Ray Charles: Rare Genius

As respectfully as possible, Concord excavates ten unreleased tracks from Ray Charles -- including a Johnny Cash collaboration.

Ray Charles

Rare Genius

Label: Concord
US Release Date: 2010-10-25
UK Release Date: 2010-10-25
Label website
Artist website

It's that time again -- the year's fourth quarter, where the worrisome economy pulses to life as songs previously released, "vintage" and rare, get repackaged for holiday consumption. The eggnog doesn't always go down smoothly, however. You think padded reissues are a touchy subject? Or that rarities collections by definition are enticing but slippery beasts? Posthumous releases are trickier still, vowing to be a necessary addition to an artist's legacy without digging up limbs with the soil.

As respectfully as possible, Concord Records covers two of those categories in Rare Genius, ten songs from Ray Charles -- spanning the three decades before the '00s -- that never saw daylight. As a result, every one sounds preserved, protected, cared for. They're love songs, all of them, sung either for a woman or a higher power -- both touchy, elusive things, hard to pin down and liable to drive a man crazy. Charles's personality on record suggests he kept it somewhat together, even when he let loose and scared the living daylights out of white people. Controversial as he may have been at the time, and as influential as he remains, Charles was never rock 'n' roll per se. Instead, he humbly set up shop at the intersection of blues and gospel, turning Christian music on its meticulously done-up head while playing with crooner-standard strings ("It Hurts to Be in Love"), strident horn stabs ("Love's Gonna Bite You Back"), and icy lounge-funk ("I'm Gonna Keep on Singin'").

His final studio offering, Genius Loves Company, saw release two months after his death in 2004, but he carried that Grammy-vacuum to the finish line. The road to Rare Genius is foggier. It's unclear what Ray's original intentions were with these tracks, over half of them covers. Was he storing them in a cache for when the well ran dry? Did he have overdubs in mind? While somewhat boilerplate musically, Charles doesn't sound as if he's on autopilot, so the feeling is he wanted these to be heard. Indeed, all lights were green on the Johnny Cash collaboration "Why Me, Lord?", but nobody's sure why it remained unissued from 1981 to now.

Genius? Maybe. Deft? Now we're talkin'. To Charles's credit, none of the songs sound dated, even those coming from a period (late '70s/early '80s) that, today, sounds pretty bad. Witness the take on Hank Cochran's "A Little Bitty Tear" from 1983, with none of the signifiers that mark that era of rock's high school yearbook. The chorus has a calming, church-like effect, with the repeated line "a little bitty tear let me down" resolving the melody as a choir would do in a hymn. Charles's voice has a robust, peppery quality to it, but he nails the notes and keeps the bark on the leash for when it's needed.

Rare Genius's secret weapon is another man who knows a thing about using hymns as a reference point. On paper, a Johnny Cash-Ray Charles collaboration sounds like an 11th Commandment about to drop on the world. Because that closing song is a cover, undoubtedly letting off some of the pressure, the musicians sound unencumbered by expectations. Not that their brains weren't burning -- Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me, Lord?" ties the two together in asking questions of their maker, but instead of a Job-like plea, it shows them curious as to why they have been blessed when others have not. Free from heavy-handed production or the chains of the weary country he would do with the Highwaymen later that decade, Cash's voice can breathe here as Charles gives up the reins. Admittedly, it's a bit eerie, two men who would die within a year of each other, here singing "Help me Jesus, my soul's in your hands" before evaporating into silence. It solidifies the chemistry, though, and in the book of all-time untouchables, have there ever been two guys more in tune with the up above?

The most striking word here isn't Jesus, but one that rhymes: this is the third Charles release with genius in the title. All have come out after he left us, and while the record label may feel otherwise, genius doesn't seem like a word Charles would use to describe himself. In his mind, he's just Ray, no more, no less, and he's susceptible to the same pitfalls all musicians are.

"Nobody wants you when you're old and grey", he sings at his most assertive on the centerpiece "There'll Be Some Changes Made" ("Now, I'm not talkin' 'bout next year, next month, next week or even tomorrow!" the post-junk piano man interjects). With the appreciation the world showed him in his final years, it's comforting to know he was forced to reconsider.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.