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'Genius' and 'Legend' are accolades that are thrown about far too frivolously within the entertainment spectrum. In an increasingly soul sapping and fickle environment where it appears you only have to belch on one leg in front of a panel of power hungry megalomaniacal judges to guarantee a record deal and copious amounts of airtime, one looks to the life and times of a certain Ray Charles Robinson to provide solace in the fact that once upon a time real luminaries were deserving of their fame.
Born in the September of 1930, he saw his brother drown when he was 5, went totally blind at 7 and was orphaned at 14. He was fire fighting in the burning pits of life from the very start but he overcame and conquered to provide us with an indelible imprint on the world of music. He became effectively known as 'The Genius' and his legend is reflected in this 2001 compilation.
Spanning 46 songs over 2 discs 'The Definitive Ray Charles' chronicles his career from the 1953 Ahmet Ertegun blues romp 'Mess Around' right through to late 1990's gospel inspired version of John Lennon's 'Imagine'. All the classics you'd expect appear on here alongside many more perhaps lesser known tracks that are as equally engaging. The mere fact that an album named 'Definitive' features so many songs can be seen as a verification of Ray's prolificacy, all round appeal and varied musical catalogue.
Out of the 46 songs on these discs 38 are cover versions. The cover version in general has always seemed to split opinion amongst critics in the same way that a film remake does. Now I fully accept that the original version of a song will always have the bragging rights and can sit with a certain amount of smugness atop its primordial tree knowing that it was indeed the catalyst for all that followed, for is not imitation the greatest form of flattery? But on the contrary, I also firmly believe that the apprentice can overhaul the master and though it seems ridiculous to suggest that Ray Charles Robinson is the pupil here, this is exactly what happens. It became his forte to give a different voice to established songs.
You can't pigeonhole Ray Charles, that is the genius of the man. R&B, blues, rock n roll, jazz, country, soul, they all get poured into the pot as that husky voice, differing effortlessly from light to shade, seeps over the top. He leaps from style to style taking us playfully into speakeasies, smoke-filled cabaret clubs and carnivals with sprightly vigour to rain sodden back alleys and front porch rocking chairs to offer up arduous bluesy laments that are just seeped in a little country feel. His melodies are sweet and luscious with the vocal execution so natural. Deft and subtle when needed, powerful and dominant when called for. This versatile freedom of expression opens out each and every track.
The cover songs are approached with pretty much a blank canvas and aside from obvious nods to the basic melody and lyrics are painted with Ray's quite unique interpretations. His undeniable vocal talent is palpable throughout but it's the spontaneous way it emerges and coasts along amid wholesome arrangements to bind the whole thing together that makes it all the more impressive. His skills as a bandleader and arranger should also be appreciated and never overlooked.
A method often employed is the use of sweeping string sections and the wartime almost Disneylike harmonies of his backing singers, the Raelets. A great example of this is found on possibly his most famous song 'Georgia On My Mind'. It invites the mind to conjure up certain images. You can just picture the girls swooping around a single microphone, a sepia tinted image, pure vintage.
But, as I mentioned earlier you just can't pin him down to the one genre. 'Mess Around' follows a standard 12bar theme whereas 'One Mint Julep' throws up some dominant big band brass swirls and stabs against a psychedelic sounding electric piano. His bouncing version of 'Unchain My Heart' incorporates a Latin type groove and there are several country inspired songs particularly on the second disc. I'm not a big lover of country but I am when Ray Charles waves his magic wand over it. He had that gift that could break down the barriers, a cliché I know but I make no apologies just because he was the first to really do it.
He made the sprightly songs fun and gives us a glimpse of his humour in the Harlan Howard penned 'Busted' - a song originally written for Johnny Cash. This jocular, impish side to his nature is also evident in one of his best loved songs 'Hit The Road Jack'. The Raelets get their moment and Margie Hendrix gets a couple of solo lines in what must be the most famous domestic argument of all time. At just under 2 minutes it's the shortest track on the album - ah, if only all domestics lasted this long and sounded this good eh?
I'm probably going to upset the vast majority out there when I say he also claims a couple of Beatles songs for his own. Yes, I feel the cyber daggers flying at me already and the mouse pointers poised ready to click me out but he's all over the pair of them and comfortably tucks them into his blazer pocket along with all the other versions he has nabbed. The way he dominates 'Yesterday' and the darkness with which he delivers 'Eleanor Rigby' are just a joy to behold. Both are glided along by a delightful string section, the fab four have never sounded better. (I'm pushing it now aren't I?)
For those still with me, it is difficult to pick a stand out track in this glorious cross section of musical mastery but if I had a gun at my head, it would have to be his take on the Haven Gillespie/ Beasley Smith song 'That Lucky Old Sun'. Charles sings this with so much ardour and passion that it virtually bleeds. The lyrics are made for him and he almost howls it out as it reaches its crescendo. This one always gives me a 'hairs on neck' moment and never fails to stir something within.
Personally, I would have liked to have seen a couple of other songs make their way on here, 'Working Man's Women' and 'I Had It All' from 'Georgia Time' would have been nice, as would his version of 'It's Not Easy Being Green' which he performed at Jim Henson's tribute show.
To slightly appease the Lennon fans out there, I do actually prefer the original version of 'Imagine' to the one that concludes this album.
Ray Charles lived his life the way he played his music - free, instinctive and without a rulebook.
He died on the 10th June 2004. A true genius. A true legend.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Mess around
2 It should've been me
3 I've got a woman
4 This little girl of mine
5 Fool for
6 Drown in my own tears
7 Leave my woman alone you
8 Hallelujah I love her so
9 Lonely avenue
10 Night time is the right time
11 What I say (parts 1 & 2)
12 I believe to my soul
13 I'm movin' on
14 Come rain or come shine
15 Don't let the sun catch you crying
16 Sticks and stones
17 Georgia on my mind
19 One mint julep
20 I'm gonna move to the outskirts of town
21 Hit the road Jack
22 Unchain my heart
23 Baby it's cold outside
24 At the club
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 I can't stop loving you
2 Born to lose
3 You don't know me
4 You are my sunshine
5 Your cheatin' heart
6 Take these chains from my heart
8 That lucky old sun
9 Crying time
10 Cincinnati kid
11 Let's go get stoned
12 I don't need no doctor
13 In the heat of the night
15 Eleanor Rigby
16 I can make it thru' the days
17 Rainy night in Georgia
18 Jealous kind
19 Shake your tailfeather - Charles, Ray & The Blues Brothers
20 Seven Spanish girls
21 I'll be good to you