Ray Charles tribute starts 6-week run at Venetian

Finding common ground in a Ray Charles song?

Not the big challenge here.

For every “Hit the Road Jack” or “What’d I Say,” there’s a Ray Charles song that started off as someone else’s, from “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” to a little ditty called “America the Beautiful.”

The late R&B legend was “such a unique artist he could take a song and just make it his own version of that song. He just Ray-ized it,” says Larry Rosen, producer of “Georgia On My Mind,” a tribute which debuts Thursday for a six-week run at The Venetian.

The real achievement was to take otherwise loosely related artists — from saxophone master Kirk Whalum to Las Vegas-based entertainer Clint Holmes — and have them discover some other chemistry that unites them.

“Not only is it great music, but all of us have a really good kind of musical feeling together,” Holmes says.

“I think that’s the reason, even though it’s only been done a couple of times, both times felt very special to people,” Holmes adds of the larger effort, which previously played in Atlanta and, last February, at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

With the help of a big band and gospel choir, the tribute brought out the sheer joy in songs made famous by a singer more often remembered in Las Vegas through shticky impressions; Ray-Ban shades and “You got the right one baby.”

“When it’s fun the spontaneity happens, and the audience gets sucked into that as well, says Claude McKnight of the a cappella group Take 6, which guest stars along with Holmes, Whalum and jazz singer Nnenna Freelon.

Take 6 sometimes worked with Charles as an opening act and got the legend to sing a guest vocal on “My Friend” from their 1994 album “Join the Band.”

“Ray was one of those people who really knew himself very well. He was very outgoing and outpouring with his spirit,” says McKnight, the older brother of rhythm-and-blues singer Brian McKnight. “Who he was on stage was pretty much who he was in his everyday life.

“That exuberance, even into his 60s, was who he really was.”

The tribute’s exuberance propelled Venetian President Rob Goldstein to head backstage at The Smith Center in February, inviting producer Rosen to bring the show to the theater that long hosted “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular.”

Running the tribute on the Strip (through Oct. 29) was otherwise “not even on the radar for me,” says Rosen, who ran the contemporary jazz record label GRP with jazz pianist-film composer Dave Grusen in the 1980s. “I never thought about, “I’m going to make a show for the Las Vegas Strip.”

But it seems clear those involved would find room in their schedules if the Las Vegas run turned into a two- or three-times-a-year thing.

“We feed off of each other, we make each other better and push each other. I think that’s really what you want,” McKnight says. “You never really know until you get out there, and you either have chemistry or you don’t,” McKnight adds. “I think everybody on this show had instant chemistry, so it’s been a wonderful musical experience.”

And Charles’ catalog is so vast and genre-bending, there’s no fighting over the “good songs.”

“I get to sing ‘Come Rain or Come Shine,’ ” Holmes says of the Harold Arlen standard. “A lot of people sang that, but it was certainly one of Ray’s special songs. There’s a lot of flexibility.”

If there’s a link between Holmes and Charles it’s that ability to find a new, specific way of doing a familiar song that puts his own stamp on it.

“That’s what I always admired about him. He made all kinds of records, but he was so distinctively himself that he almost defied genre,” Holmes says.

To prepare for the concerts, Holmes listened to the span of Charles recordings from the late 1950s until his death in 2004, not just any one era.

“Because I was listening to the whole body of work … it was really stunning how wide his dynamic was in terms of what he sang. It was always him. It was just always Ray.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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