Genius! The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection

  Ray Charles
  Genius! The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection

  4.5 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Genius is a designation that shouldn't be thrown around lightly. The Beatles? No doubt. The Rolling Stones? Debatable. Johnny Rotten and Elvis Costello would like you to think they're geniuses, but the fact that they keep talking about themselves in that vein casts serious doubt. The word has cropped up when talking about Traffic, The Moody Blues, Tony Joe White, Gordon Lightfoot and The Band. (I know because I've used it to describe their music!)

There's another legendary artist - Ray Charles - who was so respected by his peers that one of his albums was actually titled, "The Genius of..." The late Brother Ray didn't write many songs, in fact his best known material was hand picked, but he was a masterful singer in the same manner that Eric Clapton is considered a god on guitar or Steve Winwood is referred to as the King of the Keyboards.

The 21-cut remastered "Ultimate" CD is the most comprehensive collection of Charles' music ever assembled. The overall sound is thinner (many previous compilations were very bass heavy), but it's cleaner. The nuances in Ray's voice come across better than before whether he's being suggestive, soulful or sorrowful. The back up singers, particularly the full court choral caucuses in "Georgia on My Mind" and "You Don't Love Me" are more distinctive and less mushy than in the past.

What may surprise listeners is the plethora of country songs. One of Ray's biggest albums was 1962's "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." There aren't many black artists who've successfully mixed together such extreme genres as country, blues and R & B. One guy who comes to mind is Hootie (whose wimpy bombast I hate anyway). Charlie Pride leans way south of country, and Muddy, B.B. and Taj Mahal stirred their blues with soul. Ray was versatile, so much so that he could take patriotic pap like "America the Beautiful" and make anarchists stand up and salute; so making country sound good was as easy for him as sucking the meat out of a crawdad.

The Stuff of Genius...

"Hit the Road Jack" is one Ray's penultimate and most beloved romps. Written by ill-fated blues singer Percy Mayfield, the two-minute stomper hit #1 in 1961 and earned Ray a Grammy for Best R&B recording. The Route 66 horn section wastes no time in amping up a free wheeling beat, as Charles' back up singers, The Raelettes, particularly sassy soloist Margie Hendricks, forcefully suggest that Ray take a one way hike. The call and response between Ray and the girls is a heavyweight bout, with the Raelettes landing low blows and Ray screaming in rebuttal like a cat caught in a fan belt.
I'm not a big fan of "What'd I Say (Pt.1)," but there's no denying it captures Ray's raw, sensual power. Conceived live in concert, it shows off Ray's talents on roiling piano. A minor complaint - Part two of the song, which features the Raelettes answering every one of Ray's suggestive hoots and moans, is missing.

The horn section blasts a bedraggled beat in "Busted," with Ray's bemoaning vocal capturing the narrator's cashed out state of mind. I've got the flat busted blues baby, but it sure sounds good.

"I Can't Stop Loving You" is another one of Ray's signature tunes. The irony is he's backed by one of the most vanilla (maybe "square" is a better term) choral groups you'll ever hear. (Time out for Trivia: Despite popular belief, the choral group backing up Ray was not called "The Ray Charles Singers." They were assembled by another Ray Charles,(who was not necessarily a genius). The other Ray was  a conductor whose aggregation of studio singers  backed up the likes of Perry Como and had a hit of their own with "Love Me With All Your Heart" in 1964.)

I've never figured out how a singer so immersed in soul and R & B could so seamlessly meld his style with country music, but Ray did. "I Can't Stop Loving You" was another #1 and a Grammy winner. The butterfly-wing strings in the background are as inviting as a warm summer wind, and there's a new twist to the call and response routine when the chorus takes the lead, easing into the lyrics, with Ray responding to them ("Sing the song, children").

"Sticks and Stones" may be more familiar to listeners through Joe Cocker, who recorded a version for his "Mad Dogs and Englishman" album. No surprise - Joe was a huge fan of Ray's, and both he and Spooky Tooth's belter Mike Harrison can seemingly channel Ray's spirit at will. "Sticks and Stones" tells the story of a man who's been battered and abused, and Ray's punchy tone tells the listener he's ready to fight back. You may break a leg trying to dance to the bustling beat, but Ray's performance is rock solid.

Ray does some blues wailing in the gospel influenced "Drown In My Own Tears."  It's not a well known song in his catalogue, but it should be. The horns punctuate every downbeat and Ray rips his throat to pieces during the verses. He's not just drowning in his tears, he's completely engulfed in his sorrow. Feigning singers like Chris Cornell and Scott Weiland should be force fed "Drown In My Own Tears" before being allowed to step in front of a mike again.

Ray does Ricky Ricardo in "Unchain My Heart," which mixes samba with soul. And guess who does a version that more than holds its own to Ray's? No, not John Belushi. Joe Cocker. David "Fathead" Newman does a credible restrained sax solo and the Raelettes are on board to put plenty of tease in the background. "Fathead," who got his nickname from his high school music teacher because he couldn't read music, died this past January. He was an original member of Ray's band and played with him for a dozen years, rising to the position of star tenor sax soloist.

If there's one song that's identified with Ray Charles, it's "Georgia On My Mind."
"Georgia" was co-written by Indiana native Hoagy Carmichael (who also composed "Stardust" and "Up A Lazy River").  Even if you've never been south of Jersey City, the way the strings gently sweep in will capture your heart, as will Ray's vocal, which builds to a yearning wail. There have been dozens of credible follow ups, including a moving version by Steve Winwood when he was all of 15 and a member of the Spencer Davis Group, and a version cut by The Band with Richard Manuel on vocals that's heartbreaking for all the wrong reasons. (Manuel's voice had been ruined by alcohol by the time The Band cut the song in 1976. Manuel admitted he over sang it, and said he would've done the song justice if they'd recorded it earlier in the group's career.)  I have to admit a personal attachment to "Georgia" because it was one of my father's favorites and it reminds me of him: "Other arms reach out to me, other eyes smile tenderly. Still in peaceful dreams I see, the road leads back to you. Georgia, Georgia, no peace I find. Just and old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind." How good is "Georgia On My Mind?" It's Georgia's state song (even though lyricist Stuart Gorell was writing about Hoagy Carmichael's sister). Sit back and immerse yourself in "Georgia's" melancholy cocoon.

Ray copped a writing credit for "I've Got A Woman," a jump beat mumbler which he co-wrote with trumper player Renald Richard. It opens with a preacher's call by Ray before launching into a jazz propelled middle section.  

The country cud classic "You Are My Sunshine" gets one of the more startling makeovers. Instead of a sappy, homespun version the likes of which might be found at the Ohio State Fair, Ray saturates this version was hard-hitting soul, letting one of the Raelettes belt out the second verse, and her heart contribution is hotter than July.

Castinets, war-drum tom-tom work and an easy going vocal separates "Hide Nor Hair" from "Unchain My Heart" but just barely. The pace is a bit slower, but there's no mistaking the two tunes are very similar in structure. Hank Crawford bursts out of the boiling brass background with a solo on alto sax, and the lyrics are more biting and cynical than Ray's typical fare.

One of the first hits for Ashford and Simpson was Ray's version of "Let's Go Get Stoned." The irony here is that Charles recorded the song after conquering his heroin addiction. (Okay, back then getting stoned meant getting drunk, but we're still promoting a form of self abuse here.) By the way, Ray's singing diciple from Sheffield England, (yeah Joe Cocker) does a sloppy good version of this one too on "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." "Ain't no harm to have a little taste, but don't lose your cool and start messing up the man's place. Ain't no harm to take a little nip, but don't you fall down and bust your lip."

"You Don't Know Me" was a haunting ballad penned and originally sung by Eddy Arnold, the clean cut country crooner who passed away last year. Ray's version once again demonstrates his natural talent for blending his emotional style with elements of easy listening and country. Atmospheric credit must be given to the swaying strings and the Not-That-Ray-Charles Singers, whose willowy background vocals produce a heavenly spectrum of sound.

An unexpected gift on "Genius" is a live recording of "Hallelujah I Just Love Her So." A reworked gospel hymn, the live version features a jazzy solo by Don Wilkerson. The rest of the horn section is bit more "Tonight Show" slick than gritty, but every note crackles with electricity. The studio version is better, but there's a loose limbed love in Ray's delivery and he sings with jovial ease. A gruff, game version was recorded live by...Joe Cocker? No, Humble Pie, for their breakthrough album "Live At the Fillmore." Their version featured bassist Greg Ridley taking the lead vocal instead of broken-glass-in-the-throat vocalist Steve Marriott. (Ridley was formerly the bassist for Spooky Tooth and played with Mike Harrison, who as I said, idolized Ray Charles. See how this all fits together?)   

You can fit all the country artists I like on the prong of a pitchfork. One of the hayseeds to sneak through would be Buck Owens, well, at least the half dozen songs I've heard him do. If you're familiar with Buck's dejected version of "Crying Time," then Ray's take on it will depress the hell out of you too. Don't know who the singer is doubling up with Ray on the lead, but she knows how to cry the country blues. "Here We Go Again" similarly mixes gospel with country. Raelette Alex Brown backs Ray on the vocal as a throaty Hammond organ sweeps across the speakers, mixing with Ray's dancing piano fills.

The only instrumental on the CD is the succulent "One Mint Julep." Ray leans into the organ, and the horns, charted by Quincy Jones, are as aggressive as the blasts of brass in "Peter Gun" or the horn charts of a  baudy James Bond sound track. You can hear bits of Jimmy Smith and a hint of where Booker T. may have developed his style of playing in Ray's lighthearted solo.

Hit the Road Jack...Even Geniuses Make Mistakes

If an artist sticks around long enough, they go through a fallow period when they can't write, or success and excess makes them think everything they record is sacred. By the time Ray recorded "America the Beautiful" in 1972, his hit making days were well behind him, but he'd attained his legendary status through his live performances. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, but I've always felt Ray's version of "America the Beautiful" was excessive and was praised just because it was Ray doing it. Guess I'm one of those folks who believes rockers and R & B singers should shy away from anything concerning the stars and stripes. Leave that stuff to John Wayne and The Boston Pops. I remember being impressed with Joe Feliciano's Latinoized version of "The Star Spangled Banner," not because it was particularly good, but because he had the stones to do it live on TV and it spoke to the young people in a nation then galvanized by the Vietnam War. When Rosanne Barr did her crotch-grabbing, salvia spurting version, even the anarchist in me was not amused. Ray's version leans more toward Jose's direction. It's designed to inspire appreciation and pride, rather than jingoism and world dominance. There's no doubt Ray's vocal is filled with passion, I just think there's just a bit too much show biz glitz in it.

When one genius takes on two, the results are seldom in the individual's favor. The theory applies to Ray's version of "Yesterday," credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Ray taps into his strengths -- his immaculate sense of cadence, as well as his soulful delivery. Unfortunately, his pounding, forceful version cleaves the memory of Paul McCartney's teary-eyed string-laden original so cleanly away that all the sentiment is lost. Ray's tries too hard and sounds more like a Borscht Belt comedian doing an imitation of him than the real thing. Ray's version of Eleanor Rigby? Now that's interesting, but I've never heard a wholly bad version of the song. Rare Earth, The Ides of March and Aretha Franklin have all spun credible and incredible renditions of their own. But when it comes to "Yesterday," you can't top The Beatles, so don't try so hard. I believe in yesterday, Ray, and I think you should have left it alone.

"Take These Chains From My Heart" is a minor league "I Can't Stop Loving You." It doesn't work because Ray is pushing the format; he sounds like a soul singer imitating a country singer instead of a performer trying to carve his own niche. The soul/country mix is a bit wrong too, it's 75% country, 25% soul rather than an even split. It's not unlistenable, but not too good either, weighed down by yee haw mush.

So hit the road, Jack and go find a copy of the Ray Charles Ultimate Collection.One spin and you'll say Hallejuah I just love it so.



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