[5 May 2009]
The term genius has been used so often that it doesn’t seem to pack the same amount of attention that it once did. But when it comes to a few music legends, the phrase seems to be the only word to describe them. Even if Father Time slows them down, as was the case with this musician I had the good fortune to see less than a year before he was gone.
In 1959, Ray Charles released The Genius of Ray Charles, still considered one of his finest albums. Now, 50 years, hundreds of accolades, awards, hits, and a motion picture later, Ray Charles is again putting out a new album, albeit a compilation. And the genius that was back in 1959 seems to resonate just as much now.
Part of Charles’s appeal was the fact that when asked what kind of music Charles made, critics couldn’t simply toss out one genre or niche that thousands of cookie-cutting artists fall into so easily. Country? Yes. Blues? Definitely. Rock? Yes. Gospel? That too. Soul? Without question. Just listening to the opening track off this 21-track collection, “Hit the Road Jack”, symbolizes how versatile Charles was. Part jazz, part swing, and completely solid, the tune shines despite being all of 119 seconds.
From there, one of the signature intros to any song in popular music kicks things into another dimension. “What I’d Say (Part 1)”, which legend says came about simply because the musician needed 12 minutes to fill in a concert, is another swinging, brassy, groovy nugget that leaves the listener wanting those nine more minutes. The same can be said for the country-leaning and oft-covered “Busted”, which struts along with some “woes is me” moxie and verve.
Perhaps some of the numbers here are a tad more palatable than others, with “I Can’t Stop Loving You” having that large, lush, and orchestral hue to it that seems to dampen Charles’s delivery. This format is enriched and honed somewhat on “Take These Chains from My Heart”, which comes off as more subtle and less overt. Thankfully, it’s one of the few aberrations here, as Charles ups the ante with the rapid-fire, soulful, and stellar “Sticks and Stones” and the downbeat, dour, and quasi-depressing “Drown in My Own Tears”, finding him in one of his many musical elements.
And like most legends, it’s somewhat difficult to pare the crème de la crème onto one disc, but the compilers here have done a very great job of doing just that. For every “Unchain My Heart” or “Georgia on My Mind” (the official state song) you leave on repeat on your iPod, there are three or four less popular nuggets which are worth seeking out. Yet they were thankfully not prepared to leave “I Got a Woman” off the track list—the number that Kanye sampled to great success with “Gold Digger”, which still doesn’t compare to the original.
The second half of the album contains more pleasers, with “Let’s Go Get Stoned” sounding like a throwaway number, but showcasing just how much soul and chops Charles brought to each song, not jacking himself up into some Joplin-like wail, but giving enough to make it his own.
As the homestretch begins, Charles offers up some soulful yet slightly sappy “Crying Time” that isn’t the highlight here, but still delivers the goods. Yet perhaps what epitomizes Charles is how solid and memorable the slow, drawn out “A Fool for You” becomes—a bit of blues, a lot of soul, and that distinct American voice. And what better way to end the showcase of that voice than with “America the Beautiful”? Truly, this is an excellent compilation of the many facets of Charles’s genius.