Arts: An evening with an icon

Ray Charles carries a bit of mystery wherever he goes. Dressed in a classic suit and wearing his trademark shades, Charles keeps mostly to himself with few words to the press and a no-photo, no-autograph policy.

But to his band, Charles is a fun companion who blends in any crowd, regardless of age or location.

The Hatchet caught up with members of Ray Charles’ band in their limousine while they watched a B-52 fly-over at Arlington Cemetery Saturday.

Conductor Victor Vanacore and drummer Peter Turre have played with Charles for 12 years and previously worked with other music icons.

“I used to work with The Jackson Five, Barry Manilow. I would baby-sit Janet Jackson when she was a kid,” said Vanacone, who heads a 40-person orchestra. “I’d take her for walks on the beach.”

As for performing for a young audience, Vanacore and Turre said they were glad to be playing at GW.

“The kids at colleges are more open to artistic stuff. As much as they like popular music, they are able realize the icon and treasure Ray is,” Turre said.

Vanacore said he appreciates the enthusiasm and exuberance he sees in young audiences around the country, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Rutgers University.

To the loyal band, the legendary blues musician plays well to all audiences.

“It’s just a younger crowd,” Turre said about playing college venues. “Ray breaks the mold; he doesn’t have a particular age group he appeals to.”

Vanacore agreed.

“I don’t think the generation gap exists the way it used to,” Vanacore said. “We may not be listening to exactly the same music, but I know kids who come out of concerts saying they have become Ray Charles fans from watching him perform.”

Charles does not just transcend the age barrier. He also transcends language, culture and nationality, they said.

“Ray is like Michael Jordan,” Turre said. “Everyone in the world knows who he is. He’s an icon.”

And Charles has had many chances to perform around the world.

Vanacore said shows in Western Europe and Australia turned out better than they could have imagined.

“Macedonia was certainly memorable – and it’s not only the music, but the people we play with, the orchestras,” he said.

Vanacore and Turre said they have a good time touring with Charles.

Vanacore recounts an Orlando Magic basketball game in which Shaquille O’Neal suffered at the free-throw line.

“Ray asks me what happened in the game, and I said Orlando lost by four,” Vanacore said. “He asked what Shaq did in the game and I said he shot one for 10 from the line. Then he said `Peter I’m blind, and if you just handed me a ball and pointed me in the direction of the basket I could hit one for 10.’ He has quite a sense of humor.”

Vanacore and Turre said they expected an emotional overtone at the performance on Saturday night in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“In Houston last week we played `America the Beautiful’ and people went nuts at first,” Turre said. “Then there was dead silence and people stood up in unison. They were mouthing the words (and) crying . I didn’t know if I could keep it together myself.”

Vanacore correctly predicted the GW crowd would join together singing at the end of the performance.

“I try to see if people want to sing and invite them to sing the last chorus,” he said.

Constant road dogs Vanacore and Turre said Charles and his band plan to continue touring as usual.

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