Entertainment » Jim Harris

Still loving Ray Charles

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Ray Charles was still making great music when he died almost three years ago. Songs he recorded more than half a century ago still suit the ear today. Many of those songs, from “Georgia on My Mind” to “Hit the Road, Jack,” were pulled together for “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a smash hit musical on London’s West End that is now touring the U.S.

The tour visits Little Rock and Robinson Center Music Hall next week with three shows starting Tuesday, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.

Unlike many of today’s newer musicals, which have taken the music of such acts as ABBA, Billy Joel and the Beatles and stuck a plot around them, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” focuses simply on Ray Charles’ music.

Nedgra (pronounced nee-dra) Culp, a native of Springfield, Mo., is one of six singers who make up the vocal ensemble that sings Ray’s classics. Culp and two other female singers are the Raylettes.

“I listened to Ray a little bit, but not as much as Aretha Franklin and singers like that,” Culp said. “Now that I’m in the show, though, I’m paying more attention to him and his background in music. He sang everything from gospel to blues and R&B. He did some of the Beatles music, the classics, some big band. So there is such a wide range in his music.”

The Ray Charles story is told through his music, beginning with the 1950s and leading up to the duets, which he recorded with some of the biggest names in contemporary music, just before his death.

Terrence Forsythe, Chris Morrell and Mike Davis handle the male parts. Culp is joined by Regi Brown and Sheri Watson as the Raylettes.

Culp is the baby among six children — five girls and a boy. “They’re all singers, but I’m the only one who does it for a living,” she said. “My father sang professionally for the Ozark Jubilee. It’s just kind of in my blood.”

Culp attended Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Mo. Her big break — “THE big break,” she says — came when she landed a spot on Wayne Newton’s original show in nearby Branson, working there and in Las Vegas. “He’s a gentleman, and very easy to work for,” Culp said of Newton. Besides Arethra Frankin’s music, she says she was inspired by Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, June Christy and the scat singing of Ella Fitzgerald, and she says she appreciates the recording acts of the 1950s. “Not slamming anyone, but back then you did it right or it didn’t work. They didn’t have any way to clean it up.”

She says the crowd for “I Can’t Stop Loving You” will appreciate the audience participation. “It really moves, and when it takes off, the dancing is fantastic, the musicians are wonderful and it’s a big treat. It’s a party for two hours. Get ready to put on your dancing shoes.”

Tickets range from $14 to $44 through Celebrity Attractions (244-8800) or through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com, 975-7575).

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