If you want a Ray Charles best-of album you've got plenty to pick from, and the run-up to the holiday season often adds another one. But this year's contender, the 21-track, 71-minute Genius: The Ultimate Collection, stands out from the crowd. For three reasons...
First, the choice of tracks has a tight, coherent focus. Aside from a 1964 live version of "Hallelujah I Love Her So" and a 1972 studio recording of "America The Beautiful," all the selections made the R&B Top 10 on original release between 1955 and 1967. Those dozen years represent what many listeners regard as Charles' purple periodpacked with often quite raw R&B, jazz and gospel melanges, before country and western and out-and-out pop began to dominate his output.
Second, the sound quality is outstanding. Many of Charles' recordings, including most of those included here, have undergone incremental improvements to audio quality during their multiple-reissue lifetime. Bob Fisher's remastering gives Charles' voice, those of the Raelettes, and every individual instrument or orchestra section unprecedented presence and separation, so that the familiar tracks leap out of the speakers as fresh as newly tendered mint juleps.
Third, the packaging, particularly on the DeLuxe Edition, is immaculate. For this edition, the disc is presented in a hardbound A5-sized book, its heavyweight gloss pages including 23 infrequently seen photos of Charles or reprints of contemporary concert billboards, all reproduced full-page. Don Heckman's introductory essay and track commentaries are pithy, factual and authoritative. It would have been nice to have the personnel listings, but the probability that Heckman knows all of them by heart at least suggests their deliberate exclusion, presumably for reasons of space, rather than their lazy omission. The DeLuxe Edition also contains two extra tracks, "Your Cheating Heart" and "Without Love (There Is Nothing)."
Quite who compiled Genius: The Ultimate Collection is unclear. Was it Heckman, or Chris Clough, billed as Compilation Producer? Whoever it was did a mighty fine job.
Hit The Road Jack; What'd I Say (Part 1); Busted; I Can't Stop Loving You; Sticks And Stones; Drown In My Own Tears; Unchain My Heart; Georgia On My Mind; I've Got A Woman; You Are My Sunshine; Take These Chains From My Heart; Hide Nor Hair; Let's Go Get Stoned; You Don't Know Me; Hallelujah I Love Her So (Live); Crying Time; A Fool For You; One Mint Julep; Here We Go Again; Yesterday; America The Beautiful.
Ray Charles: vocals, piano, organ; other personnel not credited.