- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

No matter how well he performs, most Ray Charles concerts leave some fans disappointed. The artist is so versatile and has recorded so many memorable songs that he is bound to leave out the favorites of some fans.

His concert Sunday at Alexandria’s Birchmere was no exception. Notably, as in other recent shows, Mr. Charles performed none of the rhythm-and-blues tunes that he wrote and sang in his Atlantic Records days of the 1950s, except for 1959’s “What’d I Say,” which he saved for last. He omitted “I Got a Woman,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and the rest of the pioneering R&B; hits from his early career.

Mr. Charles has never viewed himself as chiefly a songwriter. He told me in a 1998 interview that he only wrote songs because “a lot of stuff Atlantic was sending me I didn’t like, so I would just sit down and write my own stuff.”

The 72-year-old performer, nicknamed “the genius,” has always preferred to put his unique stamp on the great songs of others, and since the 1960s, Mr. Charles has stood, along with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, as one of the great interpreters of classic American songs. It was that interpreter who showed up at the Birchmere and gave a lively and rich, if too short, performance.

Mr. Charles started off with two songs by great American songwriters that he has made his own. “Busted” was written by legendary country songwriter Harlan Howard and originally performed by Johnny Cash. Mr. Charles turned Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” into a No. 1 pop hit in 1960 when he poured his soul and Georgia roots into the song.

His voice, which always had some rough edges, has become softer but is still powerful. The singer was backed by a 17-piece band that could play both jazz and soul with ease. Highlights of the evening included swinging, rollicking versions of the standards “The Good Life,” made famous by Tony Bennett, and “Almost Like Being in Love.”

Other pleasant surprises included a comedy routine about a wayward husband that Mr. Charles performed with the Raelettes, his female backup singers, before playing his classic “Hit the Road Jack” and a new prelude to “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” his cover of a Don Gibson country song that he took to the top of the pop charts in 1962.

The Birchmere music hall seats about 550, and at $85, tickets sold out within two days, according to the club. The intimate atmosphere worked well for Mr. Charles, and the sound quality was terrific. Audience members clapped along as he concluded the show with “What’d I Say.”

Mr. Charles did not perform very long. The show lasted from 7:30 to 8:55, with no encores. The band played without the star for the first 15 minutes, and the Raelettes performed a couple numbers without him as well.

Mr. Charles sounded fine on his Yamaha KX88 keyboard, but it would have been nice to hear him play some songs on a baby grand piano, the instrument he is famous for playing. Still, audience members leaving the show seemed to be more than satisfied. “He’s a living national treasure,” one said.

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