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Berklee to honor Ray Charles with 'Inspired' symposium

Nakia Hill | 9/20/2012, 1:02 p.m.

Berklee will host a three-day symposium in honor of Ray Charles this weekend, to conclude on what would have been the music legend's 82nd birthday. 

Legendary soul music artist Ray Charles left his mark on the hearts of countless music lovers, including blind singer-songwriter and guitarist Raul Midón.

“Ray Charles was a skilled musician and artist. He had the ability to make anything he did his own,” said Midon, who is one of several musicians scheduled to perform at “Inspired By Ray: The Ray Charles Symposium,” a three-day event presented by Berklee College of Music this Friday through Sunday.

Midón said he looks forward to exploring the life of the multi-faceted, pioneering artist and wants to “really make it fun and fresh” at the event, which closes on what would have been Charles’ 82nd birthday.

“He was able to combine different genres of music,” said Midon. “He was comfortable in a big band, solo, and in any kind of setting.”

Matt Glaser, artistic director of the American Roots Music Program, described the symposium as an artistic and academic conference that will study Charles' singular genius and his contributions to American music through a mix of panel discussions, individual presentations and concerts.

The conference will explore a wide array of topics, from Charles's singing, piano-playing and arranging to his business savvy, his blindness and the relationship between jazz, blues, gospel, and country music.

Panelists include Michael Lydon , author of “Ray Charles: Man and Music”; Curt Sobel, supervisor of Ray Music; Dave Marash, 11-time Emmy-winning broadcaster; and entertainment lawyer Ivan Hoffman, who represented Charles for many years and now represents the Ray Charles Foundation.

Along with Midon, scheduled performers include Ricky Skaggs, bluegrass legend and 14-time Grammy winner; John Scofield, highly influential jazz guitarist; The Raelettes, Ray Charles’ backup singers; and Marcus Belgrave, one of the only living members of Ray Charles’ original band.

Belgrave, a jazz trumpet player from Detroit, recalls touring with Charles during the Civil Rights era and being part of a vibrant music scene.

“People danced and played live music,” Belgrave said. “Everything was live. We didn’t have that electronic stuff. It was all real music.”

Belgrave laughs as he thinks back to the days when Charles had a cheap, 12- passenger limousine that nearly scraped the ground. Belgrave even left the band for a stint because Charles refused to give him a $5 raise. But a raise – along with a transportation upgrade – eventually lured Belgrave back.

“The band was seven pieces when I joined him,” Belgrade said. “He augmented the band to 16 pieces, so he got this big plane and that of course enticed me to come back.”

Belgrave also remembers a harsh social climate during the band’s heyday, and said the Holiday Inn was the only hotel that would service black people. But he said people of color would allow the band to stay at their homes when they played in segregated towns.

“God had his hands on us all the time,” he said.

For more information about “Inspired By Ray: The Ray Charles Symposium,” and a complete schedule, visit http://berklee.edu/events/inspired-by-ray/schedule.html.