Take 6 leads all-star tribute to Ray Charles at Jazz Aspen June Experience | AspenTimes.com

Take 6 leads all-star tribute to Ray Charles at Jazz Aspen June Experience

Take 6 began as just another of the countless college a capella groups in America. But over the past three decades, the group — formed at Alabama's Oakwood College in 1980 — has redefined vocal music. Take 6 has played the White House and on "Saturday Night Live," won 10 Grammy Awards and performed alongside legends such as Ray Charles.

Take 6 will lead an all-star tribute to Charles on Saturday, June 30, at the Benedict Music Tent, in a special co-presentation of the Aspen Music Festival and the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience. The late legend himself played the June festival back in 1996, in a high point of the festival's early years.

Take 6 will be joined on stage by Nnenna Freelon, the six-time Grammy-nominated vocalist who toured with Charles, along with singers Clint Holmes and Kirk Whalum.

Claude McKnight started Take 6 as a quartet while he was a freshman at Oakwood. Like a typical collegiate glee club, its membership changed with each fall semester until a six-man setup took shape that was clearly something special. They drove the 120 miles to Nashville for a music industry showcase after graduation.

"We literally got our record deal the next day," McKnight told The Aspen Times during one of the group's frequent swings through Aspen. "There was no planning, no idea of what we would do next. Suddenly we were in the music business, and we were making records literally 20 days after getting that deal signed."

What's happened since is music history. Their eponymous debut, released in 1988, was a breakout hit.

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"It took on a life of its own when some of the legends and luminaries in the business who enjoy what we do went and told everybody else," McKnight said.

The big Ray Charles tribute continue a long-standing relationship with Jazz Aspen Snowmass for Take 6, going back to the organization's second annual June Festival in 1993. Jazz Aspen founder Jim Horowitz recalled that concert as one of the more stressful in his 25 years. As sound-check time arrived at the Benedict Music Tent, Horowitz said, he got hold of the volunteer who had picked up Take 6 from the airport.

"I said, 'They got here, are they at the tent?' He said, 'Well, no. They had a different plan,'" Horowitz recalled.

The sextet had headed to Aspen Mountain from the airport and gone paragliding. After jumping off the mountaintop, they rolled into the tent in time for their headlining set.

"To this day, I cannot believe the cojones of these guys," Horowitz said.

Take 6's interpretations of pop standards and their original gospel compositions have helped make this group of six friends the music world's quintessential vocal group.

"We've always been an inspirational group, and primarily a gospel group," McKnight said. "So we try to lift people up and give them another way with some hope and some love."

The complex, beguiling six-part harmonies in their songs are a musical feat, honed over decades of practice.

"We start with the song; what is the song telling you the arrangement needs to be?" McKnight said.

Though a capella groups remain a relatively small niche in the music industry, the form has enjoyed periodic spikes in popularity over the course of Take 6's reign. New groups like Straight No Chaser and Naturally 7 have gained popularity, and the phenomenon of "Glee" brought a capella into the 21st century pop mainstream.

"Now we're the old guys in the business," McKnight said with a laugh. "But we feel like we haven't scratched the surface of what our creativity is. … What allows you to have a really long career is to write great songs that speak to what's really going on in people's lives. That's the goal."

atravers@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO …

What: Georgia on My Mind: A Tribute to Ray Charles

Where: Jazz Aspen June Experience, Benedict Music Tent

When: Saturday, June 30, 8:30 p.m.

How much: $60-$375

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com; jazzaspensnowmass.org