A Message From the People, Ray Charles' 1972 classic, is finally available after being long out of print. As part of Concord Music Group's reissue series, the album has been digitally remastered and the results are fantastic. This is a very special album in the Charles discography, with each of the ten songs carefully chosen by the artist to express his feelings about the state of society. Never heavy-handed, the album's focus is squarely on social consciousness. Many of the sentiments expressed in these songs ring very true in these economically-challenged times.
Charles' vocals throughout are among his most passionate ever committed to tape. His frustration is palpable in "Hey Mister," a funky work-out with lyrics imploring politicians to bring aid to the needy and poor. There is jubilation in his reading of what is often referred to as The Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Speaking of anthems, over the years there have been occasional attempts at replacing "The Star Spangled Banner" with "America the Beautiful." That's unlikely to ever happen, but Charles' version (which closes the album) can arguably be considered the definitive reading of that classic patriotic song.
An extraordinary cover of Melanie Safka's "What Have They Done To My Song, Ma" was a minor hit on the R&B charts in 1972. The song is about the over-commercialization of music. Ironically, it was licensed to Quaker Oats some years ago and used as a jingle ("Look what they've done to oatmeal"). It's a brilliant rearrangement, demonstrating the artistry Charles invested in songs that were not originally his own. It's a nice bit of light humor, too, amidst a relatively serious-minded collection (especially when Charles attempts a verse in French).
Turning John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" into a country/soul stunner was a great idea. The cheesy, badly dated synth solo he dropped into the middle of it was not. It isn't the only time his taste wavered on this album (check out that intro to "Abraham, Martin, and John"), but thankfully these minor missteps are far and few. Mostly what is heard loud and clear throughout is exceptionally deep soul vocals. "Heaven Help Us All" is an impassioned highlight along those very lines.
My only complaint about this release is the lack of any real liner notes. The single-folded page has only the most bare bones information regarding songwriting credits. Ray Charles is listed as producer, while arrangements are credited to Quincy Jones, Sid Feller, and Mike Post. That's an impressive roster, but no details are provided as to who arranged which songs. Joe Adams, who is credited with conceiving the striking album cover, contributed a paragraph's worth of thoughts about the making of the record. Not that any of this should dissuade someone from buying the album; I just wish there was more background – or critical – analysis included.
Concord Music Group is doing a great thing by making long out-of-print Ray Charles albums available again. A Message From the People represents a true high point in Ray Charles' celebrated discography. I can't wait to continue collecting their reissue series.