Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ray Charles: Genius & Friends

by Fumo Verde

Associate producer James Austin explains the project in the liner notes. "Back in December 2003, I received a call from Ray Charles. He was weak from the liver disease that eventually took him from us in June 2004. It would be the last time I would speak with him. He had a specific request: He wanted me to find the duets record that he recorded back in 1997 and '98. As some will know, Ray's masters were like his children. Since these tracks were never mastered or released, to Ray they seemed more like orphans. By the time I found them in the vaults, Ray was very ill and would not be able to discuss what would become of this album."

Austin along with album producer Phil Ramone, executive producers Amet Ertegun, Peter L. Funsten and Quincy Jones didn't put together a tribute album; no, not at all. The title says it all, Genius & Friends. Genius is what Ray Charles was, and this CD proves it. Ray was like a fine wine, getting better with age. His voice wasn't just soothing or soulful with deep roots set in the old blues fashion. It was also the voice of this country. Ray Charles was and still is an American icon, and since his start with Atlantic Records back in 1953, he has given the world 50 years of unbelievable memories via music that has become part of the soundtrack of our lives.

On this 14-track CD, Ray invited artists whose lives had been touched by him and his music, singers and songwriters alike, such as Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, Diana Ross, George Michael, and yes, Willie Nelson. Although Ray only wrote two of the songs on this disc (tracks 4 & 12), the words and the sound definitely have his touch and feel.

The first track of this CD is a tune written by Narada Michael Walden and Darin "Zone" McKinney called "All I Want To Do". Ray and R&B singer Angie Stone blend this song together like a smooth brandy and a fine Cuban cigar with its soulful groove and harmony. "You Are My Sunshine" (Jimmie Davis/Charles Mitchell) finds Chris Isaak joining Ray. Here is where Ray's big-band side comes blasting through, combined with Chris' "New Orleans" jazz this cut shows how much energy Ray still had a few years ago.

Mary J. Blige reminisces with Ray on "It All Goes By So Fast" (Ken Hirsch/Jay Levy), a soft, mellow duet that reminds us to slow down and enjoy life while we can. This whole CD has that mellow feel to it. Even "Shout" (Narada Michael Walden/Sunny Hilden), performed with Patti LaBelle and the Andrae Crouch Singers, has a mellow groove to it although its gospel roots are drawn up to that mellow groove Ray emulated through out his career.

Fumo's two favorite tracks close out the album. Willie Nelson (who also has a new CD out....I'll let ya' know about that one soon) jumps aboard with a live track from the TV special Ray Charles:50 Years in Music. An old blues song by Harlan Howard called "Busted", and babies, let me tell you that these two boys got the blues real bad, I mean REAL BAD. Like somebody kicked my dog, bad. A great song that, for all of its suffering, will give you a smile on the inside. The last song on this CD is one of the most beautiful songs in the world, especially when Ray Charles is singing it or Alicia Keys---who just happens to sing it with Ray. What more can you ask for? This song is significant because its the one Ray Charles championed to become our nation's national anthem, "America the Beautiful". If this doesn't bring a tear to your eye, then you are cold-blooded.

This CD is put together well, with a few exceptions. One thing that bummed me out was that the liner notes aren't very revealing on when these songs were written or who sung them first. Did Ray choose them or was it a collaboration we will never know? I'm not looking for a history lesson, but I am curious about how these songs came to this disc. Ray is gone, but his soul lives on in the music he has left us.

This is Fumo Verde saying....thank you, Ray, for everything.