Ray: how can we miss you when you won’t go away?
Kidding – it isn’t Ray’s fault he made one of the most popular and successful albums of his career just before he died, or that his mastery of virtually every American musical form is perhaps unparalleled and has taken 50 years for the public to absorb, or that a biopic with a transcendent Jamie Foxx performance came out soon after Ray’s earthly departure.
Received wisdom says that Ray Charles, who died last 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.
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.
The latest single from the album, “Here We Go Again” (listen here), 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.
“We cover it all,” said Ray back when he was alive, “from country to R&B, pop, rock and blues. I’ve never let them put me in a little box, and this CD expresses that open feeling. A beautiful song is a beautiful song—and to sing with so many beautiful singers is a blessing from God.” It was and is.
At the Superbowl this Sunday, the announcer will mention Genius Loves Company in his introduction to Alicia Keyes, who will be performing along with the Ray Charles “America the Beautiful” track – shades of Nat and Natalie Cole.
Genius Loves Company has been nominated for 10 Grammy Awards, and if it doesn’t win more than a few I will eat my hat, the good one.
And then there’s the Oscars …