Music

Ray Charles: The Genius Hits the Road

Another expanded edition of Brother Ray’s 1960 album of themed travel songs. Like most journeys, highs and lows abound.


Ray Charles

The Genius Hits the Road

Label: Concord
US Release Date: 2009-09-22
UK Release Date: 2009-09-22
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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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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