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Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company

Ray Charles

My favorite Ray Charles story: It’s a breezy summer night some two decades ago, back when 10 bucks would buy you lawn space for a big-name concert at Toronto’s lakefront amphitheater. Brother Ray is on stage, wowing a capacity crowd. Somebody to my left shouts, “Hey, Ray, play ‘Unchain My Heart.'” To which Charles grinningly drawls, “Sorry, man, can’t do requests.” In a booming whisper, the disgruntled fan mutters, “Who the hell does he think he is?” To which my neighbor responds, “Um, he thinks he’s Ray Charles.” And, indeed, he always did-and without arrogance but rather a self-satisfied joie de vivre that underscored a half-century of inimitable genius.

News of Ray’s death hit me hard, harder even than Sinatra’s. Frank, arguably Charles’ only equal in terms of influence and imagination, forced you to listen from a respectful distance. Ray wanted you right there next to him for the entire, oft-times bumpy, ride. Sinatra’s swan songs were, unfortunately, served up in his ill-advised pair of Duets albums. Ray, too, exits with duets, teaming with Norah Jones, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Van Morrison, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Gladys Knight, B.B. King, Natalie Cole, Michael McDonald and Johnny Mathis for Genius Loves Company (Concord). Unlike the ersatz Sinatra sets, these 12 tracks were (apart from “Crazy Love,” recorded at Morrison’s induction to the Songwriters Hall of Fame) laid down the old-fashioned way, with Ray and guest side-by-side in the studio. Unlike the Sinatra discs, the results are exquisite. In strong voice throughout (decay is evident only in his union with John on “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”), he purposefully illustrates his incomparable dexterity by exploring the full Charles spectrum-from pop, jazz and orchestral swing to blues, soul and country. Bringing out the absolute best in each of his collaborators (particularly Taylor, who hasn’t sounded so fresh and alive in years), he blends seamlessly with Jones on a velvet-and-buckram “Here We Go Again,” unites with Krall for his most magnificent “You Don’t Know Me” ever, soars alongside Knight on “Heaven Help Us All” and creates a surprisingly sublime alliance with Mathis on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” As vocal duet albums go, it is an absolute stunner-a fittingly brilliant eulogy to modern music’s most dynamic original. The only duets album that can top it is 1961’s seminal Ray Charles and Betty Carter with, fittingly, their definitive treatment of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”

Originally Published