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

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