Forever Ray pays homage to music legend

Shulton Whitley, right, fronts Forever Ray, a New York City-based band that pays tribute to the music of Ray Charles. Forever Ray will perform Saturday night at Dover’s Schwartz Center for the Arts. (Submitted photo)

Shulton Whitley, right, fronts Forever Ray, a New York City-based band that pays tribute to the music of Ray Charles. Forever Ray will perform Saturday night at Dover’s Schwartz Center for the Arts. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — The legacy of the late Ray Charles lives on in the form of Forever Ray, a tribute to the legendary entertainer coming to Dover’s Schwartz Center for the Arts Saturday night at 7.

The 12-piece band from the New York metropolitan area is fronted by Ray Charles soundalike Shulton Whitley and led by its musical director and drummer Bobby Deitch.

The band started about eight years ago when Mr. Whitley was doing an open mic at The Sugar Bar, a New York City nightclub owned by famed Motown songwriters Ashford and Simpson.

“One night, Nick Ashford came up to him and said ‘You sound just like Ray Charles. You should get a show together,’” Mr. Deitch said.

“(Mr. Whitley) and I go back years and years. He called me first about doing something. My wife answered the phone and said ‘Bobby’s not here. But I’ll answer for him. He’ll do it.’

“So I made some phone calls and got up with a sax player who had a bunch of Ray Charles charts ready to go.”

Their first show was in the same Sugar Bar and they were a hit.

Today, the band features musicians who have worked with musical greats including Maynard Ferguson, Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Buffett.

One member even worked with Mr. Charles himself.

“We’ve gone through a few personnel changes but that has led us to find Angela Workman, who was an original Raylette, one of his backup singers, for 11 years,” Mr. Deitch said.

“She is just phenomenal. She is one of three female backup singers in the show and she sings one lead. There really is a wealth of talent in the whole band.”

The show features a host of Charles classics, including “Hit the Road Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and of course “Georgia (On My Mind)” with Mr. Whitley at the forefront.

“His voice is uncanny. We were joined by Ray’s daughter Sheila Raye one night and she said ‘My daddy is still alive,’”

Mr. Deitch said, adding that Mr. Whitley doesn’t have to use any special affectation to achieve the sound.

“His natural speaking voice sounds like Ray. Talking to him on the phone you think you’re talking to Ray Charles. It’s almost scary.”

Over the years, the band has played at venues such as Lincoln Center in New York City, Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut and BB King’s Blues Club in New York.

“We don’t do as many clubs as we once did. We are more of a concert band now. We still encourage people to get up and boogie woogie with us though,” Mr. Deitch said.

The show is more than a straight concert.

“We do our best to give a little bit of history of the songs and of Ray,” Mr. Deitch said.

“We’ll give the audience a sense of what Ray was all about. We don’t just go right into the song after song.”

Like Mr. Charles himself, Forever Ray appeals to a wide-ranging audience due to the different genres in which he dabbled — from blues and jazz to soul and even country.

“People forget that he was good friends with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson,” Mr. Deitch said.

“As a musician, it’s fun to play all of these different types of music. It’s fun for the listener as well to see such an eclectic show too I think.”

Mr. Deitch, an accomplished drummer, songwriter, producer, author and professor of music at SUNY Rockland in Suffern, New York and Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey, said he was never really into Mr. Charles growing up but his appreciation has grown over the years.

“I liked some of the stuff he did but I wasn’t a huge fan,” said Mr. Deitch, who also plays in a funk and classic rock band.

“To me, it was all about The Beatles and Billy Joel. I was also into jazz as a young teen. I really took notice of Ray once I got into the band. It’s really great stuff.”

Tickets for the show range from $30 to $40 and can be purchased at www.SchwartzCenter.com or by calling the box office at 302-678-5152.

The Schwartz Center is at 226 S. State St. in Dover.

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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