dad promised he would take care of it.
A partial is a small piece of denture designed to replace a few teeth instead of all the teeth. My Dad seated Charles in operatory No. 1 and reclined the chair to make him comfortable. The receptionist took a quick photo, and my dad placed a dental bib around Charles' neck. He then removed the damaged partial and examined Charles' mouth. I had to ask: "What was it like in there?"
"The upper case of an adult, minus wisdom teeth, is supposed to have 14 teeth," he says. "At that point, Ray had three original teeth remaining. The rest were dentures. So he was missing 11 teeth. Not usual at his age. I had my lab man, Jerry Pinner, take the impression we had just made of his upper teeth, and the partial, to the lab room to select and install a new tooth that would be correct for Ray’s mouth. While he did that, I talked to Ray about this and that.”
What kind of this and that, I asked him. “Well, I asked him if he remembered playing the 3-12 Club in Dallas in ’57," my dad says. He and my mother had attended the show together just before I was born. "He smiled and said he didn’t. Then I told him his partial was too old to last much longer. He told me it was 30 years old. I offered to set him up on a payment plan to make it affordable for him to replace it. He smiled and said he had to get to the gig."
When my dad asked Charles if he remembered the song "I Got a Woman," he began singing it in the chair. "So I joined in, and we sang the whole song together," my Dad says. “He said, 'Mr. Burnett, I think you should keep your clinic open, and I should go on from here as a solo act.’ We both laughed pretty hard, then Jerry came in with the completed partial, I put it in, and Ray just smiled and said, ‘Perfect fit.'”
As Charles was led carefully to the front door by his assistant, he stopped and turned around. “Dr. Burnett, we haven’t paid you yet," my dad recalls. "How much do we owe you today?” My dad told him there would be no charge; it would give him something to brag about.
My dad stood outside his clinic and watched as Charles' assistant gently fitted him back into the limousine. As the limo pulled away and turned into the street, my dad gave a wave goodbye. “You mean the wave he couldn’t even see?" I asked. “Well, it was the polite thing to do."
The next day my dad read in the Tyler newspaper that the Ray Charles concert had been canceled. An employee of the promoter responsible for handing Charles his cash guarantee of $75,000 had taken the money and left. When Ray found out, he gave The Nod, and his assistant put him back in the limo and drove him away from Tyler, Texas, never to return.
My dad eventually closed the Dental Center, moved back to Dallas, and returned to a former job at the post office, because he decided he liked it better than dentistry. They retired him in 2009, and he’s still around, reading newspapers, and occasionally, telling a story.
I have a lot of great tales, I am told. But you can take my most mind-numbing saga and put it between two pieces of Wonder Bread, and it will be swallowed whole by my dad’s telling of his afternoon visit with his favorite patient ever, who told him to keep his day job.