Ray Charles: Rare Genius

Chris May By

Sign in to view read count
Concord's reissue of vocalist and keyboardist Ray Charles' albums for ABC-Paramount, the label he moved to from Atlantic in 1959, is a mixed bag. It includes two winners, The Genius Hits The Road (1960) and Modern Sounds In Country Music Vols. 1 & 2 (1962), a so-so concept album, A Message From The People (1973)—and, in Live In Concert (1965), a stone masterpiece, Charles' all-round best live album. This edition is made essential listening by the inclusion of six previously unreleased tracks from the September 1964, Los Angeles performance at which it was recorded.

The reissues are accompanied by Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters, a topnotch collection of tracks recorded between 1972 and the mid-1990s.

Ray Charles

Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters



The liner notes to this disc include a revealing statement from its executive producers. They read, in part, "We are quite reasonably confident in assessing all of these tracks as being previously unreleased." Normally, "Previously unreleased" is the unequivocal phrase employed. The statement confirms that some, perhaps much, of the material on the huge number of tapes held by the Ray Charles Foundation has yet to be authoritatively archived.

It is a revealing, but not surprising, statement. During a recording career which spanned the late 1940s to the early 2000s, Charles recorded prolificallly, live and in the studio, and amassed a vast library of self-produced demo and basic-track recordings.

Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters' closing track, "Why Me Lord?," on which Charles sings and plays piano alongside singer and guitarist Johnny Cash, gives an idea of some of the complexities facing researchers. Despite paying Charles a five figure fee for his contribution—and this was back in 1981—Cash's label never released "Why Me Lord?" Neither was any record kept of the musicians accompanying Charles and Cash on the Nashville session. The track—like everything here, a better-than-good one—has lain in a vault until now, its existence known to producer Billy Sherrill and, presumably, few others.

Credits for seven other of the ten tracks on Rare Genius carry the words, "Original session musicians unknown." The earliest track was recorded in 1972, the latest 1995, and half date from the early 1980s. Six tracks include musicians in addition to the original session personnel, who in 2010 were overdubbed for this project.

Difficulties of attribution are not the producers' fault, and artistically, Rare Genius is a class act. Charles, as singer and keyboardist, is in top form. The additional musicians, some of them alumni of Charles' band, have been woven in with taste: they don't elbow their way forward, and are there only to plug the gaps in the original recordings. Occasionally, as with Ray Brink's additional drums on "She's Gone," recorded by Charles "circa early 1980s," they are so self-effacing that they approach the merely metronomic. But better to veer that way than the opposite.

The material is a well programmed mix of R&B, country and pop—Charles' typical menu from the mid-1960s onwards. There is not a dud among them. Standouts include a moody "Wheel Of Fortune," a pop hit for Kay Starr in 1952; a blues drenched reimagining of "There'll Be Some Changes Made," written in 1921; the aforementioned country tracks "Why Me Lord?" and "She's Gone;" and an easy swinging "Love's Gonna Bite You Back," a hit for R&B singer Annie Laurie in 1957.

Ray Charles

The Genius Hits The Road


2011 (1960)

It is generally believed that Charles' move from Atlantic to ABC-Paramount resulted in a more mainstream/crossover direction, at least on record. And that is, generally, true (though let us not forget that 1961's landmark album, Genius + Soul = Jazz, was recorded for ABC's Impulse! subsidiary).

The question is, did Charles become less enjoyable with the new trajectory? If you are not a diehard gospel or R&B fan, the answer has to be: no. For like singer and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, Charles—with his sandpaper through silk vocal textures and masterful phrasing—could turn even the dodgiest pop song into something compelling.

He has to do that quite a lot on The Genius Hits The Road, over 12 tracks which include readings of "Alabamy Bound," "Mississippi Mud" and "Blue Hawaii," each delivered without a note of irony. On the upside, the album features Charles' kick-ass road band of the period—the three piece trumpet section included Marcus Belgrave, the three piece saxophone section included David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford—and the arrangements, by Ralph Burns, four for a string orchestra, eight for the band, are alternately lush and roaring.

Of the with-strings tracks, "Moonlight In Vermont" and "Georgia On My Mind" (a huge hit when ABC released it as a single), are as sublime as balladeering gets. The Raeletts featuring Margie Hendrix are heard on just one track, the gospel-infused "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny," and are in wailing form.

This reissue includes seven bonus tracks, all previously released and all, like those on the original album, with place names or references to travel in their titles. Among them is the chart single "Hit The Road Jack," recorded a year later, and 1972's uber-soulful "Rainy Night In Georgia."

It may not be the Atlantic R&B masterpiece In Person, recorded live in Atlanta the year before, but The Genius Hits The Road hits a spot.

Ray Charles

Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music Vols. 1 & 2


2011 (1962)

The controversy caused by Charles' two albums of country music, which were released at either end of 1962, was extraordinary—but not, perhaps, as universally felt as legend has it 50 years on. In the South, where Charles grew up, black and white people routinely listened to and played songs from the opposite side of the racial divide. It was only at society's extremes that this was considered unacceptable.

And so it was with Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. Some white people objected to a black man singing "their" songs, and some black people accused Charles of dishonorable dealings with the white man. But while, on a purely musical basis, Charles' hardcore R&B/gospel audience was again disappointed, most people who heard them, loved the albums.

The idea came from Charles, not ABC's sales department (which was at first nonplussed, but soon recognized the commercial potential). With band arrangements from Gerald Wilson and Gil Fuller, and string arrangements from Marty Paich, Volume 1 was recorded in February 1962, and released with the band tracks alternating with the strings tracks. So immediate was its success that the same team (sans Fuller, but with the addition of the Raeletts on a couple of tracks) reassembled in September to record Volume 2, which was rush-released seven weeks later, this time with the band tracks on side one, and the strings tracks on side two.

A handful of the 24 tracks which comprise the two albums must be known to practically anyone who has ever been near a radio—the mega hits "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Take These Chains From My Heart" among them. Most of the material, however, has received much less airplay and, to the uninitiated, will sound as fresh as it must have done on first release. These are delightful albums, here together on one disc.

Ray Charles

Live In Concert


2011 (1965)

Charles' late-1950s live albums on Atlantic—At Newport (1958) and the aforementioned In Person (1960), recorded in Atlanta—were both masterpieces, almost unbeatable. Remarkably, Live In Concert, Charles' first live disc on ABC, is even better. The occasion was a performance at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium in September, 1964.

Three things give Live In Concert its extra edge. Wally Heider's superbly well-balanced and resonant recording was, for its time, state-of-the-art, and is superior to both the Newport and Atlanta recordings. Charles' band, newly expanded to 15 pieces plus the Raeletts, never sounded better. Third, and perhaps most importantly, neither Charles nor his band were aware the performance was being recorded. Manager Joe Adams engaged (and paid for) Heider privately: he wanted to capture a typically hair-down Charles performance, so did not want anyone on stage knowing, or caring, that they were being recorded.

It was a great call. And it gets better. This 2011 reissue includes six previously unreleased tracks recorded at the same concert—including a spicey reading of the Quincy Jones-arranged "One Mint Julep" and an achingly soulful "Georgia On My Mind," both of them featuring Charles on organ. "Georgia" was the fifth tune in the set, and whereas the audience can be heard going wild during the preceding "One Mint Julep" and the 7:26 minute "I Got A Woman," you could have heard the proverbial pin drop during "Georgia."

The set list, too, is manna for Charles' Atlantic-era fans. It includes some country and pop songs, but the focus is on upbeat, hot R&B, with solo time for Charles and saxophonists Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman on the longer tracks. A landmark album, particularly so with the inclusion of the previously unreleased tracks.

Ray Charles

A Message From The People


2011 (1973)

In a sense, every Ray Charles album was a message from the people. During the counterculture years of the 1960s, Charles recorded very few "protest" songs, but many of the songs he sang were written by, or informed by the experiences of, working people, both black and white. His keeping-it-real vocals brought them vividly to life.

In 1972, however, he decided to record an explicit message album, focusing on material which highlighted the disadvantages and prejudices confronting black Americans in their everyday lives, and making a plea for their aspirations to be welcomed and facilitated.

A Message From The People was a project close to Charles' heart, but it is not his most enduring album. Forty years on, the big band, string orchestra and vocal chorus arrangements (by Quincy Jones, Sid Feller and Mike Post), sound rather bland and very dated, an at times overly saccharine, AM radio confection. Charles himself is, as ever, in the moment and soaring, but the accompaniments tend to drift out earshot.

Like anything Charles recorded, not without merit, but a disc for completists only.

Tracks and Personnel

Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters

Tracks: Love's Gonna Bite You Back; It Hurts To Be In Love; Wheel Of Fortune; I'm Gonna Keep On Singin'; There'll Be Some Changes Made; Isn't It Wonderful; I Don't Want No One But You; A Little Bitty Tear; She's Gone; Why Me Lord?

Personnel: Ray Charles: vocals, piano, keyboards; various personnels.

The Genius Hits The Road

Tracks: Alabamy Bound; Georgia On My Mind; Basin Street Blues; Mississippi Mud; Moonlight In Vermont; New York's My Home; California Here I Come; Moon Over Miami; Deep In The Heart Of Texas; Carry Me Back To Old Virginny; Blue Hawaii; Chatttanooga Choo-Choo. Bonus Tracks: Hit The Road Jack; Sentimental Journey; Blue Moon Of Kentucky; Rainy Night In Georgia; The Long And Winding Road; I Was On Georgia Time; Take Me Home Country Roads.

Personnel: Ray Charles: vocals, piano; various personnels.

Modern Sounds In Country Music Vols. 1& 2

Tracks: Bye Bye Love; You Don't Know Me; Half As Much; I Love You So Much It Hurts; Just A Little Lovin'; Born To Lose; Worried Mind; It Makes No Difference Now; You Win Again; Careless Love; I Can't Stop Loving You; Hey Good Lookin'; You Are My Sunshine; No Letter Today; Someday (You'll Want Me To Want You); Don't Tell Me Your Troubles; Midnight; Oh Lonesome Me; Take These Chains From My Heart; Your Cheating Heart; I'll Never Stand In Your Way; Making Believe; Teardrops In My Heart; Hang Your Head In Shame.

Personnel: Ray Charles: vocals, piano; various personnels.

Live In Concert

Tracks: Opening; Swing A Little Taste; One Mint Julep; I Got A Woman; Georgia On My Mind; Margie; You Don't Know Me; Hide Nor Hair; That Lucky Old Sun; Baby Don't You Cry; In The Evening (When The Sun Goes Down); Hallelujah I Love Her So; Makin' Whoopee; Busted; Don't Set Me Free; Two Ton Tessie; By Baby (I Love Her So Yes I Do); What'd I Say; Finale.

Personnel: Ray Charles: vocal, piano, organ; Oliver Beener: trumpet; Phil Guilbeau: trumpet; Wallace Davenport: trumpet; John Hunt: trumpet, flugelhorn; Julian Priester: trombone; James Herbert: trombone; Henderson Chambers: trombone; Hank Crawford: alto saxophone; David "Fathead" Newman: tenor saxophone; Bill Pearson: alto saxophone, flute; Keg Johnson: baritone saxophone; Leroy Cooper: baritone saxophone; Sonny Forriest: guitar; Edgar Willis: bass; Wilbert Hogan: drums; The Raeletts: backing vocals.

A Message From The People

Tracks: Lift Every Voice And Sing; Seems Like I Gotta Do Wrong; Heaven Help Us All; There'll Be No Peace Without All Men As One; Hey Mister; What Have They Done To My Song Ma; Abraham Martin And John; Take Me Home Country Roads; Every Saturday Night; America The Beautiful.

Personnel: Ray Charles: vocals, piano, keyboards; remaining personnel not credited.

Post a comment



Shop Amazon


All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.