As I’m writing about musicians, I prefer to listen to that artist’s music. Doing so helps me minimize my voice and position the musician’s voice, their art, front and center.
So I looked forward to listening to six time Grammy nominee Nnenna Freelon as I wrote this. Freelon is touring the country with Take 6 and Clint Holmes, presenting Georgia On My Mind: A Celebration of Ray Charles.
The show gives honor to Charles via stunning versions of all of his hits, visiting genres from blues to country to jazz to gospel. It plays the Harris Center in Folsom on February 13 and Modesto’s Gallo Center for the Arts on February 15.
Against form, I found myself swaying to Ray Charles while I wrote this feature, in lieu of streaming some of Freelon’s incredible work. It was fitting, given how lovingly she spoke of Charles during our recent chat. She told me all about touring Europe with the legend, at the dawn of her own career.
“To be honest, it was daunting. I was a little scared,” Freelon, 64 shared. “I was a very young singer and new to the game [and] Ray was a force of nature — that’s the only way I can describe it. The music seemed to come from the earth itself. There was no artifice, he was so natural…that was Ray. I learned so much by just observing [him].”
“He was gracious, and a little irreverent in his humor,” Freelon continued. “He was a bit old fashioned about women, in a way that would probably get you in a lot of trouble today,” Freelon chuckled.
“He had a power and a command of the audience that few people have. Ray was totally comfortable with being who he was [on stage]. And by doing that, he made everybody in his audience comfortable with who they were.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Freelon, I don’t know where to start. I’ve been a member of her throng since 2002, when she released a stunning collection of Stevie Wonder covers, Tales Of Wonder. That album includes a version of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears Of A Clown” (which Wonder co-wrote) that Smokey himself called his favorite version!
Freelon couldn’t have been more effusive in her admiration for Charles and others of his generation who, she insisted, paved the way for her and generations of music artists.
“There are people on whose shoulders we stand, and sometimes we don’t even know we’re standing on those shoulders,” Freelon said, “and sometimes we don’t say ‘thank you.’ You have to understand the complicated history of this country to understand what doors were opened that you didn’t open on your own. You didn’t get there by your own strength. Others sacrificed so you could be there. Ray lived through torturous times in this country, and he and others opened the door for people like me.”
“I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t exercise gratitude for those who did the hard work, and allowed me to stay at the hotel, to eat in the restaurant, to come into the auditorium through the front door before walking up on stage, to be acknowledged for what I do, and to be compensated for what I love to do.”
Freelon spoke equally as lovingly of Holmes and the men of Take 6, whom she called her “brothers from another mother.” She said that the chemistry audiences sense between the artists is real — both on and off stage.
“I have my own shows. I have done theatrical work. I’ve done a lot of different things. But what I love about this show is I’m with family,” Freelon said. “These people are my brothers, and I love going out on the road with family. It makes the challenges of the road — getting up early, getting on flights, riding on the bus, being away from home — so much easier when people are channeling that family vibe on and off stage. It really is a blessing.”
Freelon has a call to action for those who are looking forward to the show, and by doing so paying homage to one of the greatest singers of the 20th — or any — century.
“We talk about our young people, but where does that begin? It begins with you coming to a show like this, and bringing your kids,” Freelon implored. “They’re not going to ask ‘Can I go to Georgia On My Mind.’ I had an old school mother who was non-negotiable. She didn’t ask. If she thought it was positive and valuable, and good for your edification, you went! And it landed me where I am right now, with a deep appreciation for different kinds of music, different musical styles.”
“And live performances are just that: they only happen once in that particular way. Every night is different. So come one, come all, and bring your kids. If you don’t have kids, bring your nieces and nephews. Or just adopt somebody for the night, and bring them.”
“That’s how we change the world: one concert at a time.”