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The Genius at Work

A Critical Discography: Five Decades of Blues, Soul, R&B, Jazz, Country and Classic Schmaltz

Any buyer's guide to Ray Charles records will be problematic because Ray Charles' discography is a monumental mess. The stalwart All Music Guide lists some sixty original albums and 200-plus compilations, and there are more. Charles' forty-one pre-Atlantic tracks have been recycled so relentlessly that in early 2004, twenty labels had interchangeable collections in print.

With his vast post-Atlantic output, there's the opposite problem: scarcity. Among Charles' many innovations is that after 1960 he owned the masters of all his new recordings. A legendary skinflint, Charles set a high price on this work. That's one reason the reissue giant Rhino, part of the same corporation as Atlantic, has leaned heavily on the R&B-jazz Charles of the mid- to late Fifties. In 1998, Rhino released a flawed series of post-Atlantic twofers that lost steam before it passed 1965. The program should resume in 2005. As of now, though, many of Charles' better albums have never reached CD.

There's another problem: Even Charles' better albums were imperfect. In 1960, he started a publishing company called Tangerine Music and all but stopped writing songs, instead collecting royalties on the undistinguished copyrights of his stable. More important, Charles' musical omnivorousness extended well beyond his oft-cited blues-gospel-country-jazz synthesis. Great American that he was, Charles didn't love just the certified roots genres -- he loved schmaltz, and he loved schlock. The schmaltz, typified by the serviceable string arrangements of Sid Feller, he often transformed. The schlock, embodied by big bands and choral backup, could be ruinous. Sometimes the bands are solid jazz and the choruses acceptable schmaltz, and either can provide punch. But they blast or swamp too many tracks into the wide blue yonder or the briny deep.

Because Charles remains both seminal and enjoyable, however, his gaffes have their own charm, especially alongside his strokes of, as the saying goes, genius. Bless him for never making a gospel album. And understand that any map of his oeuvre must be personal and provisional.

That said, there's one clear reference point, a monument visible from a mile away: 1997's five-CD, 102-track Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino), selected in part by Brother Ray himself, reportedly upon the occasion of a seven-figure advance. G&S stands astride all of Charles' work, testifying noisily to his continuing vitality. Of course preferences vary. Of course there are classics passed by ("Mess Around") and rarities that deserve nothing better ("The Cincinnati Kid"). But embrace his all-embracing aesthetic and you'll agree that, as seldom happens with these megaboxes, the final CD is a worthy companion to the first - that in fact Leon Russell's "A Song for You" and Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," which end it, are more typical and just plain better than Ray's own "Confession Blues" and "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand," which begin it. (Budget alternative: Rhino's two-CD Ultimate Hits Collection, which includes "Mess Around.")

If you crave Charles' early sides, you've got some blues scholar in you, so spring for the neat, complete, well-annotated Birth of a Legend 1949-1952 double (Ebony). The piano pleases, the singing develops and the songwriting tops out with the jocose "Kissa Me Baby." Soon he'll flower. But Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown worked the same lounge-trio vein with far more flair. (Budget alternative: The Early Years, on King.) In full bloom is The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952-1959 (Atlantic). As product, the three-CD, 151-minute box comes with caveats. As listening, it's the rockingest Charles long-form you can buy. Although Charles' fabled blues-gospel synthesis is on display from "I Got a Woman" to "I Believe to My Soul," "birth of soul" gets the emphasis wrong. Seldom conventionally catchy, this Robert Palmer-annotated collection epitomizes a world-historic catchall of a genre that Charles could only describe as "genuine down-to-earth Negro music" -- namely, rhythm & blues. Crack bands, first Atlantic's and then his own, underpin his rich, gravelly vocals with hard-hitting grooves of deceptive rhythmic and harmonic complexity. Halfway in, a female backup group soon to be known as the Raeletts starts shoring up his male voice and egging it on, an innovation that became a cliche so fast people think it was always there. (Budget alternative: Rhino's The Best of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years.)

The caveats are economic. Not only would the three CDs fit onto two, but twenty of the fifty-one songs -- the catchiest, natch -- repeat on G&S. And eighteen, including four also on G&S, appear on the astute Blues + Jazz twofer (Rhino). Jazz chops helped define Charles' singular pop identity, and he both articulated and stimulated an appetite for "soul jazz." He was a tastier soloist than vamp merchants such as Les McCann. But a pantheon jazzman he was not, and only vibraphone connoisseurs will want all of his renowned Milt Jackson collaborations (available in toto as Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting, on Rhino). Highlighting combo interactions far from the big-band bombast of its dreadful opposite number, Genius + Soul = Jazz/My Kind of Jazz, Blues + Jazz's artfully configured jazz disc includes sessions led by Charles' longtime saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, who did more with his jazz concept than its inventor. Charles even plays alto sax on a few cuts -- damn well, for a few cuts. Redundant or not, the blues disc goes down just as smooth, epitomizing a perfect mix of down-home and citified the way the jazz one does a perfect mix of unintellectual and uncorny. Throw up your hands and buy a bunch of songs twice (or thrice).

Buy both volumes of the legendary Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music and you'll duplicate seven more. Unfortunately, you can't -- not both, not on CD, not without investing in songs you don't want once. The two Modern Sounds albums occupy Disc One of the four-CD Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986. The remainder of the box comprises G&S desirables from the Atlantic Hank Snow cover "I'm Movin' On" to the Columbia George Jones collab "We Didn't See a Thing"; dubious follow-up country LPs; and uneven product from Charles' Nashville foray on Columbia in the Eighties, including the not-bad-at-all duet album Friendship (available from Columbia as Ray Charles and Friends' Super Hits), where Ricky Skaggs and Hank Williams Jr. attain glories beyond the reach of the Oak Ridge Boys. Inevitably, the box also features magnificent obscurities: bluesified "Ring of Fire"; George Jones-worthy "A Girl I Used to Know"; hee-hawing "3/4 Time" -- all buried so deep they deserve a downloading.

Oh, well. Volume Two vinyl is findable used online, and it's half a step down from Modern Sounds itself, which remains the way to go. This CD stands as so much more than proof we no longer need that an African-American can sing country music. It did nothing less than redefine American pop. Sonically bolder (and schlockier) than, for instance, Owen Bradley's countrypolitan Patsy Cline productions, its massed strings, horns and choruses broke down the walls between classic Tin Pan Alley and declasse Nashville. In the world it created, not only could a black person sing the American songbook Ella Fitzgerald owned by then, but a country black person could take it over. Soon Charles' down-home diction, cotton-field grit, corn-pone humor and overstated shows of emotion were standard operating procedure in American music, black and white.

Even before Modern Sounds, though, Charles' move to ABC had paid off with his first Number One single, a version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind" that heralded the even huger "I Can't Stop Loving You." The LP it launched, The Genius Hits the Road, was a big-band concept album about American place names, and it, too, had a precedent: The Genius of Ray Charles, on Atlantic -- an eclectic standards collection ranging from "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to "Come Rain or Come Shine" to the Percy Mayfield blues "Two Years of Torture." Thank producers Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun, who noodged five different arrangers into the subtlest charts of Charles' career. Charles tried many times, but except for Modern Sounds, he never again assembled such a consistent album in this mode.

Tops among Rhino's ABC reissues is Sweet and Sour Tears, a concept album about crying, overseen by Feller, who was made for the theme, and augmented by otherwise unavailable bonus cuts that fit right in. Beyond its G&S tracks, The Genius Hits the Road is more awkward, its standouts a comic "New York's My Home" and a "Moonlight in Vermont" that clearly inspired Willie Nelson's. Ray Charles and Betty Carter/Dedicated to You is a harder call. With all respect to Raelett Margie Hendrix, Carter proves the most gifted woman singer Charles ever worked with, matching him as they honor tunes such as "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," "For All We Know" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside." But Dedicated to You, a concept album about girls' names, smarms out past "Stella by Starlight" and "Sweet Georgia Brown." Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul/Have a Smile With Me is up and down at a lower level -- three of Ingredients' four winners are on G&S, with the Benny Carter-arranged "In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)" a lost classic. It's paired with a concept album about novelty songs, which is the funniest thing about it.

As Charles stopped scoring hits, his albums got ever dicier, but at least four vinyl-onlys from the Seventies distinguish themselves. Volcanic Action of My Soul (Tangerine/ABC) is textbook hodgepodge: Beatles songs, Jimmy Webb songs, country dink, a blues, an ASCAP chestnut and "All I Ever Need Is You," soon to go Top Ten for Sonny and Cher. A Message From the People (Tangerine/ABC) is Charles' idea of patriotism. Keyed to what was eventually recognized as a classic rendition of "America the Beautiful," it salutes James Weldon Johnson, Stevie Wonder and John Denver; gleefully reconstructs Melanie's "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma"; and tarries with three of his own copyrights. In 1977, Charles returned to Atlantic for True to Life, where a side of mixed standards -- from "I Can See Clearly Now" to "How Long Has This Been Going On" -- was enough to overwhelm the three Tangerine songs on the B side. Even better was 1979's Ain't It So, whose "Some Enchanted Evening," "Blues in the Night" and "What'll I Do" would have spruced up Rhino's Standards rehash.

Yet not long afterward, Charles' effective recording career ground to a halt. He was only fifty in 1980, but age can do that if you're out of touch, and though Charles toured hard for as long as his body held up, the gigs became routinized and nostalgia-driven. The most vivid document of how alive they once were is the skillfully compiled two-disc Ray Charles in Concert (Rhino), which opens with the don't-miss Margie Hendrix pas de deux "(Night Time Is) The Right Time" as it cherry-picks shows from 1958, 1959, 1962 and 1964 (the first two, from his rock & roll youth, make up Atlantic's single-disc Ray Charles Live). The 1975 Tokyo and Yokohama performances that fill out the second half of Disc Two betray no letdown. But by the Eighties, the round of bookings began to get old.

Anyway, for whatever reason, his 1978 discofied Atlantic album was dead on its feet, his Nashville period we've covered, his halfhearted modernizations for Warners failed to jell, and the 2002 Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again was sadly diminished. With an artist as restless and prolific as Ray Charles, however, it's never that simple -- the Leon Russell and Paul Simon titles that climax G&S were done for Warners. Anyone who takes time to listen can find favorites in unlikely places -- such as the ancient standard "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" on 1966's surprisingly R&B Ray's Moods; or the "Sail Away" on 1975's Renaissance wickeder than Etta James'; or the great good time he has sharing "Save the Bones for Henry Jones" with Lou Rawls and Milt Jackson on 1988's Just Between Us. Maybe if some taskmaster had compelled Ray Charles to channel his genius, he would have made still more wonderful records. But they wouldn't be as unpredictable -- or, therefore, as wonderful -- as what he produced on his own. That's a terrific trade-off.

Rolling Stone, July 8, 2004