When Ray Charles passed away on June 10th, he left behind a legacy of classic songs that crossed genres and defied boundaries. From the fiery R&B of “Nighttime Is the Right Time” to the traditional “Georgia On Mind” to the jump blues of tracks like “Hit the Road Jack” and “What’d I Say?”, Charles was influenced by a wide-reaching array of music, and refused to limit his talent. Touching blues, country, gospel, R&B, country and jazz, Ray Charles was above all a master songwriter. Blessed with a remarkable ability to blend genres, he did so with a virtuoso touch that arguably ranks him among America’s greatest songwriters.
However, what made Ray Charles a legend was his ability to interpret songs. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is a shining example of Charles’ ability to make any song his own. His interpretations of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “You Don’t Know Me” are perhaps even better known than their originals, but above all Charles proved that he could crossover to white audiences, and do so without compromising his style. Most of all, Charles could plumb the depths of any song catalogue and still remain instantly recognizable. His weathered, sincere voice was distinct, and whether it was the hard blues of his early career or the crafted pop of his later output, Charles’ singing was always immediately familiar.
Little then did Charles know how perfectly Genius Loves Company would summarize his career. His final studio album—and first composed entirely of duets—still finds Charles continuing to challenge himself. Teaming with a variety of singers including Norah Jones, James Taylor, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King and Johnny Mathis, the songs covered include classics from the American songbook as well as favorites chosen by his collaborators. The results, if sometimes spotty, nonetheless find Charles in good form, with a voice as compelling as it has ever been.
Kicking off the disc, Charles revisits “Here We Go Again” from Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Keeping the gospel flavor of the original, Norah Jones nicely compliments Charles on this beautiful opening track. “Do I Cross Your Mind? ” a bluesy country tune, is fuelled by Bonnie Raitt’s shuffling blues guitar and perfectly worn voice. The marriage of Raitt and Charles’ voices is probably among the best duets on the album. “It Was a Very Good Year”—one of Frank Sinatra’s signature tunes—is nicely brought to life by producer John Burk, with the aged voice of Willie Nelson and a stirring string section. Without a doubt, much will be made of the final verse, made that much more poignant coming from Charles:
“But now the days grow short / I’m in the autumn of the year / And now I think of my life as a vintage wine / From fine old kegs / From the brim to the dregs / And it poured sweet and clear / It was a very good year.”
B.B. King lends his voice and guitar to a winning version of Lowell Fulson’s “Sinner’s Prayer” (which Charles had covered earlier in his career). Gladys Knight takes it up a notch with a stunning rendition of Stevie Wonder’s politically charged “Heaven Help Us All”, easily the best track on the album.
However, not all the duets work as well as these. Charles sounds simply out of place on the dry funk of James Taylor’s “Sweet Potato Pie”. Diana Krall can’t seem to find the right mood to fit Charles’ classic “You Don’t Know Me”, and the track sorely pales in comparison to the original. Overpowered by cheesy production—and Elton John’s bombastic voice—Charles simply can’t keep up on “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”.
Despite these missteps, Genius Loves Company showcases a man who continued to challenge the definition of just who Ray Charles was. Though his voice is clearly aged, and at times ragged, his passion and sincerity nonetheless shine through on each of these songs. Even late in his career, Charles continued to broaden his palette, looking to expand the scope of his music catalog. Genius Loves Company is a fitting final work by one of the original innovators of soul.