REVIEW: Ray Charles Genius and Friends Graverobbing or Art?

Posted by Al Barger on October 20, 2005 01:51 AM

This album comes loaded with some bit of controversy. On the one hand, this was pretty much the last pet project Ray Charles was working on before he passed. The record company has cheesed on a bit about this album being his "last wish" and such.

On the other hand, it is suspect in its genesis, and has been widely attacked, though seemingly mostly just on general principles. Basically, these recordings were mostly made in 1997 and 1998, but half a decade later, Ray came up with the idea of turning these recordings into duets. Recording duets with a dead dude just doesn't sound legit, even if it was his idea.

So then, what to make of the actual album? Actually, it's not half bad. Some of the song selections are marginal, and most of the guests are minor figures not even vaguely in his league. Furthermore, Ray was 40 years past his prime recording this.

Yet still, he was Ray Charles. His voice was great. I wouldn't consider these the most deep and heartfelt performances of his career, but more of a happy footnote. He seemed to be enjoying the making of the record, and it's pretty listenable. I'd rate this higher than most of what I've heard from him in the last 20 years or so, anyway.

I would describe the general style of the album as fairly slick modern radio friendly mainstream r&b. To put it another way, and at the risk of damning the record with faint praise, this would be perfect fodder for a Sunday brunch program on BET.

I've got two main picks on the album that'll be going into rotation. My favorite is probably "Compared to What?" which I know from a 1969 live recording by Les McCann and Eddie Harris at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. Now, of course Ray did jazz, but he brought this forth as more of a simplified pre-funk soul groove here. Playing this for more of a hard soul groove instead of a refined jazz definitely works.

This is a particularly good song, and the lyric looks particularly interesting seeing it now on written down. It seems to make some sense when it's sung, but a lot of this social protest looks damned peculiar on the page. Check out verse two, for example:

Slaughterhouse is killin' hogs
Twisted children killin' frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin' logs
Tired old ladies kissin' dogs
I hate the human love of that stinkin' mutt -- I can't use it
Try to make it real compared to what.

At the risk of appearing ignorant, I'd never heard of Leela James before, who is singing the duet, but she gives probably the best guest vocal on the record. She's about the least known name here, but stands there flatfooted and belts this thing out properly. This one is definitely going into iPod rotation for the hiking mix.

The other standout is the Stevie Wonder classic "Blame It On the Sun," recorded with George Michael. This is the best composition on the album, and it seemed to inspire rather more emotional investment from Ray than the other tracks. Also, George Michael is a real singer. His pen has gone dry in recent years, but he was able to sound credible sharing a record with Ray Charles.

Another pick that's pretty good is somewhat the oddball track stylistically and technically. It's a duet of "Busted" with Willie Nelson, actually recorded together, live on stage in 1991.

As to the post-mortem duets issue, it's not really a cutting issue in practice. The performances go together fine on the record. If I hadn't read about the controversy, I wouldn't have known that Ray was not sharing a mic with these performers.

My problem with these duets is that most of the duet partners just are not very memorable, even the ones with big names. "You Are My Sunshine" was pretty rote, and I couldn't have told Chris Isaak here from some American Idol.

This brings us to an interesting failure, which gets some significant credit for being an interesting attempt. Ray performs "Imagine" as a gospel song, with Ruben Studdard and the Harlem Gospel Singers. Why in hell was Ray even fooling with some idiot from American Idol, anyway?

But the problem isn't Studdard- he's competent. It's the damned song. Ray made awesome gospel of "Eleanor Rigby" decades ago, and his voice was as good as ever. The song "Imagine" is just so horribly trite that it can't support a soulful performance.

It was said that Ray Charles could sing the phone book, and make you believe it. It might have worked better here if had literally done that. The more meaning you try to invest in this nonsense lyric, the more ridiculous it ends up sounding. Thus, Ray makes a particularly bad version of the song- and the gospel choir really adds the Velveeta.

Most of the rest of the songs just aren't very interesting. If you're trying to write new songs, and some of them come out better than others, well that's what you had to work with. I do not, however, understand why of all the songs in the world he could record, Ray came up with "All I Want To Do" and "Big Bad Love" and several other generic, half-assed songs. I still say he should have tapped the Elvis Costello songbook.

Ah well, missed opportunities. What he did manage to come up with sounds like he was enjoying making music, and he could sing as well as ever. If he went out with a project that was more the joy of jamming rather than a deeply heartfelt night of the soul, that's not so bad.

This obviously isn't the place to start your Ray Charles collection. His primetime was 40 to 50 years ago. Obviously you'd want to start with the big box set, and go from there. But if you've got pretty many Ray albums, this would be a decent, listenable one to add to the pile.

Questions, comments?

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