Ray Charles emphatically refuses the genius label that admirers conferred on him long ago, but he isn’t shy about proclaiming his versatility.
“I’ve never seen any music yet that I couldn’t do and wouldn’t feel comfortable with,” Charles said Tuesday night while he relaxed over a game of chess between shows at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana. “I only do the things I like, so as a result, I don’t have a problem.”
Charles’ recent activities in Orange County attest to his diversity. A little more than a month ago, he sang at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, backed by the Pacific Symphony.
The mood of that concert was set by sorrowful balladry, and the content was slanted toward pop standards. This week, Charles was back but in far different physical and musical surroundings. The setting was the intimate, 250-seat Crazy Horse, and the accompaniment was his own ensemble: a 17-piece band, heavy on the horns, and the five-woman troupe of backup singers known as the Raeletts.
In Charles’ early show Tuesday, it made for a performance that was freer, more humorous and predictably more aggressive than his symphony appearance. Charles used the leeway of working with his own band to get in a good deal more piano improvisation than he had at the Center, and to cover some of the hotter songs in his repertoire--"What’d I Say” and “Hit the Road, Jack.” In the cozy setting, Charles was far more of a physical presence, kicking his feet wildly and swaying mightily with the music. During an interview in his touring bus afterward, Charles said that working with his band allows a more open-ended way of playing than the shows such as the ones he played recently with the Pacific Symphony and the New York City Ballet.
“With my own group, when we’re doing our usual thing, you have all the freedom to move about in the song and do whatever you want to do,” said Charles, who puts almost as much head-tossing, arm-churning body English into a conversation as he does into a stage performance. “With a ballet, you have to be precise. You can’t be playing some extra bars because (the musical feel) is getting good. It’s like classical music--you play what’s on the paper.”
Charles said that when he started making symphony pops programs part of his regular performing regimen eight or nine years ago, it was the symphonies’ idea, not his. “I didn’t make the decision. It was made for me. The symphonies do need to make money. One of the ways of making money is to get somebody like me, and you bring in some new people. It was done, and the places were packed, and everybody was happy.”
The constant between Charles’ symphony and club performances in Orange County was the spontaneity of his singing. Even with the orchestra, his approach to chestnuts such as “Georgia on My Mind” and “Eleanor Rigby” had been full of surprises that made them vivid rather than rote. In the large hall, “Georgia” was a big, dramatic set-piece that conveyed unfettered yearning. In the small club, the same song became a private reverie, delivered in even, low-key tones rather than with the whisper-to-a-wail dynamics of Charles’ symphony performance.
That process of recasting a song isn’t calculated, Charles said as he probed the chess pieces with his hands, double-checking their alignment as he planned his next move against a member of his entourage. “It just comes out that way. I’m not conscious of it at all. It’s truly natural.”
While Charles takes his uncharted vocal journeys, he clearly wants everything to be firmly anchored around him. Singing with the Pacific Symphony, he didn’t try to hide his irritation at sound problems early in the concert. There wasn’t much he could do about it that night. But Tuesday at the Crazy Horse, when Charles heard something out of sync in his band, he exercised a boss’s prerogative. Leaning as far to the left as his piano bench allowed, he openly admonished one of the horn players to keep better time.
“When something happens, they hear about it right then,” Charles said afterward. “If I try to wait till later on, I might forget. I don’t build a case out of it. We have some new people in the band right now. They’re learning, and they understand it’s not the kind of thing where somebody’s bent out of shape.”
As impatient as he might be with an errant band member, Charles has even less tolerance for the notion that, at 57, it might make sense to take things a little easier--to enjoy more leisure while conserving his powers.
“Take it easy? For what? Music is like a part of me. It’s not something I do on the side. It’s like my bloodline, like my breathing apparatus. I think the people that worry about things like (aging) are pretty silly. If the day comes when I don’t got it no more, that’s it. But think of all the time you would use up worrying about what might happen. And if it does happen, what can you do anyway? My voice right now is in the best shape it has ever been (in). I can make it do anything I want to right now.
“How long will that last? I’ll just enjoy it while I can.”
The Shade Tree, an acoustic instrument shop in Laguna Niguel, is taking a first, small step toward filling Orange County’s serious shortage of opportunities to hear live folk music. Starting June 11, the store at 28062D Forbes Road will double as a 60-seat concert venue for a series of Saturday night shows by local musicians.
“We’re trying to test the waters and see what kind of audience we can generate,” said Greg Mirken, who runs the Shade Tree with his wife, Margie. He said that signs of strong support could lead to bookings for touring folk performers who currently skip Orange County for lack of a venue.
The concerts booked so far encompass a variety of acoustic musical styles. Craig Richter, Rex Benson and Dennis Roger Reed launch the series June 11 with a showcase of songwriters leaning toward the country side of folk music.
On June 25, the Shade Tree hosts Vocalworks, an Orange County jazz vocal group that soon will release its debut album on a Swedish label. Singer-songwriters Phil Clevenger and April Danielle appear July 9. Traditional folk instruments will be highlighted July 16 in a bill featuring harpist Andrea Bradley, dulcimer player Deidre Jackson, and folk-singer Megan Shannon. Songwriters Robert Francis, Dennis Roger Reed and Bob Vorhees share the bill on July 23.
All of the Shade Tree concerts start at 8 p.m., with admission $5. Call (714) 364-5270 for information.
Aspiring musicians and songwriters take note: The second annual Orange County Music Makers Market on Sunday will offer a day of seminars, panel discussions and song evaluation sessions aimed at giving the hopeful some helpful pointers on making it in the music biz. The gathering takes place from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Buena Park Hotel & Convention Center, 7675 Crescent Ave. in Buena Park.
The Music Market offers classes on songwriting, song marketing, producing demo tapes and how to land a record deal. It also features a panel discussion on hit songwriting featuring Tom Kelly, whose credits include Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and co-authorship of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” and Kevin DuBrow, former singer of Quiet Riot.
Several record and publishing company representatives will be on hand to critique tapes submitted by attendees. All this advice doesn’t come cheaply: The registration fee at the door is $99, which includes lunch. Call (714) 535-8001 for information.
“When We Kiss,” by the Orange County dance-pop group Bardeux is the first Top 40 hit for La Habra-based Synthicide Records. The whispery, rap-flavored single edged to No. 39 last week on the Billboard Hot 100 singles list and moved up this week to No. 36. . . . Another county-based record label, Dr. Dream, has signed National Peoples Gang to its roster of locally based rock bands. The group’s debut album is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 1 release, according to label executive Dave Hansen. Also expected out on that date are new records by three other Dr. Dream acts--Ann De Jarnett, the Long March and Sixtieth Parallel. . . . Best wishes in new endeavors to Jim Washburn, who has resigned from his longtime post as rock critic for the Orange County Register. Washburn says his plans call for some free-lance journalism, a stab at writing a novel and a good deal more music-making in his avocation as a left-handed guitar player.