These days they call it Fair St. Louis. Back when I was a teen, it was the Veiled Prophet Fair. The VP is a local charitable group, who each year also puts on (or at least used to) the debutant ball to end all debutant balls. Very preppie, very St. Louis.
The Fair is a great time, really. Three days on and around July 4th, with all the beer, bratwurst, and free entertainment you can stand. It’s held on the riverfront under the Gateway Arch, with easy access to the hip bars on Laclede’s Landing. And these days, easy access to the riverfront casino boats. The bars are much more my cup o’ (spiked) tea.
Most importantly, the VP Fair always had a terrific fireworks display each night. Still the best I’ve ever seen.
1985 or ’86, I’d taken the Lindell bus down to the VP, to see if I could scam some beer or, better yet, pick up a girl or two. (NOTE: I had better luck with the beer.) Around dusk, I was wandering around with my pilfered malt beverage, looking for a choice spot on the lawn to watch the fireworks. By “choice” of course, I mean, “next to something cute and preferably brunette or maybe a redhead.” Not far from me was the center stage, and as I walked past, I heard the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.
There was a piano. A man playing it. The same man was singing. That simple.
The song was “America the Beautiful.” The singer was Ray Charles. I became a fan right then. Stopped in my tracks, turned to face the stage, and just stood there and listened.
As you know, Ray died yesterday. 20 years after the one time I heard him perform live, whenever I hear a recording of him singing that song, it all comes back. I’m 16 again, standing under the Arch in the July heat, forgetting everything but the sound of that voice.