Received wisdom says that Ray Charles, who died in June at 73, did his greatest work between the mid-’50s and mid-’60s, and while this is undoubtedly true, it is also wrong to dismiss the final 40 years of Ray’s career out of hand.
Ironically, one of Charles’s best albums of the last four decades or so is the posthumous Genius Loves Company, his duets release on Concord Records coming out August 31.
Ray’s voice wavers a bit from time to time and some of the high notes evade his grasp, but the conviviality of the collaborations bring out a spark in Ray that has often been buried under sugary arrangements in his later period. “Here We Go Again” with nubile but 100% simpatico Norah Jones is a satisfying country/Southern soul beat ballad that drips with romantic resignation. “Sweet Potato Pie” is bright neo-soul with James Taylor straight out of JT-era Taylor or a Boz Scaggs LP of the time.
A smooth piano and orchestra setting is perfect for Ray and smoky songstress Diana Krall on the standard “You Don’t Know Me,” and “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” with Elton John works surprisingly well, reminding any who have forgotten how souful Sir Elton is despite a somewhat lugubrious arrangement.
“Fever” with Natalie Cole stalks impressively in a slightly quicker jazz combo arrangement than the original Peggy Lee classic, Bonnie Raitt’s coiled slide and drambuie vocal punctuates “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?”
Strings swirl cinematically around septuagenarians Willie Nelson and Ray on Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” and their superannuation lends the song real weight. When Ray sings “The days grow short/I’m in the autumn of my years” you can’t help but catch your breath, and with BB on “Sinner’s Prayer” two of the greatest bluesmen of all time do themselves proud: there is nothing perfunctory about the performances when BB’s Lucille and Ray’s piano trade solos. Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis and Van Morrison contribute notably as well. I am gratified to my boots that Ray ended his career in such mighty style.
Bill Cosby will host a Ray Charles tribute concert Sept. 29 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel with Michael McDonald, James Ingram, Gerald Levert and Angie Stone thus far signed on to raise money for the $15 million Morehouse College Center for the Arts in Atlanta. Brother Ray gave the black liberal arts college $2 million to help fund the complex, which will contain a performance space in his name.