Hit the Strip, Jack. Won’t ya come back some more, some more, some more, some more?
Such a soulful plea should not go unheeded, ergo … Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles. Once at The Smith Center. Thirty times at the Venetian.
“This wasn’t part of the plan that was laid out, but I’m thrilled,” says Clint Holmes, who hosted the multi-performer musical voyage through the life and career of this singular American icon in February at Reynolds Hall, and will return to do likewise for six weeks at the Venetian, beginning September 18.
“With my background, being both black and white, my mom being an opera singer and my dad being a jazz singer, I was always searching for who I was musically. He was one of those people who did everything and made someone like me think I could be whoever to be.”
Declared “the only true genius in show business” by Frank Sinatra and “more important than Elvis Presley” by Billy Joel, Ray Charles (who died in 2004) lived one of the most storied lives in pop culture history. Blindness, drug addiction and racism did not get in the way of his legacy as a soul music pioneer, fusing genres and creating forever classics including “Hit the Road, Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “I Got a Woman,” “What’d I Say” and “Georgia on My Mind”—plus a unique take on “America the Beautiful” that many consider definitive.
“The way he did ‘America the Beautiful,’ it makes everybody either stand up and cheer, or stand up and cry,” says Larry Rosen, co-founder of GRP Records and producer/director of the Charles tribute.
“If you went from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson, you would think of Ray Charles in that same group. There is a lot of respect we have to pay to him. He took the Southern soulful gospel roots and R&B and put it together with country and even the American songbook, and made it into a Ray type of thing. This [show] goes beyond a bunch of songs by Ray Charles. It’s an emotional mission.”
Crowded mission, too. While interpreting Charles’ signature tunes, Holmes will also direct the musical traffic created by fellow headliners—vocal group Take 6, singer Nnenna Freelon, saxophonist Kirk Whalum, the Las Vegas Mass Choir and the Las Vegas All-Star Big Band, directed by David Loeb, UNLV’s director of jazz studies. Photos, video clips and narration will intersect with the robust Ray Charles repertoire.
“I wanted to have artists who in some way were connected to the music,” Rosen says. “Each one has their own little story. Nnenna opened for Ray Charles. Take 6 worked with him before and they are from the South, and Kirk comes from that funky, soulful Southern music. And then [Smith Center President] Myron Martin said he thought Clint would be great in it. I knew who he was but hadn’t worked with him before. So I was introduced to him and saw him perform a couple of times. When I put together the cast, I knew he would be perfect. And it turned out to be a love affair with the cast. The magic sauce was there.”
Originally, the production had a two-show life—once at Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, and once at Reynolds Hall. Rehearsals cemented a strong camaraderie.
“It wasn’t like I sang my song and then walked offstage and sat down,” Holmes recalls. “I wanted to hang around and see what Take 6 was going to do, and they wanted to see what I was going to do and Nnenna was doing the same. We found this family feeling almost immediately. It became kind of sad when we thought we were only going to do two performances.”
Sad became glad when Rosen received a post-show call from Venetian President Robert Goldstein, suggesting the show migrate to the Strip. “He said, ‘I think there’s a space for this,’” Rosen remembers. “It’s almost like what’s old is new again, with real artists interacting with a big band onstage. He said he thought it was a missing element on the Strip right now, so this is kind of a test case to see how it actually works.”
Georgia on My Mind marks two Strip returns. Fifty years ago, in 1964, a 24-year-old Rosen played drums behind the late Andy Williams at the Desert Inn. Eight years ago, in 2006, Holmes ended his lengthy stay at Harrah’s. Since the opening of The Smith Center in 2012, he has been a regular at Cabaret Jazz, one among many projects he juggles.
“I love my gig at Cabaret Jazz, I think I’ve grown a lot, and I don’t want to lose that,” Holmes says. “But Myron was great about saying, ‘Hey, take a leave of absence, come back in December.’” But first, Georgia on My Mind is scheduled to tour in Miami and Orlando in November.
Though the shift from Reynolds Hall to the Venetian Theatre is a modest downgrade in seating capacity—from 2,050 to 1,815—it allows for some technical upgrades because the production can settle in longer than it did at The Smith Center. “There will be more production value in it because we have the ability to set up more sophisticated situations,” Rosen says.
“When you do a one-nighter at a performing arts center, you try to get all the staging and lighting as good as you can and that’s about it. Here we will have the ability to use more video and lighting and projections. But I’m not looking to make this Cirque du Soleil. This is about the artists and the musicians.”
And, at its heart, about an icon the world knew as Brother Ray.
“It’s more of a journey than a concert,” Holmes says. “There’s a real feeling among all of us that this is something special.”
So hit the Strip, Jack. Who knows? Maybe after six weeks are up, they’ll crave some more, some more, some more, some more.
Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles
Tue-Sat, Sept. 18-Oct. 29, Venetian Theatre, $82.50 and up, 702-414-9000, Venetian.com.
Calendar coordinator Camille Cannon talks fall events on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.