'I remember as a child going to the state fairgrounds in Raleigh on the Fourth of July," said "American Idol" pop star Clay Aiken. It was a family event for the Charlotte native, "and we'd drive down to see the fireworks. One year I actually sang with the official choir for that event."

But there also were times when the Aiken family would celebrate Independence Day by staying home to watch "A Capitol Fourth," PBS's long-running broadcast of America's birthday party on the Mall.

"I always remember it as being America's most official celebration, so classy and so prestigious," Aiken said. "So it's really kinda cool to be able to be a part of that, to get to sing at the Capitol."

Aiken's rendering of "The Star-Spangled Banner" will kick off this year's "A Capitol Fourth," airing live on Sunday from 8 to 9:30 p.m. on PBS from the West Lawn of the Capitol. Hosted for the seventh time in the past eight years by actor Barry Bostwick, the concert will feature performances by Aiken, married Nashville stars Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and Robin Gibb in a tribute to the Bee Gees and the disco era.

Erich Kunzel, America's premier pops conductor, will lead the National Symphony Orchestra in a salute to the movies.

As always, the concert will conclude with Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" -- with cannons firing from the Reflecting Pool -- and a medley of John Philip Sousa marches sparking the huge fireworks display from the Washington Monument grounds.

This year, however, Sousa's music also will be heard at the start of the concert program as part of a 150th birthday salute to the famed Washington-born composer and conductor whose "Stars and Stripes Forever" has become synonymous with Independence Day.

"If 'The Blue Danube' is the waltz of waltzes, then 'Stars and Stripes Forever' is the march of marches," Kunzel said. "And just like Johann Strauss is the Waltz King, unquestionably Sousa is the March King. He just had that form down pat."

The program includes some of Sousa's most famous marches, including "Semper Fidelis," the official anthem of the U.S. Marine Corps, and "The Washington Post March."

H Ray Charles Tribute

While "A Capitol Fourth" has offered centennial celebrations of such major American composers as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, this year it will pay tribute to a legendary performer, Ray Charles. Charles, who died on June 10, performed as part of the millennium "Capitol Fourth," including "America

the Beautiful," perhaps the nation's unofficial national anthem through Charles's transformative reading.

Kunzel first worked with Charles while conducting a pops concert in Cincinnati 25 years ago, and they became close friends over the course of many more concert encounters.

"Talk about America! Ray was America! He just felt it so much," said Kunzel.

Executive producer Jerry Colbert said, "We have this fabulous footage of Ray doing 'America the Beautiful' [in 2000]. The fireworks came on at the perfect time, and up on the big screen Ray is playing his piano and the fireworks are totally surrounding him."

The tribute will include gospel star Yolanda Adams performing the Charles classic, "Georgia on My Mind."

There will not be a tribute to president Ronald Reagan, Colbert said, explaining that "because we're at the nation's capital, we have always kept it non-political, with no congressmen or presidents participating in the program. It's a fun, celebratory holiday."

Aiken, whose spirited competition with "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard was watched weekly by as many as 30 million people, said he didn't realize he'd be performing in front of a live audience that could number 500,000 people. (Not to mention the millions of viewers who usually tune in to watch PBS's highest-rated entertainment program.)

"I've had some pretty big audiences -- 15,000 in auditoriums, 60,000 in stadiums -- but that's a pretty big number, with an extra zero there! I didn't know there were that many people. I'm going to have to call and cancel now!"

Quickly, Aiken added, "Kidding! It's exciting. I've said that everything I do seems to get bigger and better, and every opportunity I have had in the past year has topped the previous one. Singing live in front of 500,000 people, singing on the Capitol steps, singing with a full orchestra -- those are three things I've never done before. I'm looking forward to it!"

Host Barry Bostwick, who will appear this fall in a four-episode arc of "Law & Order: SVU," conceded that "doing a live 90-minute show in front of so many people, the stress level is pretty high. So you focus on the job at hand, which was parallel, I guess, to our Founding Fathers, who focused on the job at hand. . . . Of course, if they failed, it was death at the end of a rope. I would just die on stage."

Bostwick's first encounter with "A Capitol Fourth" came in 1983, when he was in Alexandria filming the acclaimed CBS mini-series "George Washington."

"We had an off day and I came to the concert with Patty Duke and we laid a blanket down and watched it. Being a witness to a huge event like that gave me such a rush of patriotism and pride that it carried through the whole 'George Washington' experience," Bostwick said. "It was inspirational, something I couldn't even articulate beyond pride in your country and the people who created this freedom that we are able to bask in."

Bostwick's stage, screen, and television work includes drama, romance, the classics and comedy. He earned his first Tony nomination originating the role of Danny Zuko in the 1972 Broadway production of "Grease," and became a cult idol for his portrayal of quintessential young middle-American Brad Majors in the 1975 film version of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Most recently, Bostwick spent six years as New York Mayor Randal Winston on ABC's "Spin City."

According to Colbert, "Barry is a later-day George M. Cohen. He's so ebullient, and he's so much fun out there."

Bostwick, who recalls tears and goose bumps the first time he was on stage for the fireworks finale, has made "A Capitol Fourth" something of a family affair.

"I've got a 9-year-old [Brian] and a 7-year-old [Chelsea], and in the last six years I've tried to get one of them on stage at the end of the show, sometimes during the show," he said. "So I have this incredible record of my children growing up in front of the Capitol and singing 'God Bless America' and waving flags."

H Musical Inspiration

Patriotic music and the rockets red glare of fireworks have been a part of Independence Day celebrations since the first organized celebration took place in Philadelphia July 4, 1777.

In 1926, the U.S. Navy Band provided the first nighttime musical performance at the Sylvan Theater as an accompaniment to the fireworks, but the "1812 Overture" that kicks off tonight's finale wasn't a part of it. Not only is that work a fairly recent addition to the canon of American patriotic music, it was written by a Russian. Tchaikovsky composed it to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Russia's victory over Napoleon in 1812.

The work's energy and bombast had made it a perennial crowd-pleaser, which is why Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fielder turned to it in 1974, looking for a way to combat dwindling audiences at the Boston Pops' Fourth of July concerts on the Charles River, a tradition dating back to 1929.

The crowd responded enthusiastically, and a year later, the Boston Pops added booming cannons, ringing church bells, patriotic sing-alongs and a fireworks finale. Just in time for the Bicentennial, the extras-laden version of the "1812 Overture" became part of countless Independence Day celebrations. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed the enhanced piece in 1981 and is one of the few orchestras to use real cannons, firing blanks, of course.

Sousa's music has long been a part of Fourth of July celebrations and a key to "Capitol Fourth" finales since the concerts were first broadcast in 1981. But to mark the 150th anniversary of Sousa's birth at 636 G St. SE -- less than a mile from the Capitol -- his music will bookend this year's show. According to Bostwick, "It's going to be big, as John Philip Sousa must have been. Certainly his music was."

Sadly, details of Sousa's life and achievement are far less likely to be known to most Americans than Clay Aiken's triumphs.

In 1880, at age 25, Sousa was chosen to become director of the Marine Band, remaining there until 1892 when he left to set up his own band under his own name. Sousa described himself as "a salesman of Americanism" and in the quarter century before decent recordings, radio or sound films, he was America's greatest musical star.

"The Washington Post March" may have been Sousa's biggest "hit." In 1889, then-publisher Frank Hatton requested musical accompaniment by the Marine Band at an awards dinner for winners of a public-schools essay contest sponsored by the paper, commissioning a work from Sousa. Coincidentally, it became identified with a dance craze called the two-step, and became a huge international hit, so much so that in some European countries all two-steps were simply referred to as "Washington Posts."

According to Kunzel, Sousa also was America's first "pops" conductor, with both the Marine Band and Sousa's Band. "He did all the popular music of the day, and he was showman," Kunzel explained.

In fact, Sousa packaged classical standards and orchestral treatments of popular fare, a format still observed in the pops concerts of American symphony orchestras. And that, Kunzel said, plays well into the notion of musical diversity that "A Capitol Fourth" embodies.

"When it comes to musical styles, ever since post-Civil War, this country has become the leader in pop fashion, whether it was ragtime, jazz, Broadway, swing, rock and roll, rap," Kunzel said. "Everything comes from the United States essentially; others adapt it but all the idioms of popular music are American. So when you do an American birthday concert, you obviously try to please as many tastes as possible. We try to mix it up as much as we can, and rightly that's what we should do."

'A Capitol Fourth'

Tonight's concert, airing from 8 to 9:30 p.m. on PBS from the West Lawn of the Capitol, also can be heard live over National Public Radio and is broadcast to U.S. military personnel in more than 135 countries by the American Forces Radio and Television Network.