Singer and keyboard player Ellis Hall came to Kleinhans Music Hall Saturday to give what had been billed as a tribute to Ray Charles. But really, that didn’t begin to describe it.
Hall worked for Ray Charles late in the master’s life, and he did some songs that evoked his legacy – such as “Georgia On My Mind”; “What’d I Say?” and “Hit the Road, Jack.”
Even better, though, he was himself.
Blind since birth, a reality that he joked about freely, Hall slipped from time to time into Stevie Wonder mode, which was fine with the good-sized crowd. Cushioned by the strings of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Matthew Kraemer, he did pop numbers like “Ma Cherie Amour” and “How Sweet It Is.” He moved easily from one instrument to another. Before him were arrayed a Steinway grand, an electronic keyboard and a Hammond B3. He played all of them – and a guitar, too, with flair and skill.
He also dished out generous helpings of humor. Every bit a showman, the jovial Hall wasn’t happy unless he had us all laughing. That could be considered part of a tribute to Ray Charles, that genuine, easy warmth. “Who would ever have thought we’d have funk and symphony mentioned in the same breath?” he rejoiced.
Hall was led on and off stage by a queenly woman in a purple gown. He kept his hand on his shoulder to follow her, and when she dropped him off by his keyboards, he theatrically kissed her hand. While he was singing, you could see the purple-clad woman by the side entrance to the hall, hanging out with the ushers, swaying, digging the music.
Three backup singers joined him stage left – good backup singers, with clear, pretty voices. He introduced one of them as his daughter. “It’s a family affair!” he sang.
And at the end of the night he announced that the lady in purple was his wife. It really was a family affair!
The night’s unpredictability was part of the fun. Funk and symphony did indeed join in the hilarious “Credit.” Hall had sung the lead in that song with Tower of Power. The song has great hook, “Go and get it ... with your good credit.” The backup singers wailed away and the trombones and the tuba took part. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” also gained from those instruments. Blame-filled lines like “Honey, honey, I know/That you’re letting me go” sounded darker and more accusing with the tuba honking along.
Two retro jukebox ballads that Hall laughingly described as “smooth jazz” made good use of the BPO. “You Don’t Know Me” was especially lovely, with curtains of strings. These were good arrangements – luckily for the audience, who did, after all, come to hear the orchestra. Hall added his own virtuosity. After starting out on the grand piano, he pretty much avoided that instrument the rest of the night, preferring the organ and electronic keyboard. But he was good at those. He was also surprisingly adept on the guitar.
Vocally, he did not hesitate to go over the top, an excellent thing in a soul singer. He would throw in falsetto in surprise places and soar to the heights when he felt like it. Throughout the evening – he did two sets, a complete night – Hall was in fine voice. Repeatedly, he gave credit to a thermos full of what he kept saying was “good hot Buffalo water.” We should all try drinking that.
As an encore he sang an emotional “America the Beautiful.”