The Genius of Ray Charles

Ray Charles : The Genius of Ray Charles (#20)

Ray Charles | The Genius of Ray Charles (1959)
Atlantic (USA)
Swinging Pop / Traditional Pop / Rhythm and Blues – 37:58

“I never wanted to be famous. I only wanted to be great.”

It could be a quote uttered by a delusional, woefully untalented wannabe on The X Factor; someone with a misplaced self-belief that they are truly an asset to the world, their untapped performing ability waiting to explode on to the world stage. Some of the least talented people in the world are also the most mistaken, believing their own hype. Fortunately the judges are quick to destroy the fantasy, as their attempts to shine prove lacklustre and dull in the harsh light of reality. Still, there is enormous humour in watching these people as they try to stand by their misconceptions, insisting that they really are the Next Big Thing.

Of course, not every egotist has a misplaced self-belief. When Muhammed Ali insisted that “I am the greatest”, there were few then (and fewer now) who would argue that he wasn’t one of the most talented sportsmen to have graced history. Likewise, when Victorian wit Oscar Wilde told US customs officers that “I have nothing to declare but my genius”, the breathtakingly brilliant writer could not be accused of being far from the mark. There are handful of men and women who have the ability to match the confidence in their own talents.

Among those greats stands Ray Charles. Numerous albums highlight his talent in their titles; even his nickname is “The Genius”. But it wasn’t just a deluded boast – many others who knew a thing or two about musical talent regarded him in the same light. Take Frank Sinatra (a man who has already appeared in this blog with two of his own albums), who described him as “the only true genius in show business” (to Ray Charles’ credit, he later played down this comment); or how about Billy Joel – another man whose work will feature at some point on here – who once said: “I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley.” But while his fellow musicians may agree, is it misplaced? Certainly, his fusing of Rhythm and Blues with Gospel and Jazz in the 1950s helped to shape – or, dare I say it, create – Soul. Among the artists who have sited him as an influence include Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison and Billy Joel – not a bad little list. Roger Walters, of Pink Floyd fame, admitted that as a teenager his dream was to make people feel the way he had felt when listening to Georgia On My Mind.

So does Ray Charles’ third album live up to the title? The work can be split neatly into two – the first side of six songs are up-tempo big band and jazz numbers, arranged by Charles’ friend Quincy Jones and featuring musicians from both Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s bands, while the ‘B’ side comprises of six slower numbers, ballads set to an accompaniment of strings. It is certainly the ‘A’ side which stands out, opening with the explosive Let The Good Times Roll, the brass instruments bringing a sense of swagger to the track. The Genius has a distinctive voice which is put to great use – from the opening screams of the first verse to the smoother sound of his tones in the chorus – showcasing his talent not just as a fine pianist but as a vocalist too. Considering he was just 29 at the time of recording, he already had the template set for the work which was to follow for the next four-and-a-half decades. While second track It Had To Be You is by no means the greatest rendition (I would still argue that Harry Connick Jr’s version from the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack is still the definitive version), it is by no means a shoddy one; it certainly shows off the incredible arrangements by Jones. If anything, perhaps that is one of the key differences between the two sides; the ‘A’ side has the bonus of Quincy at the helm for the arrangements and his own genius also shines through.

Perhaps this is where the real genius of Ray Charles lay; it wasn’t that he had a brilliant talent, but rather he was able to choose arrangers, musicians and songs which suited his style and allowed him to present himself at his very best. Again Alexander’s Ragtime Band, the third track, while not showstopping, is still a fine version with some wonderful solo work from the backing band. It is interesting that, as his career progressed, Charles stopped writing his own material and increasingly opted for cover versions (even his most famous song, Georgia On My Mind, was a cover of the 1930 track by Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra – Ray’s version is clearly the greater one although he wouldn’t release it for another year after The Genius of…). Perhaps he was aware that his talent lay in interpreting the pieces which others had composed.

Regardless of the quality, with strong singing and arranging, the album never quite seems to reach the heights which you feel it could. This may be as a result of knowing that greater work was still to come; sadly we won’t get to cover his final album – Genius Loves Company – containing numbers with many of his admirers, such as BB King and Eric Clapton, which remains one of the greatest swansongs to be produced by an artist. However, there is no denying the importance, with the entire record clearly pointing the way that Soul would eventually develop. And for that, if nothing else, Ray Charles deserves his title.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to The Genius of Ray Charles here:

Next time: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book (#19)

Ella Fitzgerald | Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959)
Verve (USA)
Vocal Jazz – 3:16:48

“Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.”

Taking on the challenge of listening to – and writing about – 1,001 albums is proving to be a tall order. I knew from the beginning that it was not going to be a quick task but I didn’t count on exactly what I was letting myself in for. Part of the problem is life itself; with the best will in the world, there is no way that I can spend every night recounting my thoughts on a fresh album that I have just heard a few moments before. But if I only attempt one a week, I will take almost two years to get through just 100 albums. I’ll be writing my final thoughts down in 2035. It’s a long project. But then we all like to set ourselves challenges. And while this may not be the same as conquering Everest, there is still a sense of achievement in accomplishing those goals. It may have taken me six months but I can just about see the end of the 1950s (there are just another four albums to go before we reach the next decade). I am determined that I will get to the end.

Why do we set ourselves such crazy aims in life? To return to the world’s tallest mountain, Edmund Hillary famously insisted that he chose to conquer it “because it was there”. But there is more to it than simply because we can. We want to prove to ourselves that we are capable – and we thrive on the feeling of success that we get from attaining those crowning moments. As George S Patton put it, we set ourselves against seemingly insurmountable odds because we enjoy the feeling when we finally leap that hurdle.

Of course, some of these goals appear easier to achieve than others. But that doesn’t mean that they are any less worthwhile. When I began this project, I had high hopes but low expectations. Whether it is because I am lazy or have a low attention span, I’m not sure; but whatever the reason, despite the best of intentions at the start, I can struggle to finish what I begin. It may not seem much to some, but to make it through 20 albums and still be writing about them in a blog is actually a big deal for me. I feel that maybe – just maybe – I can actually work my way through the entire catalogue. And it is that sense of possibility which pushes me on.

Which brings us to Ella. The First Lady of Song had talent which seemed to simply ooze out of her. She was seemingly capable of singing anything. Having turned her hand to a series of American songwriters’ back catalogues, among them Richard Rogers (of Rogers and Hart fame) and Duke Ellington, Verve record owner Norman Granz set her the challenge of recording the work of George and Ira Gershwin. The result, which spans four discs and 59 songs – and totals a staggering 3 hours 16 minutes – is nothing if not ambitious. The result would become one of Fitzgerald’s crowning achievements, helping her take home a 1960 Grammy award for Best Vocal Performance (Female) for her rendition of But Not For Me. It wasn’t lightly that Ira Gershwin claimed that he had “never known how good our songs were until I heard Ella sing them”.

A great deal of credit can undoubtedly be laid at the doors of not just George and Ira Gershwin (George may have died more than 20 years earlier, but Ira was on hand to help with the arrangements of some of the songs – a few of which had never been heard before). However, there was another name in the background – one whom we’ve come across already in this blog – who was able to lend his own talents to producing such wonderful arrangements. Step forward Nelson Riddle, the man who, just four years earlier, had helped to revive Sinatra’s career with In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning. He’s even given his own chance to shine on this album, with the opening instrumental numbers of the Ambulatory Suite (consisting of Promenade (Walking the Dog), March of the Swiss Soldiers and Fidgety Feet) and The Preludes allowing him to display his mastery – even if, by the end, you are beginning to crave hearing the sound of the Queen of Jazz.

And when her voice kicks in, belting out Samson and Delilah, Ella does not disappoint. Like many of these early artists, while I could recognise the names – and even tell you a few of the songs they had performed – I had never really sat down and listened to any of their work. As a result, I was essentially coming to Lady Ella without any knowledge of how she would sound, despite carrying all the baggage that being labelled a legend had brought to her name. It is safe to say, it is one of the most beautiful and melodious voices that I have ever heard. It drips with a sultry tone that makes each song seem effortless. From the fast paced numbers to the slower romantic tracks, Fitzgerald is able to bring emotion and sparkle to each one she touches. There is little doubt that she was a talent who could deliver a masterclass in singing with anything she chose to perform.

It is quite a selection she has left us on this album too. Although it is probably one of the longest albums to feature in this list – although, without actually checking, I have my suspicions that it may not hold the top title – the three hours soon whizz past. Each song, performed in full (including those sometimes missed introductions to the numbers), is a joy to listen to. Admittedly the more upbeat numbers seem to suit Ella’s style better; you can certainly hear the joy and warmth in her voice as she performs them. Yet, even the slower numbers are a wonder to hear. Picking a favourite is simply impossible – before we’ve even finished the first disc, we’ve covered definitive versions of Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, (I’ve Got) Beginner’s Luck, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and ‘S Wonderful. Here is a singer at the top of her game, backed by an arranger who can do no wrong, performing some of the greatest songs ever written by a team of incredibly talented American songwriters. It almost doesn’t seem fair to anybody else. But the result is so sublime, so enchanting – even (dare I say it) so ‘S Wonderful – that you can’t really care. It may seem hyperbolic to describe this as the definitive collection of the American songbook, but, if you have three hours to spare – and I strongly suggest that you find them – you’ll be hard pressed not to agree.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book here:

Next time: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles