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By the Light of Ray

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ray Charles turned 65 last fall--retirement age--and jokingly referred to himself as “an old man.” He’s anything but. He keeps a much younger man’s schedule of touring dates and continues to crank out the albums--he has 50 in print.

In fact, he has less trouble finding the energy to keep singing than locating songs he wants to sing.

For his latest album, “Strong Love Affair” for Qwest Records, Charles and co-producer Jean-Pierre Grosz listened to more than 100 tunes before selecting 12 for the album.

“I have to look hard, because a lot of the songs they have out today are not me, not the kind of thing I want to promote,” Charles said in a phone conversation from his Los Angeles recording studio.

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“I don’t want a song about guns, violence, sex. I want a love song that makes me want to cry, makes me feel something inside, a song that is touching, that is about human beings. They’re out there, but you really have to look hard.”

Charles cites such great lyricists as Ira Gershwin, Sammy Cahn and Johnny Mercer as his type of writer, “the kind that gives you a real good script that lasts about three minutes.”

On “Strong Love Affair,” the heart-wrenching ballads that Charles seems to really dig into are by less familiar names: Billy Osborne (the title track), Pierre Papadiamadis (“Say No More”) and Knut Koppang (“Angelina”).

As powerful as these songs are on record, chances are that only one, maybe two, will make it onto the song sheet for the Albany, Ga., native’s performance Thursday with his big band at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

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That’s because Charles feels he has to give his fans hits such as “Georgia on My Mind” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” records that made it to No. 1 on Billboard’s pop charts in 1960 and 1962, respectively.

“I stick with what got me here,” Charles said. “So in concert I’ll do 65% to 70% of the songs that are famous, the songs they pay me to hear, and 30% the public may not know. I don’t want to do complete nostalgia, and at the same time, [not] all new songs where nobody knows what the hell I’m doin’. I’ve been programming like this for years, and it works for me.”

New tunes that make it into a show are picked at random just before show time, Charles said. He and his conductor--on Thursday that will be saxophonist Al Jackson--go over songs in the dressing room, and that list may even change once Charles is on stage.

“I’m totally spontaneous,” he said. “I don’t plan nothin’. I pick whatever’s going through my mind.”

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Charles is asked whether any of his tunes, such as “Georgia,” are sure to be included each night.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I feel it would very unfair to the public not to do it because ‘Georgia’ is so famous. I don’t feel I have to play it order to survive. But the public has supported me for 50 years, and I feel I should respect the songs they love you for.”

Charles estimates he’s sung the Hoagy Carmichael classic more than 10,000 times--"At least,” he added with a laugh.

How can he keep it fresh?

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“That’s easy,” he said, “because each night you create it according to how you feel, how the audience is affecting you. And it doesn’t get boring, you see, because the name of the game on stage is to feel. If you don’t feel it, if you’re not moved, how can [you] expect the audience [to] be?

“I love music. It’s my lifeline; it’s totally my existence. If the day ever comes that I don’t enjoy it, then I’ll quit. But I imagine I’ll be in my grave long before then.”

Music doesn’t occupy all of Charles’ life. He spends time reading--"I love mysteries. You could say violence is my thing,” he jokes--and he plays chess.

“That’s the only thing you can wake me up for,” he said. “Mostly I play computer chess, but I’m no master. I play on the middle level, and the computer beats me about nine out of 10 games.”

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Charles, who has been blind since he was a child, operates his computer with voice commands. Lately, he’s been surfing the Internet and will open his own web site at https://www.raycharles.com in about two weeks.

Charles doesn’t know yet whether the Net will be a boon. “Now everybody is excited, but call me in six months and I’ll know better,” he said. “One thing for sure. People are going to have to keep updating their web sites to keep them interesting, so people will keep coming back.”

If he approaches the World Wide Web the way he does music, he’ll have nothing to worry about.

* Ray Charles, his orchestra and the Raeletts, plus singer Freda Payne, play Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m., $28-$49. (714) 556-2787.

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