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Hallelujah, He Loves Music So : After 40 Years in the Business, Crossover King Ray Charles Finds Time to Stay Busy

September 03, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ray Charles may be 65, headed toward 66 later this month, but, after 40-plus years of high-visibility touring, the genius of soul is still hitting the road with all the enthusiasm of youth.

And it doesn't seem to matter whether he's playing before a crowd of high-rollers in Las Vegas, an audience of Washington movers and shakers at the Kennedy Center or a bunch of good old boys at the Grand Ol' Opry in Nashville.

Charles, the ultimate crossover performer--from jazz to soul to pop to country--simply sits down at his keyboard, signals his backup band and the inimitable Raelettes, kicks off a rhythmic groove and creates an instant atmosphere of musical delight.

Why does he continue such a hectic annual schedule--six months of club dates and one-nighters in venues ranging from Vegas to Cupertino, and six months of concerts and recording?

"It's because of the feeling, man," Charles says. "I think it's one of the main reasons why entertainers can work even when they're half dead. I did a date once with Duke Ellington, and he was on an oxygen tank. But he came out on stage, did his performance, and went back to the dressing room and got back on his oxygen tank.

"There's something about music that's healing. There've been many times that I don't feel good at all, but once I hit the stage, something transforms. I don't know why, I don't know how, but it just does. Unless you're just about dead, music'll do something for you."

Charles is almost as fascinating a conversationalist as he is a performer. Riffing off one theme after another, tossing in a declamatory, gospel-like interjection here and there, suddenly shifting gears into velvety, soulful, low-keyed phrases, he puts the same kind of vitality and originality into his responses that he brings to yet another rendition of "Georgia on My Mind" or "I've Got a Woman."

"If you don't feel what you're doing, man," he says, "if you're not getting energized from it, I think you're cheating the public, as well as yourself. I realize everybody's gotta eat and a lot of people have jobs they don't like. But when it comes to music, if you can't get turned on by what you're doing, then go work at the post office."

His current tour has taken him from Caesars Palace last week to the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, when he plays on a jazz program with saxophonist Gerald Albright.

Ask him about the difference between the wide range of venues in which he appears and Charles offers a virtual definition of his philosophy as a performer.

"I don't play to places," he says. "I play to people. Maybe it's because I'm blind--I'm not sure about that--but the setting is just the setting. What I want is to have the people there and, God help me, I hope I can entertain them.

"So it doesn't matter whether I'm playing in the Bowl or whether I'm playing in your bathroom, because I only want those people to walk out of there and say, 'Man, he really put on a helluva show.' "

Although he long ago transcended any kind of musical categorization, Charles' roots are deeply embedded in jazz. Early albums such as "Soul Brothers," with Milt Jackson, "Genius + Soul Jazz," and the often-overlooked blend of bebop and gospel still present in his piano playing are the best evidence of the improvisational and rhythmic elements that reside in the heart of his music. His initial hits--"What'd I Say," "I've Got a Woman," "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," among them--brilliantly fused those jazz elements with blues, urban swing and gospel into a style that had an enormous impact upon many of the players in the emerging music of the '60s.

Later this year, Charles plans to go into the studio to record his first strongly jazz-oriented album in many years. Does the recording--along with his frequent jazz festival appearances--represent a return to his jazz roots?

"Not exactly," he says, pointing out that he prefers to perceive his jazz activities from a somewhat broader point of view.

"I'm trying to bring together guys," he said, "who, when they play one note on their horns, you know who they are. Guys like Milt Jackson, Louis Bellson, Johnny Griffin, Illinois Jacquet, David Newman. Guys who have a distinct sound. And I've got some arrangers working on charts for tunes like 'Just Friends,' things like that."

Then, in a rare break from his typically fast-paced rush of words, Charles pauses for a reflective moment before revealing the key motivating factor behind the recording.

"And I want to do the album now," he adds, "because most of us are beginning to die out. When this album first came into my mind, I was planning to have Buddy Rich and Dizzy Gillespie, and the next thing I know they both died on me."

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