Friday, November 18, 2011

The Singular Genius of Ray Charles

Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles is the aptly titled box set issued by Concord of all of the singles issued by Ray Charles after he left Atlantic Records and signed with ABC Paramount. This complements the reissue of Charles’ Atlantic singles, The Birth of Soul that was issued a number of years ago and takes us through 1970 and through some very familiar and iconic recordings. The 106 tracks are spread over 5 physical CDs and contain a booklet with an overview of the music from Billy Vera and session information about the selections included. As Vera notes, some of Charles’ latter recordings.

As Vera observes, fans of Charles often are divided between those with a preference for the early R&B singes with the legendary eight piece band and those who enjoy his latter recordings often with a big band or full orchestra that cover a wider variety of material. It should be noted that even Charles Atlantic singles and recordings transcended the blues, rhythm and blues to include jazz. And while with Atlantic, he recorded the brilliant album The Genius of Ray Charles which indicated his future direction with big band and orchestral charts from Quincy Jones and Ralph Burns.

One reason perhaps some prefer the Atlantic period is the more homogenous material and musical framework of those recordings. ABC gave Charles greater leeway in the material he recorded and Sid Feller oversaw Charles recordings, as opposed to pro due them. So there was considerable variety in the material including pop and country songs as well as blues and jazz classics. He would, in some cases, be backed by a big band, on others with an orchestra with strings, and there also were some small combo recordings. Furthermore on some recordings there would be a vocal chorale as opposed to gospel-based Raeletts.

While his earliest recordings were on ABC Paramount, Charles was able to have his own label, Tangerine where he could record musical idols like Louis Jordan and the sophisticated blues of the songwriter Percy Mayfield who contributed the signature Charles recording Hit the Road Jack, along with The Danger Zone, At the Club and Hide Nor Hair. There are the duets with Betty Carter including Baby Its Cold Outsidewhich was a bit more sophisticated than either the Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald recording or Hot Lips Page and Pearl Bailey.

While with ABC, Charles would record his pathfinding albums of country music and many of those classic recordings are also included as are his singular interpretations of The Beatles’ Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby. Standards such as Without Love and “Without a Song” (in two parts, one a vocal, the other instrumental) are mixed with the Harlan Howard classic that Charles invigorated “Busted,” and he never forgot his roots in the blues withWorried Life Blues (the flip to Sticks and Stones), Sam Cooke’s Laughin’ and Clownin’, and the Chuck Willis classics Feel So Bad and What Am I Living For. The latter number has a country flavor in the backing (which also evokes Sam Cooke's Bring it Home To Me) with the choral backing and the steel guitar in the orchestral backing along with a nice bluesy guitar solo. Not that long after he would record his classic rendition of America The Beautiful.

Its fascinating that on his last singles he would cover Silas Hogan's Every Saturday Night, with a smoldering big band rendition, and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. One might argue that the performances as a whole are not as consistent as the Atlantic recordings. Perhaps its the wide range of material he covers and not everything comes across with the emotional gravity of his best work. With a few rare exceptions, Charles was able to invest so much of himself in his music and placed his own stamp on his recordings and performances. On occasion he would not be able to transcend the sentimentality of a few songs, but that is the exception as can be heard here.

Oddly, my only complaint is that extracting the CDs from the box they come in can be tricky at times. Singular Genius is an apt title, and one can readily doubt whether we will ever see another performer with so much soul and so much musical depth. That genius and depth is evident here.

I received a review copy of the box from a publicist or Concord. This would obviously make a great gift for the musical aficionado in your family or circle of good friends.

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