Image courtesy of the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.
For over forty years in the music industry, Kenny Brawner has been called 'the live reincarnation of Ray Charles.' His solo music and acting career has led him to perform his own music in some of the top venues in the world, but his tribute show Ray Charles on My Mind is what brings Brawner to Columbus this week.
Brawner was born in Augusta, Georgia and grew up listening to Ray Charles. Now a self-proclaimed New Yorker, Brawner will head back to his home state this week to relive the life and work of Ray Charles again on a Georgia stage.
We spoke with Brawner for a behind-the-scenes look into what led him to create his tribute work to Ray Charles, what it's like to play Ray, and some insider tidbits audience members can look out for in Brawner's performance in Heard Theatre at RiverCenter on Saturday.
Q: Mr. Brawner, my job is to make the arts accessible in our community. I have found that speaking with persons of interest who are either members of our community's arts organizations or who are traveling here to perform for local audiences, gives our readers the opportunity to get a better picture of why the arts matter on a local level. Would you mind starting off by telling us the answer to a complicated question: Why do you do, what you do?
A: First, because I love it. It is my high. It's what I enjoy doing and I've been playing music most of my life. Like B.B. King said, "I'm gonna die on stage because I love it so much."
Q: You're originally from Augusta, Georgia, and you've said in multiple interviews over the years that Ray Charles has had a profound influence on your life. Could you speak a little bit about that?
A: Yes. I was introduced to Ray Charles' music as a kid. I've always loved it. You know, I'm a piano player, and a singer, so his music just grabbed me. I used to play his music at home. Friends of mine in the neighborhood used to come to my house to just listen to me play Ray's music.
When I was in college, in my freshman dormitory there was a piano in one of the common rooms. I used to just sit and play Ray Charles' music. The guys that came around started calling me Ray. So that kind of turned into my nickname freshman year in college.
I do my own music, but Ray Charles had a big influence on me. Early in my career, when I was playing in New York - I moved here after I got back from Vietnam.
When I got to New York and started performing, there was a writeup in Billboard about me in which the writer said, "He'll remind you of Ray Charles." I also had another magazine article in New York that said, "This guy is the live reincarnation of Ray Charles."
I've always been accused of sounding and looking a lot like Ray. I even tried hard not to look and sound like him. But in recent years, my son came to me and said, "You know, a lot of people are doing tributes to artists. Why don't you do a tribute to Ray Charles?"
Me being an actor and a musician, allows for our show to be more of a hybrid experience. People who come to get our show are getting Ray Charles' story, and then actually experiencing what it was like to be in Ray Charles concert.
Q: One of the things I've read about your show is that the monologues between songs share a lot of history. Is that true? And if so, what insight do they provide for the musical content of the show?
A: Yes, that's true. A lot of the monologues give insight to the source of the song, or where the song came from originally. You know, we take a song and talk about why he did it.
Q: That's very cool, and something I think is wonderful about tribute pieces. You get a little further into the story and learn about what was going on in the artist's brain as everything was happening. In addition to the musical history, does the show also address the cultural history going on at the time? It was a very turbulent time and he was such an important voice artistically and in the cultural developments the time.
A: Yes, I talk a bit about that as well. I don't want to give away my monologue, but it was important to me to address the historical impact he had. We talk about the discrimination he faced. Specifically, we talk about how in Georgia, he had a problem in my hometown of Augusta, and he decided not to play at an auditorium that was a segregated audience. He wasn't officially banned in Georgia, but he was sued, and he didn't play in Georgia for awhile until he was invited to play for the State Legislature which is where he played "Georgia On My Mind." We talk about that in the show, and how important it was at the time.
Kenny Brawner sings "Georgia On My Mind" on stage in Ray on My Mind live at B.B. Kings.
Q: On the stage with you is this incredible band with you. What can you tell us about them?
A: One of the guys actually played with Ray Charles. They're all great musicians. One guy that helped me put the show together is named Kim Sanders. We grew up in Augusta together - right across the street from each other. We really were surrounded by music all around us. His mother was a music teacher, his uncle was a jazz piano player, my parents sang in the choir at church. We were surrounded by it. We played music together all of the time. He plays saxophone and toured with Percy Sledge for years. He's part of the band.
My son is in the band. He is one of the babies in the band. (Laughing) Most of the guys are older than him. Almost all of the band members have toured with various artists over the years.
Q: I love that your son plays with you in the band. Do you mind me asking what instrument he plays?
A: Oh, he plays the baritone sax.
Q: That's so neat. How could he not play jazz after growing up with you?
A: Yeah. He's great. (Laughing)
Q: I always like to ask performing artists what their greatest challenge is on stage. Professional performers make it look easy, but I like to remind our audience that there is a person behind the character on stage. What is your greatest challenge about playing the role of Ray Charles?
A: I try to immerse myself - I call it channeling- Ray Charles. I feel when I'm performing as though he's actually touching me and moving me around. One of the biggest challenges I have is to make sure I'm not staring at the keys when I play. I can play all of the music with my eyes closed, but I might have more of a tendency to look down than he did.
Now, I've studied him. He looked down some of the time. He did. But he also looks away a lot. So I try to do that. too. I don't want to give the sense that I'm actually following the keys with my eyes.
I watched him a lot when I was preparing for this role. I try to use his gait. The gait that is his as he walked.
It also goes without saying that as a person who has their sight, playing a person without sight is a real challenge as well.
Q: I cannot imagine.
My last question is based on something I've seen you talk about consistently in interviews over the years. You've said many, many times that you and the band always have a lot of fun performing this show. Is that still true?
A: Yeah. First of all, the guys are all a big family. They enjoy it. First, because we all have a love for Ray's music.
I always try to interact with them during the show, and it helps us all enjoy it more.
Sometimes, I'll ad lib stuff and make them laugh. They've heard me do stuff a million times, but I'll occasionally throw in stuff they haven't heard. That always gets a laugh from them, and it happens on stage a lot.◼︎
If You Go:
What: Kenny Brawner in "Ray Charles On My Mind"
When: January 19, 7:30 p.m.
Where: RiverCenter for the Performing Arts Cost: $39 Call: rivercenter.org