Sunday, May 7, 2006
Chorus honors leader as second to none
Former 'Perry Como' singers reunite to pay tribute to 'The Other Ray Charles.'
The Orange County Register
TUSTIN – In "The Hours," author Michael Cunningham wrote, "Maybe there is nothing ever that can equal the recollection of being young together."
That sentiment was the theme of a reunion Saturday of a small group of men and women – now older and grayer – who when they were young shared a bond as members of the Ray Charles Singers.
Seven of them got together to relive those memories with the eponymous chorus master for the first time in 43 years.
"Ray is 87. We need to honor him and let him know what he has meant to all of us," said Patti Johnson, 71, of Tustin, who hosted a "HooRay Reunion" gathering Saturday at her home.
Johnson and the other singers presented Charles with a commemorative scrapbook, sheet music and a compact disc. More important, they shared memories of their time with him.
"It means so much to me," said Charles of the reunion. "We've never spent time like this together."
His eyes lined with tears as the group sang him a song. This time, he was not leading them.
There were several incarnations of the Ray Charles Singers. This group performed on "The Perry Como Show" on television from the late '50s to early '60s. Members recorded a few albums by themselves and sang backup on most Como albums.
There were 12 men and eight women in the group. Three have died. Six traveled to Johnson's home from other parts of Southern California or flew in from New Jersey, Arizona and Colorado.
Over the years, they've sometimes been mistaken as singers for the late R&B icon Ray Charles, also known as Ray Charles Robinson.
This Ray Charles is Charles Raymond Offenberg, who jokingly called himself "The Other Ray Charles." His singers remember him as an extraordinary and unflappable leader who exacted from them their best performances without raising his voice or uttering an unkind word.
Johnson recalled the day she flew from Rochester, Minn., to New York to audition for Charles. "I didn't have money to stay overnight, so I flew in and flew out," she said. "I sang 'Lucky to be Me.' Several months later, I received a telegram that said: 'Report for work next week. "Perry Como Show."'
"Ray was demanding but kind," Johnson said. "He was highly talented and could arrange and compose. He conveyed to you that you weren't at your best without saying anything. A small look would do it."
Charles picked each singer to blend seamlessly with the others, said Jinx Riedesel, 72, of Littleton, Colo. "Ray matched voices. He matched personalities. He wouldn't have kept anyone who had a star complex."
Or anyone who was a slow learner. Riedesel's most vivid memories of Charles include his presiding over the group through a tight production schedule every week except in the summer.
On Wednesdays, they received the sheet music, sight-read the songs and learned choreography. On Thursdays, they got fitted for costumes and performed in a dress rehearsal. On Fridays, they filmed the show or performed live.
Over the years, some of the singers have stayed in touch with Charles and their colleagues through phone calls, and lately, e-mail. Most of the time, the conversations are about the families and the present.
But Saturday night belonged to the past – and to the man who brought them all together.
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