A big band starts up a jazzy song, the Raelettes are snapping to the beat and Ray Charles’ voice soars across the concert hall – the energy coming from the stage is electric.

This is how many of us remember Ray Charles in the prime years of his musical career. A pioneer in redefining the depths of jazz music, Charles created his distinct sound by integrating soul, gospel, R&B, pop and country music. Charles could turn simple tunes like You are my Sunshine and My Bonnie into soulful and hoppin’ renditions that would get everyone bouncing in their seats.

Ray Charles at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2003.
Ray Charles at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2003.

Toronto has seen Charles come through its venues only a handful of times compared to south of the boarder. In 1997, Charles had three concerts in the city, and local musicians were called to make up the string and wind sections of the jazz legend’s band. HPO Principal Double Bassist Rob Wolanski was lucky enough to get the call. “Obviously it was a very surreal moment,” says Rob who was in his mid-20s at the time. “I mean I’ve played with a lot of pretty big names, but that was like holy cow – that’s Ray Charles.” Other musicians in the band included famous jazz trombonist and London Ontario native Rob McConnell, Montreal trumpeter Guido Basso and the HPO’s own horn player Neil Spaulding. Rob remembers Charles donned a dazzling jacket for each performance and kept the crowd in good spirits. During these shows, Charles performed much of his classic repertoire as well as some country tunes like Georgia on my Mind – Rob’s favourite because of the strings. “I had a really lush orchestral bass part,” said Rob.

“It’s hard for us double bass players on a lot of pop shows because we don’t usually feel like we’re contributing that much when there’s an electric bass as well. Sometimes you get moments like that when it’s more you than the other guy.”

Rob Wolanski on the electric bass for the HPO's concert at Seven Sundays in Gage Park.
Rob Wolanski on the electric bass for the HPO’s concert at Seven Sundays in Gage Park.

Rob recalls a funny moment in the first show when the drummer asked for more bass and the sound guy accidentally cranked the volume on Rob’s instrument instead of the electric bass. “All of a sudden I became really loud,” recalls Rob.

Rob describes Charles’ performance as “bang on”. Charles began using an electric piano on tour in the late 1950s as a way of ensuring his instrument was always in tune. But Rob was surprised to see Charles use an electric keyboard because we often associate the jazz singer with an acoustic piano.

“He went on to do some stuff with the organ sound on the electric piano and even some synthesizer type sounds, and he was actually really good at getting around and changing the sounds…he was pretty much into the gadgetry,” remembers Rob.

Rob is  a lover of rock music and devotes his spare time to playing in a Peter Gabriel Genesis tribute band. Performing with Charles was extra special for Rob because “the bass player [Charles] brought was Tom Fowler who played in Frank Zappa’s band for most of the 70s so that was a double whammy for me.”

Even 20 years after playing with Ray Charles, Rob says “it still stands out after all these years – that’s a true icon. The only person I could say that compared to that in terms of ‘oh my God’ was Pavarotti. So he and Ray Charles are just up there. You almost can’t describe what a force it is -it’s just so unreal.”

Catch Rob talk more about his experience performing with Ray Charles on Friday, October 17, at 12:45PM in the Hamilton Public Library.