Ray Charles was an once-in-a-lifetime talent and a larger-than-life performer that did more to influence the evolution of blues, R&B, and soul music than, perhaps, any other artist. Coming out of a tradition of blues, gospel, and jazz music, Charles created a new pop idiom. During the 1950s and '60s he dazzled audiences with dynamic performances and some of the most innovative and entertaining music made during the era.
Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection
Genius - The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection is a celebration of the music legend's lengthy and storied career. As part of Concord Records' efforts to restore Charles' post-1960 catalog of albums on both CD and, for the first time, digital downloads, Genius stands as a sort of introduction to the enormous talents of Ray Charles.
The 21 tracks here have been culled from Charles' 1950s work for Atlantic Records, and his '60s recordings for ABC, and it's saying something that ten of the songs here hit #1 on the R&B charts, and three topped the pop charts. Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection includes extensive liner notes from noted jazz writer Don Heckman, and is packaged in an embossed digipack with a 24-page booklet featuring rare photos of Charles.
Chart Toppers & Classic Tunes
There is a lot that will be familiar on Genius to anybody with even a passing familiarity with pop music over the past 50 years. The collection includes the smash hits that Charles is best known for, timeless classics like the Percy Mayfield-penned "Hit The Road Jack," with its irrepressible call-and-response vocals and in-your-face backing vocals. "What'd I Say (Part 1)" is a jaunty mashup of Chicago blues rhythms and Southern soul, sparse in its instrumentation but displaying an uncanny (and unforgettable) soundtrack nonetheless.
"Busted" is a blues song writ large, the song's lyrics a classic po' mouth, down on your luck tale of woe, the backing blaring horns adding punctuation to Charles' wonderfully wry vocals. The jazz standard "Georgia On My Mind," which would become Charles' first #1 pop hit, is provided an extravagant, lush instrumentation and Brother Ray's soulful, slow-drawl vocals. Charles' emotional reading of "America the Beautiful," released in 1972 to a country fractured by war, failed to chart at the time but has since become a veritable standard of American pop music.
The Hidden Gems
Among the 21 songs on Genius, however, are a number of hidden gems that only moved on the R&B charts, if they were noticed at all. The R&B rave-up "Sticks and Stones" is probably the best-known of these little-known treasures, the up-tempo song featuring more of Charles' trademark call-and-response vocals and some of the tastiest blues-styled piano-bashing that the legend ever recorded. The bluesy "A Fool for You" hit number one on the R&B chart in 1955, but pop audiences ignored this masterful slice of slow-burning rhythm and blues at its best.
A reckless live version of "Hallelujah I Love Her So" successfully blends the song's early gospel roots, soulful leanings, and jazzy overtones while the big band styled "Hide nor Hair" features exotic rhythms, a bluesy vocal performance, and a stellar sax solo courtesy of Hank Crawford. Charles wasn't afraid to take on a country tune if the mood hit him, and among his best performances in this venue is his cover of the Fred Rose song "Take These Chains from My Heart," a #1 hit for Hank Williams. Charles makes the song his own with a passionate reading of the lyrics, gentle strings, and tasteful piano work.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
There are a number of Ray Charles "best of" collections floating around on the shelves in your local purveyor of musical tunes, but Genius - The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection makes them all obsolete. Featuring 21 cherry-picked songs that span, perhaps, the most creative and commercially fruitful period of the artist's lengthy career, this is the collection that most aptly presents the true genius that was Ray Charles. Get it. (Concord Records, released April 7, 2009)