He might sing Ray Charles’s songs, but Donald Ray Johnson is the first to admit he’s no Ray Charles.
“Nobody can do Ray Charles, except for Ray Charles. . . . He was a genius. All you can do is give it your best try,” said the Calgary-based Texas native, who will front the 10-piece Ray Charles Tribute Orchestra at the Sylvan Lake Jazz festival on Saturday, Aug. 18.
Johnson goes for Charles’ emotional delivery of such timeless tunes as Georgia On my Mind, What I Say?, Mess Around, Night Time is the Right Time and Cry, but stops short of mimicking the singer/pianist’s idiosyncratic movements.
Johnson said he isn’t aiming for an impersonation, but an honest performance of songs that crossed genre lines, incorporating soul, gospel, blues — even country.
Despite Johnson’s frank assessment of his own abilities (he jokingly admits that he won’t play the piano publicly), a couple of similarities exist between him and the legendary Charles, who helped racially integrate country and pop music during the 1960s and who is No. 2 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list.
Johnson has also won a Grammy Award and is legally blind.
The 63-year-old, who also performs around Alberta with the four-piece Donald Ray Johnson Band, started out banging the drums in Bryan, Tex. His home was across from the Allen Military Academy and he was inspired by hearing marching bands practise.
Johnson became seasoned enough through school band drumming lessons to begin his professional career at age 14 with the blues piano legend Nat Dove.
Years later, after serving two Vietnam tours aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard, Johnson relocated to San Diego, where he rubbed shoulders with California’s biggest blues and R&B artists while performing with the house band at the Downtown Hustler’s Club.
By 1971, Johnson was playing with the Philip Walker Band and Joe Houston Big Band in Los Angeles. Soon after he joined the soul/disco group A Taste of Honey, which in 1979 became the first Afro-American band to win a Grammy Award for Best New Artist.
Johnson was beyond thrilled to be nominated with such performers as Elvis Costello, The Cars, Toto and English singer/songwriter Chris Rea. “People work their whole life and don’t get that kind of recognition.”
Although A Taste of Honey, known for the hits Boogie Oogie Oogie and Sukiyaki, had folded by the early 1980s, Johnson’s career had longer legs — despite his worsening vision problems.
By 1986, he was nearly totally blind due to glaucoma and other degenerative conditions.
The musician did what many people do when beset by health troubles — he returned home to the bosom of his family. But it didn’t take him long to realize “there’s was nothing for me to do,” since Bryan had a negligible music scene.
Johnson got back onto a stage by accepting a friend’s invitation to join his band of musicians in Montana. He was then lured by a girlfriend to move across the border to Calgary, arriving in November of 1989.
He can still remember his first taste of an Alberta winter: “It started snowing and didn’t stop . . . I thought, what the hell have I gotten myself into now?”
His romantic relationship fizzled, but Johnson’s affinity for this province grew to the point that he’s now married to another Albertan, is a fixture on Calgary’s music scene, and a dual Canada-U.S. citizen.
Johnson performed at last year’s Jazz at the Lake Festival with his four-piece band and is looking forward to his return appearance with the larger orchestra. “I just hope people turn out to support live music and have some fun.
“Music, for me, has always been a love affair. If it stops being fun, I won’t do it.”
Johnson will perform from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Royal Canadian Legion in Sylvan Lake, 4916 50th Ave. Tickets are $20. For more schedule, performance and ticket information for Jazz at the Lake festival events, go to www.jazzatthelake.com. Tickets are also available from the Sylvan Lake Tourist Information, 4719 50th Ave. Call toll free: 1-866-887-5550.