The 2004 release of Ray Charles’ final studio album, Genius Loves Company, earned immediate critical and popular favor. It received eight Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. It was the first original release through the Starbucks Hear Music imprint. It’s been certified multi-platinum with worldwide sales in excess of five million copies. That’s so far.
Ten years later, Genius Loves Company is getting an appropriate multi-phase deluxe reissue treatment. First, on September 30 a two-disc edition includes the original album, two bonus tracks, and a one-hour making of DVD. In November, a three-disc Limited Collectors Edition will arrive that also includes the Ray biopic starring Jamie Foxx in his Academy Award-winning Best Actor performance. In addition, audiophiles will be offered a special 2LP, 45RPM, 180-gram vinyl edition. So, if you were one of the five million souls who purchased the original recording, prepare for an upgrade. If you missed Genius Loves Company a decade ago, it’s time to visit your local Starbucks. That’s where you’ll find the latest incarnations of the album.
A key element to the success of the original Genius Loves Company was the company the genius was keeping at the time. Charles was paired on each track with folks like Norah Jones, Diana Krall, James Taylor, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Van Morrison, and Bonnie Raitt, among others. This resulted in each track blending the flavors of the various performers, making the collection a very varied menu indeed.
On some numbers, in fact, it sounds like Charles was actually the guest, adding his cryin’ time vocals to tracks featuring other performers. For example, despite the fact Charles chose “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and even dictated the time count for the song, this re-working of Elton John’s 1976 composition sounds like an Elton John production. Likewise, “Sinner’s Prayer” would easily fit on any B.B. King collection with the two elder statesmen of the blues demonstrating they’re both masters of the form. When Charles gets soulful with Van Morrison live on stage, the pair dive deep into Morrison’s single “Crazy Love” from the 1970 Moondance.
Many of the musical settings reach way, way back to the days when the American Songbook was still jelling. “It Was a Very Good Year” has Charles and Willie Nelson dueting on what sounds like a close emulation of the original 1966 Gordon Jenkins orchestral charts for Frank Sinatra. We also go back in time in both tone and style with “Fever” (with Natalie Cole) and “Over the Rainbow” with crooner Johnny Mathis.
In the main, the selections should surprise no longtime fan of Charles, as his signature blend of secular lyrics with gospel backgrounds is a prominent part of the proceedings. That’s clear in the opener, “Here We Go Again” with Norah Jones and the tent-revival spirit of “Heaven Help Us All” featuring the preaching of Gladys Knight. The two bonus tracks are also throwbacks to that old-time feeling, namely a very different arrangement of “Unchain My Heart” from the original 1961 Charles hit and “Mary Ann,” where Charles shares the spotlight with Poncho Sanchez.
Speaking of bonus features, the behind-the-scenes Making of Genius Loves Company documentary is a nifty chronicle of how the album came to be. It opens with Starbucks chairman, president and chief executive officer Howard Schultz hooking up with producer John Burk to create the unique marketing plan for the project. Burk explains how he brought in engineer Phil Ramone to figure out how to mic the musicians in Charles’ own studio and how each of the artists were approached. Many of the guest singers discussed how their particular tracks were chosen and crafted and their feelings about working with, for many, a legend and influential mentor to their careers. We also learn how Charles rose to each occasion despite his failing health, a man who knew he was working on his last record.
So it’s time to throw a party and invite over the sort of company who’d love the Genius. That’s probably nearly everyone you know. It’s a classy album, the absolute best way for Ray Charles to have ended his career. It’s an album that should be reissued again and again, every 10 years or so.
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