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Pop Music Review

Paying Due Respect to the Career of Ray Charles

But notably missing at tribute was a performance by the singer.

October 04, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No disrespect to the talents of Diane Schuur, Ashford & Simpson and, certainly not, Willie Nelson. But in an evening honoring Ray Charles with a lifetime achievement award, there's only one voice you really want to hear.

Unfortunately, the only Charles singing heard Monday during the Blues Foundation's annual honors banquet at the House of Blues was a handful of recordings. And even his speaking voice was heard only briefly in a short acceptance.

You can't blame Charles for wanting to merely relax and enjoy the celebration (the choice of whether to perform belongs to the honorees). But his decision left others to sing and speak for him, a losing proposition considering Charles' role as "the Father of Soul"--as banners on the stage proclaimed him.

Quincy Jones, Charles' close friend since they both started out in Seattle more than 50 years ago, read a vivid memory penned by Charles for an upcoming book about Jones' life. Jazz pianist and singer Schuur handled both parts of the duet she and Charles did of "It Had to Be You" on her recent album. Ashford & Simpson offered spirited versions of "Let's Go Get Stoned" and "I Don't Need No Doctor," two songs they wrote that Charles made into hits. And Nelson--who received the B.B. King Blues Hero Award for his Farm Aid efforts--dedicated his familiar rendition of "Georgia on My Mind" to his "chess partner" Charles, whose version of the same song is the definitive one.

It was Billy Preston, though, who evoked Charles' spirit most, and not just by donning shades, rocking back and forth at the organ and doing a spot-on imitation of Charles' gruff voice during a showboat version of "Summertime." Preston just seemed thrilled to be performing for his idol. He framed songs in his short set with tales of worshiping Brother Ray as a youngster, worked gospel-like praise of the singer into the lyrics, and led a round of "Happy Birthday" as a cake was brought to Charles' table in honor of his recent 70th birthday.

That helped compensate for the lack of a Charles performance, but there were other things lacking Monday as well. Ailing Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun appeared only on video to congratulate Charles, whereas at past Blues Foundation awards shows his storytelling had provided colorful--if time-consuming--highlights.

Missing most, though, was the blues. Charles' wide-ranging music draws on blues elements, but it isn't the blues, strictly speaking. And even Nelson didn't perform any material from his new blues album, instead serving up a quick set of his best-known country songs.

Charles and Nelson more than merit honors from any music organization--both have ignored genre lines and have built bodies of work that are among the most distinctive and rich in modern popular music. But this night honoring them was underwhelming, and each has to take his share of the blame.

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