Newton Wayland is cooking musical stew, stirring up the ingredients of a
dish called Ray Charles.
Charles comes to the Orange County Performing Art Center to play with the
Pacific Symphony Pops tonight and Saturday. And Wayland, the conductor
for both evenings, has put together a program intended to illustrate the
Georgia crooner’s roots.
The 69-year-old singer has been called “the genius of soul,” for his
powerful, gospel-tinged vocal style and his seemingly unlimited powers of
But Charles didn’t emerge from nowhere. Wayland hopes the tunes he has
selected for the first half of the program will help listeners understand
just what it was about American music in 1930 that was such fertile
ground for Charles’ development.
“I’m a history buff,” Wayland said. “I like to explore the roots of
stuff, and that’s what I’m doing, with a minimum of time.”
Packed into the first 30 to 40 minutes of the concert are tunes by the
likes of Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the
first prominent American composer to use Latin American and Creole
rhythms in his compositions.
The point of this tour through American musical history, Wayland said, is
to articulate the lineage that lead up to Charles.
In the “Grand Walkaround” melody that will be performed from Gottschalk’s
“Cakewalk,” for example, Wayland is emphasizing the importance of 19th
century African American music to Charles’ style.
The cakewalk was a dance performed on plantations, Wayland explained. Its
essential forms were transmitted from these rural roots into the stage
environment of minstrel shows.The music then filtered through ragtime and
“Eventually,” Wayland added, “you end up with Ray Charles.”
But Charles’ style is complex and eclectic. It draws not only on blues
and jazz traditions, but also those of gospel, which are integral to the
sound of “soul.”
"[Gospel] is a big thread, especially in Charles’ singing,” Wayland said.
“He was one of the first singers to be commercially successful with that
kind of gospel shout and then to take it into the jazz idiom.”
In his compositions -- which range from rock to soul and from blues to
county -- Charles draws on this challenging mixture of styles. Though he
had his start as a performer by narrowly imitating the mannerisms of Nat
King Cole, the mature Charles is a character who can’t be pinned down in
any single mode or manner.
“That’s always impressed me -- that he didn’t get stuck in one groove and
that he was successful somehow in putting his imprint on these songs and
getting them across to the public,” Wayland said.
The performer’s wide-ranging body of work is a good match for Wayland’s
own personality, the conductor said. Wayland has been conducting pops
symphonies for years -- in Boston, Denver, Houston and elsewhere --
precisely because he likes to be involved with music that has a broad
“I’ve always been a populist in that I try to reach a general rather than
an elitist audience,” he said.
Though Wayland has an enthusiasm for composers he considers
“fuddy-duddies” -- such classical musicians as Sergey Prokofiev -- his
overwhelming desire is to gain a sort of coherent picture of musical
history. “Filling in the gaps of my eclecticism,” he calls it.
And that’s where Charles comes in. He’ll fill the gap under the labels:
Soul Genius, Survivor and Star.
* WHAT: Ray Charles with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra
* WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday
* WHERE: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive,
* COST: $14 to $54
* PHONE: (714) 740-7878