Times Staff Writer

Everything is relative. OK, it’s been said before. But this truism is particularly appropriate to pop music legend Ray Charles, who returned to Orange County on Monday and Tuesday for four sold-out shows at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana.

In terms of the high standards Charles has established for himself over nearly 40 years of performing, Monday’s first show was only above average.

Compared, however, with a performer like current pop music mogul Phil Collins, who played the same night to an Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre audience approximately 60 times larger than that at the 250-seat Crazy Horse, Charles’ 45-minute set was a stunning display of stylistic versatility and vocal expertise that spanned a rainbow of emotion.

The 54-year-old artist whose style inspired the term “soul music” was understandably criticized a couple of years ago for 35-minute concerts that were limited to a handful of hits.


This time out, he added about 10 minutes to his act. But more important, while he delivered enough of his truckload of hits from the past 30 years to please the average fan, he also added several less-frequently performed tunes to allay fears that his act was becoming another Willie Nelson music-by-rote show.

Backed by his 17-piece Ray Charles Orchestra and supplemented during the second half by the five Raelettes singers, Charles opened with “Ridin’ Thumb,” a funky contemporary dance number, before moving into the familiar territory of “Busted,” “Georgia” and his jazz waltz version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”

Though it may have been the thousandth time Charles has sung “Georgia,” the way in which he slowly bent the phrase “other eyes” conveyed more emotion than five Duran Duranies have demonstrated in their collective lifetimes.

In “Come Live With Me,” he took a potentially maudlin ballad that lyrically is little more than a marriage proposal and sculpted a heart-wrenching and almost painfully personal confession of undying love.


Then near the end of the show, exhibiting his playful side, he dashed off one verse of the bawdy old R&B; tune “Big-Legged Woman” that was as erotic as anything Prince has ever done.

But again, a longtime fan might expect even more from an artist of his monumental abilities. He only touched on the country material with which he has recently established his commercial viability. He could further freshen up his sets by adding some alternate older songs like the rollicking “I’ve Got a Woman” or the swinging “It Should’ve Been Me.”

Maybe that’s nit-picking, since moments of his show were better than 99% of anything else in pop. But because of Charles’ remarkable achievements in music, the rest of pop is not his competition. Relatively speaking, the only yardstick against which Charles can rightfully be measured is Ray Charles.