[11 November 2009]
In an age where musicians labor for weeks over a single phrase—eventually a tiny part of a multi-track recording—it’s astounding to consider that the original 12 tracks on this album were recorded in two long sessions over two days. And when the artist in question has to learn music and lyrics by memory, and collaborate for the first time with an in-house producer, it’s even more incredible that the results would be so sublime.
As a transitional record, The Genius Hits the Road built upon the success of the landmark album The Genius of Ray Charles (hence the modified title) and was a Top 10 hit, charting for 50 weeks. Having left Atlantic Records when offered a lucrative financial opportunity and creative freedom, Brother Ray immediately paid dividends at his new home, ABC/Dunhill.
Not only would his relationship with that in-house producer (Sid Feller) turn out to be the start of a longtime partnership, but one of the songs cut on the second day would blow Ray Charles’ career wide open. The inspiration for “Georgia on My Mind” was a girl, not the southern state, but thankfully the theme of songs about destinations was loosely enforced. Stuart Gorrell wrote the lyrics about Hoagy Carmichael’s sister, and Ray’s version of their collaborative effort proved to be an absolute monster hit. “Georgia” brought Ray Charles his first number one on the Pop charts, and it is still among the most revered pop songs of all time almost 50 years later. (Ironically, Georgia would officially adopt it as their official state song in 1979.)
Unlike some of his prior releases, where songs were grouped by the style of song and the musicians performing them, the sequencing jumps back and forth between emphatic big-band arrangements and personal, almost pensive views. The result forbids the listener from getting in a set mood, bouncing from the absolute joy communicated so clearly in “Alabamy Bound” to the serenity of “Moon Over Miami” and back again. Of course, it helps having a stalwart rhythm section of Edgar Willis (Bass) and Milt Turner (drums) and top session players (including the great David “Fathead” Newman on tenor sax).
Although the selections were Ray’s own, one consequence of using the travel theme as a gimmick is a weakness in the overall consistency of the songs. “New York’s My Home” just can’t hold a candle to standards like “Sentimental Journey” and “Basin Street Blues”, and Charles sounds unmotivated in his performance of “Blue Hawaii”. And on a few occasions, the effort to bring variety to the setting doesn’t age well; what was probably once enjoyed as a playful call-and-response in “Deep in the Heart of Texas” now sounds amateurish, almost embarrassing.
The seven additional tracks on this reissue were also selected to fit the “road” theme, and most of them are among the standouts on the album. “Hit the Road, Jack”, of course, is irresistible and displays the confidence and flair that Ray was just beginning to weave into his recorded performances. At over six minutes, the lengthy cover of “Rainy Night in Georgia” is almost twice as long as any of the other tracks, but his seductive, soulful vocal is enhanced by the gospel chorus with his playful electric piano for contrast. The swing arrangement of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is palatable, but his take on “The Long and Winding Road” is uninspired. Unlike many of his better covers, Ray plays this one fairly straight, and while it seems to be a perfect choice for his style and range, it just doesn’t build.
“I Was on Georgia Time” is the lone track credited to Ray as songwriter. It would have been a nice choice to end the expanded record, rather than close with the hokey rendition of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. For some reason, Concord changed the bonus track selections from the Rhino reissue of 12 years ago; back then it was the far superior Doc Pomus song “Lonely Avenue” that was the last taste in your mind.
This certainly isn’t the Ray Charles album one would start with, and it’s by no means a collection of hits even in its third edition. But for those going deeper into his catalogue, the high points certainly outweigh the low, the recording sounds pristine, and Bill Dahl’s essay and liner notes are enjoyable and informative.