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Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 19:46 GMT
Ray Charles gig worth the wait
Ray Charles
Ray Charles led the concert

The legendary blues singer Ray Charles may have just turned 72 but you would hardly credit it as the star hits the road for a new six-leg European tour taking him to France, Estonia, Switzerland and Russia.

However, most of the travelling will be 33,000ft up which is no hardship to Charles who loves flying.

The tour kicked off in Paris at the Zenith, a modern structure with the feel of a giant tent about it that's part of a grungy enclave in the north-eastern part of the city incorporating two theatres and Cité de la Musique.

And fans were full of praise.

"He hasn't changed, he's still energetic," said long-term fan Kawushima, who helps run a Japanese restaurant in the neighbourhood.

But the 4,000-strong audience was clearly not so happy before the concert.

They had almost an hour to wait for the man who's been dubbed the father of soul and the Genius for his ability to weave together different music styles.

Gold jacket

Following the first act, singer Lisa Doby, there was an intermission and another lengthy wait before the 18-piece Ray Charles Orchestra came on alone to face a heckling crowd who shouted out to them to start playing.

Many of the audience got to their feet when the blind singer was finally led on stage dancing to the music in his trademark dark glasses, a gold jacket and patent shoes.

The star's French manager, Jean-Pierre Grosz, later put the delay down to confusion over the start time.

Ray Charles
Ray Charles was the first black artist to get his own TV show
But any discord soon evaporated as the singer opened with Mississippi Mud.

Other favourites followed including the 1960 number one, Georgia On My Mind, I Can't Stop Loving You, Chain of Fools, and What I'd Say to close, his biggest hit in France, which he performed with his five female Raellettes.

Reflecting suffering

There were two songs by French lyricist Ronnie Bird, Say No More and Angelina and the show also included a hit by Charles Aznavour.

The star was apparently keen to sing La Mama as he felt the Armenian Aznavour's music reflected his people's suffering as the blues did the Black community.

Ray Charles Robinson was born in the deep American south in 1930 but was only three months old when his parents, Aretha and Baily decided to move to Greenville, Florida.

Ray started going blind at the age of five due to untreated glaucoma and first began playing the piano at St Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind.

In his teens he toured as a pianist, saxophonist and clarinet player.

But for many, it is his rich voice and singing, so full of emotion, that sets him apart.

To avoid any confusion with the famous boxer "Sugar" Ray Robinson, he dropped his surname and formed the McSon Trio, one of the first black performers to have a fully sponsored television show in the United States.

Success was assured with a move from Seattle to Los Angeles and the 1955 hit I've got a Woman.

'Impressed'

In a career spanning over half a century, he brought out a new album this year, Thanks for Bringing Love Around.

The only blot on his copybook was an arrest for using heroin in the mid 60s, which forced him to kick the habit.

Many fans at the Paris concert said they thought the singer still had his old magic and big personality but some thought he had aged nonetheless and should quit in the near future while he was still on form.

"I came because he's a real crooner, one of the best in the world," said Didier from Paris.

"Georgia was a little disappointing but part of the reason was the auditorium. After the fourth song, they sorted out the sound problem and he warmed up and it was perfect."

"He should carry on but not for too much longer. I first saw him 40 years ago, the first time he came to Paris, when I was only 17 and I was so impressed." said Christian, who'd once flown to San Francisco and found himself just feet from his hero.

"He is extraordinary," said Anne, 43. "My hair just stood on end.

The tour will not include the UK after a date planned for London fell through.

According to his French agent, the star is not as popular in Britain as elsewhere in Europe.

Meanwhile, in between Paris and Estonia, the father of soul has nipped back for a quick concert in the US, in where else of course but... Georgia.

See also:

19 Jul 00 | Europe
24 Apr 02 | Entertainment
12 Mar 02 | Entertainment
12 May 02 | Entertainment
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