When Kenny Brawner was about 13 years old, growing up in Augusta, GA, he heard Ray Charles on the radio. His two favorite albums are Ray Charles at Newport, from his 1958 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival; and Ray Charles in Person, recorded live at Morris Brown College in Atlanta in 1959. Both were on the Atlantic label.
Since then, Brawner has been captivated by the music of Ray Charles. “When I was at Howard University,” he recalled, “there was a piano in one of the common rooms of my freshman dormitory. I would just sit and play Ray Charles’ music. The guys that came around started calling me Ray.”
At 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 19, Brawner will be bringing his “Ray On My Mind” show to the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. It’s a 15-piece orchestra that includes trumpeters James Zollar and Bryan Davis, who are currently members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra; alto saxophonist Tim Sanders, who was Music Director for Percy Sledge, and drummer John Cooksey, who has played with vibraphonist Roy Ayers, violinist Noel Pointer, and vocalist Phyllis Hyman, among others. Zollar, Brawner pointed out, actually played with Charles. There are also three female vocalists – Ana Hoffman, Carla Hargrove, and Carol Lyn Townes – who emulate the Raelettes. Hargrove appeared in the play, Nina Simone – Four Women.
Brawner began taking piano lessons when he was six years. He attended Catholic schools, and if he varied from the classical pieces he was supposed to be playing, he recalled that the nun would admonish him, saying, “No boogie woogie!” Clearly, he didn’t get the message, as his piano playing selections began to be heavily influenced by what he would hear on the radio.
His favorite Charles tunes are “Drown in My Own Tears” and “I’m a Fool For You.” The former was composed by Henry Glover and released by Charles as a single in 1956. The latter was written by Charles and released in 1955. When “Ray On My Mind” begins, the 78-year-old Brawner acknowledged that, “Ray takes over me. I go into character as Ray Charles.”
The Mayo Performing Arts Center is located at 100 South St. in Morristown. For more information or to order tickets, log onto mayoarts.org or call (973) 539-8000.
PHOTO BY MICHELLE AKINS