Kicking off the upcoming reissue program that Concord Records has planned for the Ray Charles discography is Genius: The Ultimate Collection, a new set of 21 Charles classics. Ray Charles’ back catalog is in need of an overhaul, as many albums remain out of print or simply were never re-released at all.
It is hard to argue with the choice of songs included on Genius, especially since the collection dips back into Charles’ days with Atlantic Records. The focus of Concord’s reissue campaign is his post-1960 releases with ABC-Paramount, so it’s nice that this new set includes a few early classics. I am a bit puzzled, however, by the fact that this tracklist leaves a lot of empty space on the CD. With a running time of about one hour, quite a few additional songs could have been added. It isn’t as if there was a shortage of Ray Charles hits from that period.
For anyone looking for a concise, fat-free introduction to Ray Charles, Genius: The Ultimate Collection serves that purpose well. Four #1 R&B hits, dating back to the 1950s, are included: “I Got A Woman,” “A Fool For You,” “Drown In My Own Tears,” and the indelible “What’d I Say.” Strangely, only Part 1 of “What’d I Say” is found here. The call-and-response section climaxes that song, which just isn’t the same without it. There was more than enough room to include the complete version. A live recording of “Hallelujah I Love Her So” substitutes for the studio original, another odd choice but at least the song is represented.
The non-chronological tracklist is well programmed. Even though these recordings span a decade-and-a-half, the collection flows nicely even as it jumps around from one period of Charles’ career to another. Hits from the classic Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, and it’s sequel Volume Two, are accounted for. The heavy string and choral arrangements haven’t aged well. Although they were strokes of commercially-oriented genius (winning over millions of listeners who weren’t interested in the straight-ahead R&B material), be prepared for some hokiness if you haven’t heard these before. Hearing that whitebread chorus sing, “For I never knew the art of making love” (on the otherwise stellar “You Don’t Know Me”) makes me cringe every time. Still, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Take These Chains From My Heart” were gigantic, essential hits.
Along with the obvious smashes like “Hit the Road, Jack” and “Georgia On My Mind” are some lesser known hits that are never played on radio and generally overlooked. “Sticks and Stones,” “Hide Nor Hair,” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned” were all big singles for Charles in the ’60s and provide an excellent balance with the better known material. His 1967 version of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is perhaps the finest, which is saying something considering it’s the most-covered song in music history. Missing in action is Charles’ interpretation of another Beatles classic, “Eleanor Rigby,” a Top 40 hit for him in 1968.
Speaking of omissions, I do wish that the extra disc space had been utilized for other obscure hits from the period, such as “Smack Dab In the Middle” or “Them That Got.” But hopefully Concord’s reissue program will make those great recordings available again. With a hit-maker as prolific as Ray Charles, a single disc set is never going to paint the full picture.
Genius: The Ultimate Collection may not quite live up to it’s “ultimate” billing, but that’s only because of the abundance of classic recordings. This is a superb sampler of one of popular music’s greatest artists, with excellent remastered audio. If you’re looking for the big hits gathered in one place, this collection is more than adequate. As a teaser of things to come from Concord’s reissue series, it should have fans salivating.