Interview | Karl Denson Talks Ray Charles Tribute

Written By: Ryan Dembinsky

As the fall music season kicks into full gear and talks of musical costumes proliferate, one tour to keep an eye on is Karl Denson and Zach Deputy collaborating on their Ray Charles Boogaloo Dance Party shows. These energetic tributes find Karl Denson and the Tiny Universe Horns serving as the backing band while Zach Deputy tackles vocal duties on a complete national tour of Ray Charles’ music.

[Photo by Jamie Piazza]

No stranger to dance party tribute shows, Karl Denson and Tiny Universe have performed a number of memorable runs in recent years as both the Beastie Boys and the Stones, but this is the first full length tour. The additional shows should allow the group to gel and evolve with the music while on the road making this the most exploratory and energetic iteration yet.

By the looks of his big bushy beard, you might not think Zach Deputy could do a mean Ray Charles but he really nails the vocals while the horns inject the high octane soul. The Ray Charles Boogaloo Dance Party tour is underway now and continues to span a host of West Coast and Southern dates with a highlight stop at the Fillmore in Denver for Halloween.

JAMBASE: Given the current Ray Charles tour, I thought it might be interesting to talk about where you got started with Ray Charles, what his music meant to you and how the idea ultimately came about?

KD: He was always one of my favorite voices. It was really Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. So that - combined with the fact that I never knew that Zach Deputy was such a great Ray Charles mimic until I saw him in San Diego one time and he was up at a show doing some Ray Charles - really led to the idea. We had been hanging out for years before that night, so I said, “Hey, I didn’t know you could do that.” It was between loving Ray Charles and discovering that Zach Deputy was a huge Ray Charles fan that really made me come up with the idea.

JAMBASE: I know you road tested this at Jazzfest, but I was curious how you handle the instrumentation? Do you have a keyboard or piano player there? I’m guessing it’s not really centered on the piano as much as Ray Charles would have been in terms of arrangements? Does Zach play any guitar or do any of his looping?

KD: Our approach is always really to just play the music and see how we fit into it. The only thing I’ve actually added for this run is I’m bringing a baritone sax player out to beef up the horns. Zach is actually not playing anything when he does the Ray Charles thing. He’s just singing like Ray Charles.

Zach does play some guitar with us as part of the Tiny Universe, which is really fun because he’s a really strong guitar player and you don’t get to see him play with a band very often, so that’s another little special treat.

JAMBASE: Could you talk about how you guys prepare for something like this tour? I’m sure there are a fair amount of moving parts and presumably, as with most things, probably less rehearsal time than you might like. Do you get much time to practice?

KD: Basically, we know what songs we have to learn going into it, so we do as much as we can at home. We've already done this kind of thing a couple of times, so we know where we’re at when we get together, and then we’ll do a big rehearsal the night before the first show.

From then on, we start just rolling with it. The beauty of this one is we have twenty or so shows to do, so we’ll have more days to rehearse as it moves along. There will be shows and then days in between and more shows, so this one will actually be pretty easy compared to some of the other stuff we did where it was fewer shows.

JAMBASE: Yeah it’s exciting how big this became. You guys really blew it out into a full tour and the reception has been great.

KD:Yeah, absolutely. That is a really cool part. When I did the Sticky Fingers thing, even though we had Anders [Osborne], we only planned a handful of shows. Then, when we did the Beastie Boys, MCA died right after we did our first couple of shows, which kind of put a damper on it so we didn’t get to do too many of those. This one is more for the fun of it. Plus, Zach and I have been talking about doing it for a while. It’s going to be really fun doing more than a handful of shows.

JAMBASE: Do you have any sense of what the demographic is going to be like? I’m curious to see if it’s still mostly the jamband and jazz fans or if reaches into some older Ray Charles fans as well?

KD:You know, there might be some variety. We’re just going to try to have fun playing music for whoever it is. We know it’ll be our fans, so if some others pop in that would be awesome [laughs].

JAMBASE: In terms of Ray’s music, he’s known for having a few different periods in his development from being a big person in the emergence of soul music, but also with country music and blues music, so I wondered if you had any certain styles that you are most drawn to or maybe certain songs you love?

KD:Not really to be honest. I really like all of his stuff. What we are focusing on is the more dance stuff. We really like doing the early boogaloo Ray Charles. It’s more fun to party to, but I love all of it.

His version of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" from Oklahoma is probably my favorite song of his ever. His version of Johnny Cash’s "Ring Of Fire," which we are going to do, is insane. I’ve always loved Ray Charles. His voice really always did it for me.

JAMBASE: I know you have a new album coming out. I’ve seen in the past where you’ve said it can be tough with so many working musicians to get things completed, but this one seems like it should be really special. What are you excited about on this one?

KD:Yeah man, we got this record done and I’m really excited because we got a new drummer and we feel like musically, we’ve kind of stepped into another thing. We’re writing a lot and gearing up to make another record right away. It’s going to be fun. The record is coming out great. We got Nicki Bluhm to do a duet with me on a track, which is going to be really cool. I don’t think it will be as cumbersome making records from here on out, so we’re excited.

JAMBASE: Everyone always asks about your fitness regime, in terms of how you get those guns. What’s your secret to staying healthy?

KD: [laughs] I’ve been doing Tai Chi for probably thirty years now. That’s just how I keep my batteries charged. It’s an important part of what I do in terms of being able to travel and play and do what I do without breaking down, you know?

JAMBASE: Last one, how did you land the role as part of the unforgettable Sexual Chocolate in Coming To America?

KD:I was in a band back then and the drummer actually got a gig on the Paramount lot as John Landis’s gopher [laughs]. John found out that he had a band and there was a need for a band in the movie, so we got written in to the script. It’s been pretty awesome to have that on my resume.

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