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Arts

Ellis Hall brings his work and a Ray Charles vibe to Powell Hall

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2012 - For Ellis Hall, visiting St. Louis, performing with the St. Louis Symphony and paying tribute to one of his favorite singers is simply “Chakalaka.”

“It means joyous,” the 61-year-old singer/songwriter croons into the phone.

And Chakalaka is what his audience can expect when the Hall takes the Powell Hall stage to pay tribute to his friend Ray Charles with the St. Louis Symphony on Sept. 21.

Even a discussion about the concert is a musical experience unto itself: the notes flow from him like a fine red wine. They come easily, reflecting a heady sort of talent that has been cured and honed for years, decades even. Hall’s words pour out of him in melodious ripples.

His velvety voice decants effortlessly as he describes in voluptuous tones and scat-inspired twists his relationship with Ray Charles.

“One of the reasons Ray signed me was because I was making my own music,” Hall said. “I was not trying to emulate him.”

Often described as his friend and “protégé,” Hall signed with Charles’ recording label and worked with him until Charles died in 2004.

But the death has not diminished the connection for public or those in the industry. On the set of the film, “Ray,” about Charles’ life, Hall advised Jamie Foxx on his Oscar-winning role.

Without question, Hall has become his heir-apparent, something Charles recognized in Hall when he first encountered him.

In 2001, the music icon went a club to listen to the man who had made his moniker playing R&B with soul and symphony. When Hall finished his set, Charles let him know that he was impressed.

“He told me, ‘You got so much music in you, it’s scary’,” Hall laughs easily as he relays the memory.

But the music is not all they shared. Observers cannot help but notice the similarities in their circumstances, too.

Both men are African American. Both are blind. And both began their lives sighted but lost their vision early in life.

“Ray and I talked about what we have seen,” Hall said. “I am glad I had my sight. I would hate to have missed a beautiful sunset or a pretty girl — I’m talking about a big ole box of crayons and I’m happy to share.”

When he comes to the word sunset, his tongue pours out another string of notes that reflect his love of word play and melody. Hall has written songs and jingles too numerous to count.

“There are only two kinds of songs: good music and bad music,” he said. “I like all music: country music, dance music. There is so much, blues and pop, jazz and soul, classical and rock.

Hall says he has been influenced by Stevie Wonder and many others from all different genres.

“There was Little Anthony and the Imperials; and God bless her, Karen Carpenter; Harry Belafonte and so many others,” he said. “I was kind of a human musical sponge, just sucking up all that good music.”

He discovered music as a child, first in Savannah, Ga., and then in Boston, Mass. His family moved so he could attend the Perkins School for the Blind.

“My mom swears I came out of the womb dancin’ and singin’,” he said, with a playful laugh.

By the time he was 9, he realized that the public responded to his singing.

“I’d stand on the street corner and sing. And people were throwing things at me,” he recalled. “At first, I was scared. Then I realized they were not mad — it was money.”

He used the money to further his musical interests, buying instruments.

At 14, he and a friend snuck into club to hear a local band.

“I still had a little vision at that time,” he said. “It was really crowded and we stood in the back”.

What he saw solidified his future.

“It was a quintet: an organ, a sax, a guitar, drums and a singer, and sweat was pouring off of them — they were whipping that audience into shape,” he said. “It was a house of fire, and I knew I wanted to do that.”

And that is what he does. With the symphony, he plans to perform a concert that audiences will remember: A concert that pays tribute to Charles with “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia” and more.

It will also be a concert that is uniquely Hall with his music, including “Girl, You’re Not In Kansas Anymore.”

A concert that is “Chakalaka.”

Chakalaka may be Hall’s word for joyous, but according to informed cooks and Google, the word actually refers to a spicy South African dish.

And it clearly refers to all that Hall will bring to Powell’s stage.

As he pours out his soul for our consumption, his St. Louis audience will be treated to Ray in spirit and in song — spicy, sultry, sublime song.

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