Ray Charles

Flip Wilson used to do a drag bit back in the '60s where he played Spain's Queen Isabella as an African-American mama. "Columbus is gonna find Ray Charles!" he would declare in a deliciously thrilled tone, as if Brother Ray were as valuable and rare as all the gold in the New World.

Well, Flip was on to something there. Charles rates among the greatest American singers, stylists and bandleaders. He developed a signature big-band R&B sound that can handily embrace the breadth of American music. And his ability to inhabit the core of any song like he was born there is stunning, as witnessed by his flirtations with what's thought (wrongly) to be the whitest American music: country. He tickles the keys as if seducing a lover, and as a live attraction Charles remains a dedicated entertainer. The smile he carries onto the stage and maintains throughout a show spreads infectious delight.

Even if Charles isn't the down-and-dirty soul innovator of his heyday, he's an artist any serious listener to American music should see at least once, and not just to say you did. His shows unfold with the precision and timetable of an experienced entertainer, yet the man continues to display a loose-limbed groove that gives a hint of what it might have been like back there on the Chitlin' Circuit. An hour or so in the presence of this king is an ennobling encounter with a genuine musical icon of the sort we may never see again.

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Rob Patterson