Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company

In the drunken karaoke bars of our minds, we should all be singing duets with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, but for most of us this is inadvisable. A cynic could say that duets are best left to fading superstars at the end of their careers, and that the target market for the duet album is a forlorn, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management type who rarely buys music except to sing along to George & Tammy in the car, on their way to fire people like me for writing articles like this. This statement may be misjudged and unfair, but critics, those arbiters of taste who many right-thinking individuals fear and loathe, have been known to suggest that some duet albums can cause bouts of extreme nausea though a fatal combination of the syrupy and saccharine. These are just a few of the unfortunate prejudices which come with the territory of the duet album.

Genius Loves Company was Ray Charles’ last studio album, released only a few months after his death in 2004. It’s one of Charles’ most commercially successful albums (over five million copies have been sold) and won eight Grammy Awards including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. It was also the first original release through the Starbucks Hear Music imprint in conjunction with Concord Music Group. At the time of its release it was considered a “showcase”, and Charles’ passion and sincerity shone through. The album has now been re-released to celebrate its tenth anniversary in a two disc deluxe edition (reviewed here), a three-disc limited collectors edition (with the film biopic Ray), and a two-LP vinyl edition.

The deluxe edition is made up of the original album (and two bonus tracks) plus a DVD with a documentary, The Making of Genius Loves Company. As reviews of the original release state, this album found Charles continuing to challenge himself, and the songs include classics from the American songbook as well as favourites chosen by his collaborators. Stand-outs are the harmonies of “Here We Go Again” with the super-talented Norah Jones, the sultry “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” with the extraordinary Bonnie Raitt, a fine orchestral version of “It Was a Very Good Year” with Charles’ long-time friend Willie Nelson, and the raunchy “Sinner’s Prayer”, featuring the most royal of blues men, B.B. King.

Unfortunately, some of the tracks are so smoothly anodyne to be hard to stomach. “Sweet Potato Pie”, with James Taylor, is too sugary for easy consumption, “Hey Girl”, with Michael McDonald, is an awkwardly kitsch ‘70s throw-back, and “Fever”, with Natalie Cole, seems to lack any heat at all. “Over the Rainbow”, with Johnny Mathis, is finely orchestrated and despite fine vocals, drags by being too glossy. The bonus tracks encapsulate the range of quality on the album: “Mary Ann”, with Poncho Sanchez, swings with some cool Latin rhythm, but then there’s “Unchain My Heart” with Take 6, which is an a capella disaster right from the start all the way to its end.

The documentary on the DVD is possibly more interesting than the album itself, telling the story of how the album was put together, with in-the-studio footage and interviews with most of the artists. The music industry insiders are the most insightful. The album was initially hatched at a fundraiser, but Charles only became convinced to make it due to his faith in John Burk, Concord Music Group’s chief creative officer, and co-producer of the album. Arranger Victor Vanacore is a perceptive interviewee and comes across as quite a character, telling how he first met Ray Charles by accident having intended to meet a white name-sake, as well as his dismay when at the sessions Willie Nelson insisted on using his beat-up old guitar despite being backed by a full orchestra. Vanacore also comments that the choice of songs reflected Charles’ life and demonstrated the artist’s impending sense of mortality; Charles poignantly changed some of the lyrics to “It Was A Very Good Year”.

Norah Jones’ career was only just taking off when asked to appear on the record, and she expresses her excitement and nervousness about singing with one her biggest idols; she didn’t want to ruin things, she humbly admits, but could not pass up the opportunity. Bonnie Raitt is similarly awe-struck to be working with Charles, who she rightly considers to be “an icon”. Charles himself appears to be self-effacing in not realizing that other artists would want to sing with him, but also thoroughly charismatic, with an infectious laugh and keen memory. We’re shown Charles’ collection of suits, and it’s explained that he could recall his wardrobe for every public appearance to ensure he never repeated himself.

The footage of the recording sessions will be essential for Ray Charles fans; we see B.B. King and Charles go head-to head in a duel of guitar versus piano, and Charles’ very last recording as his health declined, with Sir Elton John. Charles was insistent it be recorded at no faster than 60 beats per minute, notwithstanding the persuasions of the studio crew. This was a man with an artistic vision, even in his last days, and he wanted the songs to be custom-fitted like a tailored suit.

There’s no doubt a huge amount of work went into the record and indeed this tenth anniversary edition. Ray Charles fans will lap it up, and easy-listeners will adore it, but for an artist who knew no barriers, there is little experimentation or edge to hook new listeners. Still, there’s no mistaking genius, even when it’s subdued. Surrounded by friends and doing what he loved to do, this was a warm finish to an impressive career.



Label: Concord
Release Date: 27 OCT 2014