Ray Charles: "True Genius"

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Category: CD music CD music

December 2021

Tangerine Records TRC-2107
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****

Sound Quality
****

Overall Enjoyment
*****

Let’s begin with a quiz: There are 99 individual performances on this extensive six-disc overview of singer-pianist Ray Charles’s career. How many of the songs do you think he composed?

Take your time.

The surprising answer: Ten.

Now, if this was an album by Frank Sinatra—whose exultant 1995 letter to Charles is reprinted inside the hardcover package—that might not be a shock. After all, Sinatra was known as an interpreter of great music, not as a songwriter. But Charles, who died at age 73 in 2004, is revered as a true American original; an artist whose music transcended genres and sounded like no one else’s. And yet, he seldom wrote original material after the age of 30.

Hence the title: True Genius.

Charles could use source material as slight as Melanie Safka’s “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” and transform it into a manifesto, wringing emotion from the words well beyond what the composer likely imagined. Or he could radically shift an arrangement to add nuance, as he does on an achingly slow, 1965 live version of Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson’s humorous bauble, “Makin’ Whoopee.” Even more notable—although not a wholly original idea—Charles could apply gospel techniques to somewhat salacious material, rendering a song like Roy Alfred’s “I’ve Got News for You” in an entirely new light. Blues, jazz, country, pop, and even some styles that defy categorization; Charles could make them all his music.

Of course, Charles’s genius for transformation extended beyond his performances to his own life. He raised himself from blindness and dirt-farm poverty, and self-loathing addictions, to become an exalted R&B star, and finally to enter the mainstream of American popular culture, with a star-vehicle biopic to top it all off.

Some box sets are created for devoted fans and collectors, featuring state-of-the-art remixing and remastering, detailed track information, and scholarly essays by leading musicologists and historians. True Genius isn’t one of those. Instead, spearheaded by the Ray Charles Foundation, which holds the rights to the Tangerine (or TRC) brand, True Genius appears to be aimed at reasserting Charles’s more than 40-year dominance of the music industry.

Disc 1 could accomplish that goal on its own; after all, it contains 22 certifiable hits, ranging from the straight-ahead blues of “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” to his highly personalized pop songs like “That Lucky Old Sun” and “You Are My Sunshine.” These songs, all released between 1960 and 1964, cover a broad stylistic ground, and though unlikely to appeal to a single demographic they make a fascinating study of what can enable a performer to vault into widespread cultural acceptance.

In 1959, Charles left Atlantic Records, the scrappy, independent R&B/jazz label that had been his artistic home since 1952. Atlantic had been responsible for hits like “Mess Around,” “I’ve Got a Woman,” and “What’d I Say,” but the singer felt the label had carried him as far as it could. He wanted more—most notably more control over his career—and felt the only way to get it was to shift to covering other people’s songs and putting his music out on ABC-Paramount Records, one of the labels owned by Am-Par Record Corporation. Am-Par paid $50,000 for his contract (about $450,000 in today’s money) and granted Charles a larger-than-average royalty rate and eventual ownership of his master tapes. In 1962, the deal got even sweeter when the company agreed to let Charles operate Tangerine Records, which would be distributed by ABC-Paramount. Following on the heels of Sam Cooke’s deal to launch his own label—SAR Records—the ABC-Paramount contract put Charles in rarefied company as a Black performer.

Produced by Sid Feller and arranged by Ralph Burns, Charles’s version of the 1930 composition “Georgia on My Mind” combined a number of elements for a formula that carried the single to No.1 on Billboard’s mainstream ranking of weekly sales in 1960. The music, written by Hoagy Carmichael, is at once sentimental, yet stirring. The lyrics, by Stuart Gorrell, also strike a nostalgic tone, although it’s unclear whether they refer to a woman or the state. Although Carmichael declared it was the latter, the ambivalence played into the mystery of Charles’s heartfelt delivery: would a self-reliant Black man sing lovingly of a racially segregated state in 1960? Although the answer lay in what Charles had recorded for the flip side—James A. Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”—the mystery helped to allow White audiences in the South to embrace the song while it also touched diehard Charles fans who were more familiar with his unvarnished R&B work.

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As can be seen by scanning those 22 hits, Charles continued to play to both sides of the equation throughout his first years at ABC-Paramount. For every sentimental song like Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” or Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” there was raunchier material like Percy Mayfield’s “Hit the Road Jack” and Harlan Howard’s “Busted.” For the softer material, Charles and Feller turned to arrangers like Hollywood standby Marty Paich; for the R&B, jazz veterans like Benny Carter or Gerald Wilson.

On disc 2, the focus shifts to the other aspect of what made Charles a memorable and enduring force in American music: his live show. From the time he signed with Atlantic Records until the formation of Tangerine, Charles averaged 300 nights a year on the road—moving from one-nighters on the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit of Black-owned theaters, nightclubs, and juke joints to prestigious venues like the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. In April 1961, with organizational help from his friend Quincy Jones, Charles expanded his standard septet to his first big band, recruiting future jazz headliners like Grachan Moncur III, Julian Priester, Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman, and Betty Carter. Like most star bandleaders, Charles left the day-to-day stewardship of the orchestra to others, but he was a notoriously tough taskmaster on the bandstand, insisting that his musicians be well rehearsed and attuned to following his idiosyncratic approach.

One can only imagine the fate that befell Wilbert “G.T.” Hogan, the drummer on the four tracks culled from the 1965 album Live in Concert, recorded in January 1964 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. Hogan flubs the beat twice on the aforementioned “Makin’ Whoopee,” a rare example of anything other than outstanding musicianship on a Charles live date. With Priester, Crawford, and Newman still anchoring the brass and reed sections, the 1964 version of the orchestra sounded lithe and energetic.

Of course, within a month of this LA show, pop music would change forever when Ed Sullivan showcased The Beatles on two of his Sunday night TV shows—a seismic shift that becomes evident with Charles’s recordings of the Lennon-McCartney compositions “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby.”

As many singers as have interpreted “Yesterday,” no one has taken ownership of the song as much as Charles does in his 1967 recording. The timbre of his voice—full of grit and choked to a cry on the final syllable of “yesterday”—sounds like no other vocalist. He fully embodies the regret and longing Paul McCartney wrote about, and his performance imbues the lyrics with meaning well beyond what was printed on the lead sheet. While McCartney was pining for his girl, Charles was missing his woman.

His Beatles covers provide an interesting perspective on how Charles’s career evolved during the era when rock dominated the charts.

In 1968, he recorded a popular string-driven interpretation of “Eleanor Rigby” that was notable for the way he stretched McCartney’s lyrics across bar lines, inserted his own comments, and created a call-and-response chorus with the Raelettes (one of the names he used for the everchanging corps of female singers who accompanied him). Three years later, he added a steel guitar to George Harrison’s “Something” to create one of his better amalgams of country, blues, and pop. But, by 1977, on a version of “Let It Be” he produced himself, it sounded like he had given up on breathing new life into his Fab Four covers. The same is true of his 1996 version of “Imagine,” but the box set concludes on a very different note: a barnstorming big-band arrangement of “The Long and Winding Road” that pairs an unreleased 1973 vocal with the incomparable Count Basie Orchestra, circa 2006, by then under the leadership of Bill Hughes. Most posthumous pairings of the living and the dead sound manufactured; this one seems organic.

As you listen across the 46 years of recordings included here, it is Charles’s ability to stun you with unexpected performances that really stands out.

Let’s touch on the highlights.

In 1970, the blending of White Southern gospel and rock was hot, yielding hits for Delaney & Bonnie and others, but none of those hits captured the authenticity of Charles’s version of a Jimmy Lewis composition called “If You Were Mine,” which features a funky bassline and some uncredited tasty guitar work that I’m guessing might be by studio veteran Cornell Dupree.

A 1972 album titled Jazz Number II opened with an absolutely smoking take of a song Charles cowrote with Roger Neumann called “Our Suite.” Featuring a very strong alto saxophone solo—played by Charles, I expect—the eight-minute performance also includes a very tight trumpet solo and energetic playing by the uncredited tenor saxophonist. It’s a fabulous example of how the Ray Charles Orchestra was influenced by Basie, particularly the way the arrangement shifts from full-blown power to a slower, bluesy segment.

One of the best examples of what Charles could do with material that seemed far outside his ballpark is his take on the song Joe Raposo composed for Kermit the Frog to sing on Sesame Street, “Bein’ Green.” Jazz musicians like Stan Kenton and Jackie McLean were drawn to the harmonic changes Raposo wrote, but Charles also related to the message of being viewed as different. Whether it was the racial hatred he had faced, his blindness, or the way legal authorities pursued him during the ’50s and ’60s because of his heroin use, he used “It Ain’t Easy Being Green” as a vehicle for his pain and clearly has some stake in the words he sings. It’s a masterpiece, topped only by his duet with Cleo Laine on “Summertime” in 1976. As Sinatra could with certain material, Charles takes ownership of the Gershwin chestnut through his use of vernacular and the way he phrases the lyrics, and Laine is his ideal partner.

Despite having fallen out of commercial favor, the late ’70s were a productive artistic period for Charles, as evidenced by a gorgeous solo reading of “Am I Blue?,” recorded live in Japan in 1976; “Is There Anyone out There?,” an exceptional performance of another song that expresses isolation; and a sly delivery of “Blues in the Night” that he produced himself in 1979.

But it’s sad to note that those kinds of highlights ended for the most part in 1980, around the time he released a disco version of the R&B classic “Compared to What?” Disc 5 is full of examples that make it seem like Charles had either lost his focus or started to coast on his reputation. Duets with Hank Williams Jr. and Willie Nelson feel like everyone is just going through the motions, while his interpretations of songs like Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” sound like he was simply covering the hits of the day with no regard to how he might make them his own.

As you listen to his career winding down at the turn of the century it’s difficult not to contrast Charles’s final years with those of another singular Southern performer: Johnny Cash. While Cash reignited his creativity by collaborating with producer Rick Rubin, Charles was left to record predictable, underwhelming duets with artists like Eric Clapton and Norah Jones.

Fortunately, True Genius also includes a previously unreleased Swedish concert from 1972, which captures Charles and his band as they sounded night after night at the peak of his mid-career fame. In the tradition of the soul revues he helped pioneer, the show presents the hits, some humor, and a nod to the hit parade of the day with a cover of Joe South’s “Games People Play.”

A man of deep complexity and countless contradictions, Ray Charles was truly an iconic figure—a performer who sounded like no one else, yet influenced artists as varied as Gregg Allman, Joe Cocker, and John Legend.

. . . James Hale
jamesh@soundstagenetwork.com