When "message pending" flashed on my computer screen and I punched up a rundown of available concerts from Deseret News entertainment editor Chris Hicks, the only name I saw on the list was "Ray Charles."
I literally pounced on this review and the chance for a telephone interview or maybe even a meeting with the legendary Ray Charles. The songs "Born to Lose" and "Georgia" and "I Can't Stop Loving You" are classics to me. But crossed telephone messages with Charles' publicist in Los Angeles canceled the phone interview, and when I arrived early at Symphony Hall to talk with the Neighborhood Housing Services staff who arranged the concert, I was told that Ray Charles had said "I'm a very private person" in response to requests to meet with him.
The group that makes miracles happen in run-down neighborhoods on the west side of town was the beneficiary of the evening begun by master of ceremonies Tom Barberi and Salt Lake comedienne Janine Gardner.
As it turned out, eight rows away was as close as I got to the internationally acclaimed performer. Yet I felt like going home and taping the admission ticket into my journal. I left the concert feeling that I would not want to intrude any further than to enjoy what was so willingly given by Charles during the concert.
Ray Charles has gathered an elite group for his orchestra. When the 17 extraordinary musicians swung into play with their incredible sound, the Baby Boomers present were ready to throw away word processors, permanent press and pepperoni pizza for the chance to have been part of the Big Band era. Ask someone today what "big band" means and they'll probably tell you it's a high school band that takes up a whole block in the Strawberry Days Parade. But anyone who helped fill Symphony Hall Wednesday night can tell you that "Smack Dab in the Middle" and "Some Enchanted Evening" were magic with the sound of that band.
What is it like to sit on that black leather seat and be the focus of so much sound and rhythm? Surrounded by the rich wood and gleaming gold of Symphony Hall with a brass section that rocks and the Raelettes that move, Ray Charles is very simply a channel that wondrous music flows and pulses through. You cannot take your eyes off him. When his beautiful Raelettes glided on stage in their rainbow-hued gowns and rocked right into "Hold on I'm Comin'," the real delight was watching Charles' face. He was listening, smiling widely and being moved by their singing.
"When you're an old battery like me," he said as he introduced the Raelettes, "you need to be charged up!"
Charles did not get chatty with the crowd. His program runs smoothly and effortlessly from one song to another. He did play around with the audience and with the orchestra. however. He started out "Some Enchanted Evening" by sliding all around the opening note. "I can't find it," he joked to the band. When he was finally ready to go, he kept right on adding to the chord until he hit one last note that was in the air clear off the right end of the keyboard, delighting the audience. He wickedly rolled his r's in "crowded room" and admitted it took him three weeks to learn how to do it.
Charles swung and jived and jammed and kept his legs scooting and sliding and gliding in a physical song all their own. When he begins to play and sing, it's as though he cannot contain his exuberance.
There were no blues in sight. Even "Georgia" was full of life and improvisation. Whatever the sorrows and griefs in his life, this concert was an affirmation of the joy that music has brought to this man. And Symphony Hall reverberated with the cheers of people who genuinely love him in return.