Thursday, June 10, 2004
by Wayne Robins
As a way of paying my respects to Ray Charles, I thought I'd put online this review I wrote of Rhino Records' "Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection." At the time, I was the Blue Again/New Again (reissues) columnist for now-defunct Blues Access magazine. The Charles segment led the column in Blues Access No. 32, Winter 1998 issue.
The Beatles, Cole Porter, Harlan Howard, Buck Owens, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mercer, Paul Simon, the Brothers Johnson, Tony Joe White, Hoagy Carmichael, Percy Mayfield, Oscar Hammerstein, Stevie Wonder, Barry Manilow â?¦
Barry Manilow? Yes, Ray Charles even finds the blue hue in a Barry Manilow tune ("One of These Days") on Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino 72859), a five-CD box that for the first time brings the epic expanse and baroque variety of Charlesâ?? career to one sumptuous banquet table. There arenâ??t many artists who require thoughtful editing to fit their representative legacy onto five compact discs, but then again, there arenâ??t any like Ray Charles. Greatest of genre-busters, his resume in jazz-blues-R&B-soul-country-rock-gospel, in show tunes-pop-funk-soundtrack-patriotic tunes may be missing polka, bubblegum, klezmer and death metal, but thatâ??s about it.
Iâ??ve always believed that a solid selection from his defining Atlantic work in the 1950s â?? like 1991â??s three-CD set, The Birth of Soul (Atlantic 7-82310-2) â?? and a CD or two from his nearly as monumental output for ABC-Paramount in the 1960s (like His Greatest Hits, Volumes 1 and 2 (released 10 years ago by Dunhill Compact Classics, DZS036-37) was all the Charles you needed. But if Brother Ray is the leaky roof in your collection, then let this be your umbrella.
In the interest of representative completeness, compilation producers James Austin, David Ritz and Billy Vera were obliged to include a certain amount of swill here, especially from the 1980s. The lamest are the country duets on disc five with Willie Nelson, George Jones and Hank Williams Jr. As for "Shake a Tail Feather" by Ray and the Blues Brothers, I wouldnâ??t play it on a jukebox with your quarter.
But the first three tracks on disc one, recorded for the Down Beat and Swing Time labels 1949 through 1952, more than hint at the greatness that was to come. In fact, I prefer them to the versions of "A Song for You" and "Still Crazy After All These Years" that close the final disc, which sound like Ray Charles imitating Billy Joel imitating Ray Charles.
For whatever reason, the more than acceptable Joel-Charles duet "Baby Grand" does not appear here. Charles was a fully formed, multi-dimensional talent when he began recording for Atlantic in the 1950s. Despite making some of his most immortal tracks there, such as "A Fool for You," "Iâ??ve Got a Woman," "Drown in My Own Tears," "(Night Time) Is the Right Time" and "Hallelujah I Love Her So," itâ??s sobering to remember that none of these singles made the pop charts. The breakthrough hit for Ray on Atlantic was "Whatâ??d I Say (Pt. I and Pt. II)" in 1959, but it really wasnâ??t until the amply represented ABC-Paramount and Impulse recordings that Charles crossed over big time.
In the early â??60s, with pop in the hands of a lot of guys named Bobby (Rydell, Vee, Vinton), Rayâ??s records such as "Hit the Road Jack," and "Busted" kept rockâ??s blue flame alive. At the same time, Charles was raising the artistic standards for pop ballads with "Georgia on My Mind," while vastly expanding the appeal and boundaries of country music with deftly-orchestrated versions of songs by Don Gibson and Eddy Arnold, respectively, "I Canâ??t Stop Loving You" and "You Donâ??t Know Me."
I guess the word that keeps coming to my mind is "audacity," the daring that allowed Charles to mold the most unlikely material to his own style and vision: Check covers as diverse as the Beatlesâ?? "Eleanor Rigby"; Melanieâ??s "Look What They Done to My Song, Ma"; and "Till There Was You" (in a version recorded live in Japan in 1975 and never released in the U.S.). Even his unforgettably idiosyncratic "America the Beautiful" draws you in with its ironic bite. If in the last 20 years Charles has sometimes been as careless as he is daring, that is the risk one takes to remain an undeniable American original.
(c) Wayne Robins, 2004, all rights reserved. Queries welcome.