On September 23, 2013, the 83rd anniversary of his birth, Ray Charles was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a Music Icons Forever stamp. As a tie-in, Concord Music Group has honored the late genius of soul with a new 12-song compilation (13 if you purchase at major post offices or the USPS website) simply titled Forever. It includes a bonus DVD of live performances and interview footage.
Eschewing major hits in favor of less familiar material (with an unusual focus on 1993’s My World, from which there are four tracks), Forever is a good choice for casual fans. The most famous track here is undoubtedly Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful,” but otherwise most of these songs are not the ones usually featured on his many hits-oriented compilations. There’s even a previously unreleased take of the Gershwin classic “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” to bait collectors.
If you haven’t heard his funky, sensual take on the Johnny Cash staple “Ring of Fire,” prepare for a succinct lesson in how to successfully reinterpret an iconic song. For another inspired cover, look no further than Charles’ deeply-felt version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Forever focuses on Charles’ skills as an interpreter, rather than his rawer, earlier period of gritty proto-soul. Despite umpteen covers by a diverse array of artists, his take on Leon Russell’s evergreen “A Song for You” won Charles a Grammy (Best Male R&B Vocal) in 1994.
If the programming falters, it’s because of the inclusion of some hackwork in the form of 1993’s “If I Could,” “So Help Me God,” and the badly dated production of “None of Us Are Free.” All of these are from his My World album (so is “A Song for You,” but that song’s quality speaks for itself). Charles, as it has so often been stated, could sing the phonebook and make it emotionally gripping. But, especially in the later stages of his career, Charles exhibited a penchant for unrepentant corn that marred many of his albums. Another exquisite cover found on My World, Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” would made a far better choice for Forever.
The DVD is nothing special, but it serves as a neat bonus. Clocking in at approximately 20 minutes, it’s highlighted by live performances of “Imagine,” “A Song for You,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” all culled from the 1990s.