Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

The Original Idol

Record companies try to package what Ray Charles oozes.

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Years before Motown, Charles blended rhythm and blues, jazz, pop and gospel emotion into the sophisticated alchemy of soul music. Using the artistic freedom granted by success, he wrote many of his own songs, recorded jazz albums as well as pop, and, in 1962, had a huge country hit with “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” He came close to self-destruction with a mid-’60s heroin bust, but escaped with probation, personal discipline and career redemption.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history, if continuation at a high plateau without significant change counts as history. In the years since the mid-’60s Charles has continued to perform in a variety of settings from small ensemble to big band, his powers undiminished and unchanged. It’s no small accomplishment that at 72 he still has the ability to inhabit his songs, in contrast to the decade-younger ’60s rockers who seem to be merely haunting theirs.

His iconic sound, smile and sunglasses have appeared on the big screen with the Blues Brothers, and on the small screen in innumerable guest slots and specials, as well as a memorable series of commercials hawking Diet Pepsi. His Web site heralds his latest coup, a line of video slot machines promising players “a soulful musical journey intermixed with an exciting gambling experience.”

Perhaps feeding coins into devices programmed to ensure a statistical certainty of loss would be culturally enriching if done to Charles’ definitive rendition of “Georgia On My Mind.” Selling soda or slot machines with a monument like Charles is as natural as putting a souvenir stand or snack bar by the Statue of Liberty.

Charles’ July 18 Richmond performance, featuring his big band and his backup singers, the Raelettes, will be at the Landmark Theatre. If the show lacks in cutting-edge innovation, the compensation is musical professionalism and proven audience appeal. In addition to being a charismatic vocalist, Charles is a capable pianist, saxophonist and leader of a first-rate band.

Novelty, in any case, may be overrated. Singles from various “American Idol” winners and runners-up dominate today’s Top 10. The central concept of that show is that contestants compete by singing hits of the past from various genres; they earn their fame by reweaving the frayed strands of popular music.

In doing so, they look back to the unified approach that Charles exemplifies. In a world of market-tuned, prefabricated idols, Charles is the genuine, pitch-perfect original. S



Ray Charles and His Big Band play the Landmark Theatre with special guest, the Tommy Witten Quartet featuring Laura Ann Boyd, Friday, July 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$55 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 262-8100. A portion of the proceeds to benefit Kiwanis of Chesterfield and Henrico charitable activities — Ronald McDonald House and Virginia Voice.

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