Friends keep Charles on their minds

Times Staff Writer

Ray Charles must have been singing in his grave as friend after friend paid a heart-pounding tribute during a glitzy Beverly Hills fundraiser for historically black Morehouse College.

Stevie Wonder, Travis Tritt, Billy Preston, Michael McDonald, Ronnie Milsap, Patti Austin, James Ingram, Brian McKnight and Gerald LaVert each wailed Charles’ brand of gospel, jazz and country, some pounding out the singer’s best-known songs such as “I Got a Woman,” “Unchain My Heart” and “Hit the Road Jack” on the piano, then rocked together before a banquet full of Morehouse men, their wives and friends.

Jamie Foxx, who plays Charles in the biopic “Ray,” due from Universal Pictures next month, was overheard while walking into the ballroom Wednesday night at the Beverly Hilton hotel. Foxx was giving thanks to the film’s director, Taylor Hackford, “a white man who took a chance in Hollywood and said, ‘I really want to tell this story,’ because he had been working with Ray Charles for 15 years to do it.... Then we couldn’t get the movie sold at all. We took it to Universal to a guy by the name of Ron Meyer. Come to find out he sneaked in to see Ray Charles at the Paladium when he was 15 years old. Without even seeing another single frame, he said, ‘I want this movie.’ ”


At a table nearby, Mekhi Phifer from TV’s “ER” was saying that he heard his first Charles song “probably in the womb.” Singer Della Reese said she had known Charles, who died in June, forever because they were in the same business. “We worked the same places,” she said.

Quincy Jones talked about a friendship that lasted 57 years. He and Charles met in Seattle when they were teenagers; Jones was 15 and Charles was 17. “We were only two years apart but he was 100 years ahead of me,” Jones said. “He’s got his own apartment, two suits that he could afford to take to the dry cleaners, two girlfriends and a record player with tubes.”

Bill Cosby, looking underdressed in a maroon Morehouse sweatshirt in a sea of tuxedos, reminisced about introducing Charles at the Playboy Jazz Festival. “I turned around and the whole band was white. I don’t mean jackets and pants, I mean face and hair,” Cosby said. When he mentioned that to Charles, the singer responded, “That’s funny, they don’t sound white.”

Emceeing the show, Cosby loosed none of the controversial verbal bombshells about the misbehavior of some poor black people that he’s been dropping in recent months. Dark glasses firmly in place, inside and at night, he talked lovingly about having sent his late son, Ennis, to the prestigious Atlanta college, which is also the alma mater of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Those of us who went to integrated schools,” Cosby said, “once we send our children to these historically black colleges, all of us have a feeling that the child has left home to come home.”

California sends more students to the black school than almost any other state, but that’s not why Morehouse President Walter Massey chose to hold the star-studded event in Beverly Hills rather than closer to home.


“This is Ray’s home. We had planned to have it here before Ray died. This is where he wanted to have it,” Massey said before explaining the singer’s connection to the school. “Ray became a friend of Morehouse about eight years ago when he received an honorary degree. He became a major donor to the college. He gave us $2 million, which we are using to start the fund for a performance arts center, which we’ll name after him.”

(A film clip of Charles presenting the check showed him joking, “I ain’t even going to say how much it is because I can’t see it.”)

Among the other glitterati, Samuel L. Jackson, Morehouse ‘72, Regina King, who is in the movie “Ray,” and Steven Seagal made the rounds before sitting down to a dinner of baked fish, rack of lamb, duchess potatoes, mixed vegetables and a miniature chocolate confection that looked just like the baby grand piano that Ray Charles played so magically, down to the tiny keys.