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Ray Charles tribute hits stage of Empress Theatre

The Ray Charles Tribute Orchestra will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20 at the Empress Theatre.

Donald Ray Johnson will sing classic Ray Charles songs.

A 12-piece orchestra pays tribute Saturday, Oct. 20 to a legendary musician.
The Ray Charles Tribute Orchestra will perform a 90-minute show starting at 7:30 p.m. at the Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod.
Fans of Ray Charles’ music will hear hits such as “Cry,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “Let the Good Times Roll” in a show that features Grammy Award-winning singer Donald Ray Johnson, former Ray Charles bass player John Gray and back-up singers The Donald Raylettes.
“It’s a nice, tight show,” 63-year-old bluesman Donald Ray Johnson said Friday in an interview.
John Gray pitched the idea of a Ray Charles tribute show to Johnson and they started rehearsing about 18 months ago.
The show in Fort Macleod is part of a tour on which The Ray Charles Tribute Orchestra is embarking, and Empress Theatre executive director Brent Hutchinson was delighted to book the group.
“Donald is the real deal,” said Hutchinson, who is also a musician and has performed on stage with Johnson. “He’s one of the best blues singers around.”
Johnson, who was born in Texas but has lived in Calgary since 1989, earned a Grammy Award with the group A Taste of Honey.
Johnson was twice nominated for a Maple Blues Award and in 2007 was named best male blues vocalist by Real Blues Magazine.
Johnson, who also plays drums, has toured with blues and R&B artists such as Phillip Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Smokey Wilson, Teddy Pendergrass and the Isley Brothers.
Although he’s an experienced singer and musician, Johnson never counted the music of Ray Charles in his repertoire until Gray pitched the tribute idea.
“I’ve always been an admirer of Ray Charles,” said Johnson, who like the legendary singer is legally blind. “I’ve never done his music because it was kind of intimidating. Ray is just Ray.”
Ray Charles, who was ranked No. 10 by Rolling Stone Magazine in its 2004 list of the 100 greatest artists of all time, was comfortable in all genres, including rhythm and blues, soul, blues, soul blues, rock and roll, jazz, vocal jazz, country, pop and gospel.
In a career as a composer, musicians, arranger and band leader from 1947 to 2004, Ray Charles sang and played piano, keyboards, alto sax and trombone.
A seven-time Grammy Award winner, Charles was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during that organization’s first ceremony in 1986, and in 1987 received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The State of Georgia made Charles’ song “Georgia On My Mind” the official state song.
In addition to playing with Ray Charles, Gray has performed with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Nat Adderley, Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, The Ink Spots, Steve Lacy, k.d. lang and The Platters.
While at first intimated by the thought of doing a Ray Charles tribute, Johnson is excited about the show.
“I think it’s better than we envisioned,” Johnson said.
Johnson sings lead vocals for the Ray Charles Tribute Orchestra, with Gray on acoustic and electric bass, Sheldon Zandboer on piano and organ and Tyler Hornby on drums.
The horn section is composted of Gareth Hughes and Pat Beliveau on sax, Jon Day on trumpet and flugelhorn, Brian Wally on trombone and Allistir Elliott on trumpet.
Melissa Jarvis, Andria Stephens and Oaitse Hellarb sing background vocals as The Donald Raylettes.
“They’re very good,” Johnson said.
Tickets are available at the Empress Theatre office in Fort Macleod.
Donald Ray Johnson promised Fort Macleod is in for a treat when The Ray Charles Tribute Orchestra takes the Empress stage.
“To be able to hear Ray’s music with the full orchestra really floors me,” Johnson said. “I love it.”