When pianist Chris Siebert, on an off night from his regular duties as the musical director for Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, played his first gig with Oakland-based singer-guitarist Quinn DeVeaux's band four years ago, he said he could hardly believe what he was hearing. Here was an African-American man in his early thirties singing with conviction and uncanny authenticity songs that had been made famous some two decades before his birth by such blues and soul greats as Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, and, most notably, Ray Charles. He even had a female vocal group called The Quinnettes wailing responses to his lead vocals in a manner modeled on Charles' Raelettes.
"He was singing this material that I had loved since my teenage years thirty years ago," Siebert recalled. "I didn't think I would see that again. It was like a real breath of fresh air." The pianist continued: "There's a lot of bombast and over-singing in the R&B world, especially today. What I like about Quinn is he sticks to the basics of it, which to me drives the point home better."
Siebert, Smith, and DeVeaux will perform a concert of Ray Charles' songs at the SFJAZZ Center on July 27. They recently explained how the show came together: Smith and Siebert had been performing Charles' songs since their band's inception two decades ago, and their upcoming fourth album, an R&B-spiced tribute to country music legend Patsy Cline, will include two of his tunes — "Your Cheating Heart" and "Half As Much" — that had been recorded by both Cline and Charles. In DeVeaux, they found the ideal male voice with which to delve even deeper into Charles' songbook.
"Our band is really influenced by Ray Charles," singer Smith said of her septet, which includes 76-year-old Jules Broussard, a onetime member of Charles' saxophone section. "We're doing jazz standards and rhythm and blues, and we don't really see a big separation. It's all great black American music. It's all connected."
Siebert added: "He took every damn thing you could have in American music and put it in his music: swing, bebop, blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, country, Latin. We want to present a bunch of those different sides and definitely want to show the jazz side of it, which is a little bit underappreciated."
Smith said the concert truly came together after DeVeaux got involved: "Chris has been dreaming about this for a long time. When we met Quinn and his singers, I said, 'Oh, my god! This would be perfect.'"
Backed by the Red Hot Skillet Lickers, Smith and DeVeaux are planning to trade off singing leads on tunes Charles recorded in the Fifties, as well as songs from his two Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums in 1962. They're also planning to perform Charles' hit single "What'd I Say" as a duet. And The Quinnettes — currently composed of Latrice Love and AhSa-Ti Tyehimba-Ford — will chime in much of the time.
DeVeaux said he was in his early twenties, attending college in Olympia, Washington, when he was first exposed to the music of Ray Charles. "My mind was blown," DeVeaux said of hearing Charles for the first time. "It was unbelievable. It was like, 'How does one guy be responsible for all these things?' There's just some kind of depth that I admire and strive for when I think about Ray Charles."
DeVeaux came to rhythm and blues through the back door, so to speak, thirteen years ago after seeing The Doors, a 1991 Oliver Stone film about the Sixties rock band. Besides such original songs as "Light My Fire" and "The End," the group was famous for its show-stopping rendition of the Howlin' Wolf blues classic "Back Door Man."
"I tried to figure out where The Doors got their sound from," said DeVeaux, who was born in Gary, Indiana, and has been an Oakland resident for the past decade. "I traced the line back. I read some interviews, and they kept talking about different guys, one of them being Muddy Waters." DeVeaux then did his research: "I bought this big old blues compilation. It was maybe nine or twelve CDs. It was a lot of music. I narrowed it down to one or two of the CDs that I really liked. It was more the Mississippi stuff like Muddy and John Lee Hooker and Son House. Once I heard Muddy Waters, things kind of fell in place for me. "
The versatile singer and his band, the Blue Beat Review, recently completed two new albums, one of original songs, the other of classic R&B covers. Both are slated for October release. Last year, the Porto Franco label released Meklit & Quinn, an album of his duets with San Francisco-based jazz vocalist Meklit Hadero. It's made up mostly of radically rearranged renditions of rock songs by the likes of Arcade Fire, MGMT, Patti Smith, and Talking Heads, as well as a version of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her" and a gorgeously harmonized a cappella reading of Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me." Celebrating Charles with Smith, Siebert, and their band promises to be a rewarding new step along DeVeaux's challenging, always unpredictable, journey into musical Americana.