Among the slew of bedroom Beyoncés and preteen chirrupers that grind through the X-Factor/Idol/Voice talent-quest mill it is nice to see the occasional hardworking muso get up. It is also nice when success in these nationally broadcast spectacles pushes the career of said hardworking muso into a better place.

Sure, there is always the danger of being seen as ‘selling out’ (whatever that can still possibly mean today) or losing one’s hard-won street fan base, but it is a danger the artist’s popularity should over come. I was happy to see Wes Carr get up on Idol in 2008, and I was even happier to see Darren Percival take out runner up on this year’s The Voice.


Percival has been a well respected and admired performer on the scene – always a knockout as the looping Mr Percival – for years. The story goes he had 18 dollars in the bank when he received the call-up from The Voice – now he tours nationally. And long may he run.

His recent release, A Tribute To Ray Charles – apart from being a great listen – is a smart move. In one fell swoop, the choice of recreating, beautifully, fifteen tracks made famous by Brother Ray will simultaneously satisfy his new fans (his Voice persona was soul man supreme), not alienate his existing fans (anything to do with Ray Charles will be eternally cool) and move him into the next phase of his journey (tuxedo’d no-sweat big stage performer).

Another smart thing about this choice is that it doesn’t take much for Percival to slip into Ray Charles’ musical skin. Neither man has a conventionally smooth voice, yet both exude a larger than life joyousness in delivery which can generate an excitement that whips the audience (and their bands) along – witness Percival’s take on Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Believe (When I Fall In Love)’ on the Voice finale, a brave choice of song which he turns into a vehicle for some gospel-sized intensity.

Of course, gospel-sized intensity was always Ray Charles’ forte. After all, the man invented Soul music by secularising (and sexualising) the frenzied church music of the American South. He didn’t have to do too much to it either – the call-and-response, high stepping rhythms, melismatic vocal swoops and fevered abandon were already there.

Despite going for a broader appeal, on A Tribute To Ray Charles Darren Percival keeps the wildness and ecstatic edge of the Charles’ originals intact. The band behind him bristles with Australia’s finest – James Morrison, Hamish Stuart, Matt Keegan, go-to-guitar-guy Rex Goh among them – who sound as if they are having as much fun as Mr Percival on the stompers such as ‘I Got A Woman’ or ‘What’d I Say’. But they can equally sound like they are weeping into their beers on the country-Soul gems ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’.

Charles always had great fun (not only with the music but also often too with the sexual politics of the time) with his female backing vocalists, The Raelettes. Vocalists Prinnie Stephens and Mahalia Barnes step up and spar with Percival, most excitingly on ‘Hit The Road, Jack’, recreating Charles’ 1961 sass session with Margie Hendricks.

All the hits are here. By the end of the fifteen tracks on A Tribute To Ray Charles the listener has been hipped, flipped, seduced and hallelujahed into a sweet submission. I would perhaps have liked to see a little more play with the arrangements and delivery, but I am sure the decision to not veer too far from the Charles’ originals is all part of the plan.

I sincerely hope the plan comes together perfectly for Darren Percival. He – like all hardworking musos – deserves it.

Published November 2012 on


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