Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ray Charles: "Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles" (2011) Box Set


Early on in his career the word "genius" was included in Ray Charles' record titles (The Genius Of Ray Charles, 1959; The Genius Hits The Road, 1960; The Genius Sings The Blues, 1961). With anyone else, it would seem the height of arrogance. With him, it somehow seems an understatement. Then last year saw the release of Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters. And now we get this amazing box set titled Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles. I like that he's gone from "rare" to "singular," because really there is no one else like Ray Charles.

This collection is amazing, featuring all the singles he released on ABC from 1960 to 1973. Yes, the hits are here - "Georgia On My Mind," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "You Don't Know Me" - but there are also the flip sides, and a lot of these tunes have not been available before on CD. (And let's face: a B side from Ray Charles is like an A side from anybody else.)

Ray Charles had already achieved stardom by this point, with songs like "I Got A Woman" and "What'd I Say" released on his previous label, Atlantic. But he was still growing as an artist. This period saw some of his greatest performances, and contains fantastic energy and tremendous playing. Has ever a voice contained so much emotion? Has ever a voice been rough and sweet simultaneously, as it is on "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny"? His voice can drive away my cares and concerns on a tune like "Hopelessly," then get me dancing with a song like "I Don't Need No Doctor." Soul, blues, country, rock and roll, jazz... Ray Charles can do it all, and do it all insanely well, taking each genre and making it his own.

Some of these tracks have an orchestra; some have a more raw feel. Some have both. But all are gems. This is an incredible collection.

Disc One Features "Georgia On My Mind"

This collection begins, oddly, with a female lead singer - Margie Hendrix in an impressive performance. It's not until forty-nine seconds into the first track, "My Baby (I Love Her Yes I Do)," that we finally hear Ray Charles sing. This groovy song has a slow swing with a ton of spunk. Written by Ray Charles, this song was actually the flip side to "Who You Gonna Love."

"Worried Life Blues" is a seriously cool blues tune. The flip side to "Sticks And Stones," it begins with a spoken word intro by Sid Feller. He says, "Say Ray, you sure look mighty sad." Ray responds, "Man, that's because I got the blues." Sid then tells him to go ahead and sing the blues. This song features a short solo on sax by David Newman.

"Georgia On My Mind" is of course the big hit that made Ray Charles a mainstream star. This song reached #1 on the pop chart. Ralph Burns did the arrangement for this beautiful rendition.

"Hit The Road, Jack" is one of the coolest tunes of all time. Written by Percy Mayfield (who also penned the single's flip side, "The Danger Zone"), this song features some great vocal work by Margie Hendrix and the rest of the Raelettes. The only problem with this song is its length. It fades out before the two-minute mark, when it feels to be hitting its stride. I always want more. This was released in August, 1961.

"But On The Other Hand, Baby" is a late-night smokey tune with some wonderful work on horn, blowing sweetly over Ray's piano. That's Phil Guilbeau on trumpet. This song starts with the line, "You know I'm hooked for you, mama," with a reference to Ray's drug habit. "But On The Other Hand, Baby" was written by Ray Charles and Percy Mayfield.

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" wasn't a hit on its initial release in January 1962 (reaching only to #91 on the charts), but it's definitely had staying power, and I'm thankful for that. It's a great duet, a sort of seduction (possibly helped by drugs - "Say, what's in this drink"). Betty Carter provides that wonderful second set of vocals. Betty Carter also sings on the B side, "We'll Be Together Again."

"At The Club," written by Percy Mayfield, begins with the sound of a crowd at the club. This excellent tune features some cool work on bass by Edgar Willis, as well as a wonderfully funny ending. Ray sings, "Because if you're a policeman's woman, just talking to you is a crime." And then a deep voice comes in, "That's right, bud, let's go."

"You Don't Know Me" is one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. And like most beautiful songs, it's sad. This song reached #2 on The Billboard Hot 100. "You Don't Know Me" plays a prominent part in one of my favorite films, Groundhog Day.

The first disc ends "Careless Love," written by Ray Charles (with a repeated reference to "Amazing Grace" in the line "I once was blind but now I see"). It was released in July 1962.

Disc Two

Ray Charles can cover a wide range of material and be true to its sources while adding his own special magic. The second disc begins with his excellent cover of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart." Ray Charles has often delved into country music, and in 1962 released two albums titled Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music and Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music Volume 2 ("Your Cheatin' Heart" was on the second volume).

"Take These Chains From My Heart" is another country tune, and clearly on a theme Ray Charles dug ("Unchain My Heart" is on the first disc). Written by Fred Rose and Hy Heath, this song was originally recorded by Hank Williams. In the section that is just piano, bass and drums it has a definite jazz feel, which is wonderful.

A phenomenal live version of "Busted" was included on Live In Concert, released earlier this year. Here in this collection is the original single, released in the summer of 1963. This is a song that really speaks to many of us in this horrible economy, with lines like "A big stack of bills that gets bigger each day" and "I am no thief, but a man can go wrong when he's busted." Ray Charles makes me feel a bit better about being broke. Singing this song will raise your spirits too. Sing it loudly!

Ray Charles eases you into "That Lucky Old Sun." It's a slow and glorious version. He gives a pretty incredible vocal performance here.

"Ol' Man Time" is a fun tune with a big band sound. This delightful song, written by Cliff Friend and Jack Reynolds, features lyrics lines like "Ol' man time is a bugaboo/Every year he changes you/He bends your back, dims your eyes." But there's hope, for there's one thing he can't change: "Love that's true stays the same."

"Something's Wrong" is one of my favorite tracks. It's one of those cool tunes that catches you by surprise. His vocal performance has a bit of a playful quality. This has a slow build. The horns seem to want to take the song in a brighter direction, but each time Ray's voice brings it back down. He won't allow himself to be happy here. After all, something is wrong. And that's not going away. "Something's Wrong" was written by Percy Mayfield.

"Makin' Whoopee" is a live track recorded on September 20, 1964. That show was released as Live In Concert by Concord Music group earlier this year. According to the liner notes of that CD, this is the only recording of Ray Charles performing this song. On that CD, it's a single track. Here it is divided into two tracks, as it was when originally released as a single. The first track fades out after he jokes, "You know what I've been doing." The second track is instrumental. Interestingly, the order was reversed for the single (and thus this collection). It's actually the instrumental section that came first in the actual performance. Ray didn't start singing until approximately two and a half minutes in. This song has a great loose and sexy, yet funny vibe.

Disc Three Features Buck Owens Songs

The second disc featured the two-part concert performance of "Makin' Whoopie." The third disc also features a two-part live track, recorded at the same concert. This time it's "I've Got A Woman," which was also included on Live In Concert. These two tracks are pure fun. The first fades out, and the second picks up where the first left off. "I've Got A Woman" was written by Ray Charles and Renald Richard.

That's followed by another two-part song, the absolutely gorgeous "Without A Song." (Shockingly, this song did not chart.) The first track fades out, but the second has its own fresh start, and could stand on its own. "Without A Song" is definitely a stand-out in a collection of incredible recordings. Just set aside all distractions, close your eyes and listen.

The third disc finds Ray Charles covering three Buck Owens songs. The first, "Love's Gonna Live Here," is a peppy, wonderful little tune with some great backing vocals, nice work on guitar, and a positive attitude. Ray switches gears with "Crying Time," a sad, crying-in-your-beer, end-of-a-relationship type of song. In that one he sings, "Now they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder/And that tears are only rain to make love grow/Well, my love for you could never grow no stronger/If I live to be a hundred years old." I love the fiddle. The third Buck Owens song, "Together Again," is a sweet tune, pulling us out of whatever despair we might have feen feeling during "Crying Time." Ray Charles does a couple of surprising things vocally right near the end of the track.

"You're Just About To Lose Your Clown" features Billy Preston on organ, Don Peake on guitar and Earl Palmer on drums. How's that for a great band? Plus, this is a damn cool song, written by Johnny MacRae. That same group plays on "Let's Go Get Stoned," a song Joe Cocker did on Mad Dogs & Englishmen. This rendition by Ray Charles is so smooth in sections.

"The Train" is a fantastic dance tune with a slow groove. Written by Ray Charles, this is one of my favorites. I could do without the train sound effects at the end, but it's a great track all the same.

Disc Four Features Two Beatles Songs

I love songs like "Here We Go Again," songs with an easy groove, great vocals, and good work on piano. Songs you want to sing along to, or drink to. And this one features Billy Preston on organ. Lillie Fort provides the wonderful backing vocals on this one.

On the fourth disc there are two Beatles covers. First, he takes "Yesterday," and combines the gentle sound of the strings with his incredibly raw vocal performance. The results are intense and highly emotional. This was recorded in 1967, when The Beatles were boldly striking off into new territory. In the second Beatles song, "Eleanor Rigby," Ray Charles changes the vocal rhythm to make it his own. It's interesting. It throws you off at first, but being a bit unbalanced is a great way to come at this song anew. Ray's voice somehow embodies all of the lonely people. It's just this side of magical.

"Understanding" blew me away with its graphically violent passage. Written by Ray Charles and Jimmy Holiday, this song was the flip side to "Eleanor Rigby," and I can't help but think it surprised a good number of people who bought the single.

The fourth disc ends with a sweet and slow rendition of the Gershwin tune "Someone To Watch Over Me."

Disc Five

The fifth disc opens with "Laughin' And Clownin,'" a wonderful bluesy number written by Sam Cooke. Recorded in 1968, but not released until January of 1970, this track features Freddy Robinson on guitar.

"Feel So Bad" is a seriously cool, funky tune written by James Johnson and Leslie Temple. It features excellent work by Don Peake on guitar and Carol Kaye on bass. Ray is clearly having a ball with this song.

Ray Charles gets insanely playful in his rendition of "Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma." I've always loved Melanie Safka, and Ray's version of one of her biggest tunes is absolutely wonderful. He introduces the French section by wsaying, "Now girls, if you don't mind, I'd like to hear this in French." And then he gives it a go himself, before concluding, "My French must be pretty bad/I'd better do this in English." It's little touches like that that prove delightful. But he's still true to Melanie's song.

The flip side to "Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma" is "America The Beautiful." Now I've never claimed to be patriotic, but Ray Charles' rendition of this song is so gorgeous that I almost wish I could be.

"Hey Mister" is an impassioned plea (or demand) to the government to solve the poverty problem in this country. It even mentions impeachment ("The poor people know that they can't impeach you/They're just hoping that their cries will reach you.") This record came out in November of 1972. Ray sounds truly angry on this one. It's excellent. I love these lines: "Foreign aid is well and good/But why don't you give some of that money to the neighborhood?"

John Denver's such a great songwriter, and Ray Charles does a excellent job on "Take Me Home, Country Roads." This is such a beautiful song. The end is wonderful with the backing vocalists.

This disc, and thus the collection, ends with a strange rendition of "Ring Of Fire." It's quite a bit different from Johnny Cash's version, and concludes with Ray whispering, "The ring of fire/Your ring of fire burns," and then giving a whispered laugh. It was released in April, 1973 (though it was actually recorded in May of 1970).

CD Track List

Disc One

  1. My Baby (I Love Her Yes I Do)
  2. Who You Gonna Love
  3. Sticks And Stones
  4. Worried Life Blues
  5. Georgia On My Mind
  6. Carry Me Back To Old Virginny
  7. Them That Got
  8. I Wonder
  9. Ruby
  10. Heardhearted Hannah
  11. Hit The Road, Jack
  12. The Danger Zone
  13. Unchain My Heart
  14. But On The Other Hand, Baby
  15. Baby, It's Cold Outside
  16. We'll Be Together Again
  17. At The Club
  18. Hide Nor Hair
  19. I Can't Stop Loving You
  20. Born To Lose
  21. You Don't Know Me
  22. Careless Love

Disc Two

  1. Your Cheatin' Heart
  2. You Are My Sunshine
  3. Don't Set Me Free
  4. The Brightest Smile In Town
  5. Take These Chains From My Heart
  6. No Letter Today
  7. Without Love (There Is Nothing)
  8. No One
  9. Busted
  10. Make Believe
  11. That Lucky Old Sun
  12. Ol' Man Time
  13. Baby, Don't You Cry
  14. My Heart Cries For You
  15. My Baby Don't Dig Me
  16. Something's Wrong
  17. No One To Cry To
  18. A Tear Fell
  19. Smack Dab In The Middle
  20. I Wake Up Cryin'
  21. Makin' Whoopee (Vocal) (Live)
  22. Makin' Whoopee (Piano) (Live)

Disc Three

  1. Teardrops From My Eyes
  2. Cry
  3. I've Got A Woman (Part 1)
  4. I've Got A Woman (Part 2)
  5. Without A Song (Part 1)
  6. Without A Song (Part 2)
  7. I'm A Fool To care
  8. Love's Gonna Live Here
  9. The Cincinnati Kid
  10. That's All I Am To You
  11. Crying Time
  12. When My Dreamboat Comes Home
  13. Together Again
  14. You're Just About To Lose Your Clown
  15. Let's Go Get Stoned
  16. The Train
  17. I Chose To Sing The Blues
  18. Hopelessly
  19. I Don't Need No Doctor
  20. Please Say You're Fooling
  21. I Want To Talk About You
  22. Something Inside Me

Disc Four

  1. Here We Go Again
  2. Somebody Ought To Write A Book About It
  3. In The Heat Of The Night
  4. Something's Got To Change
  5. Yesterday
  6. Never Had Enough Of Nothing Yet
  7. That's A Lie
  8. Go On Home
  9. Eleanor Rigby
  10. Understanding
  11. Sweet Young Thing Like You
  12. Listen, They're Playing My Song
  13. If It Wasn't For Bad Luck
  14. When I Stop Dreaming
  15. I'll Be Your Servant
  16. I Didn't Know What Time It Was
  17. Let Me Love You
  18. I'm Satisfied
  19. We Can Make It
  20. I Can't Stop Loving You, Babby
  21. Claudie Mae
  22. Someone To Watch Over Me

Disc Five

  1. Laughin' And Clownin'
  2. That Thing Called Love
  3. Till I Can't Take It Anymore
  4. If You Were Mine
  5. Don't Change On Me
  6. Sweet Memories
  7. Feel So Bad
  8. Your Love Is So Doggone Good
  9. What Am I Living For
  10. Tired Of My Tears
  11. Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma
  12. America The Beautiful
  13. Hey Mister
  14. There'll Be No Peace Without All Men As One
  15. Every Saturday Night
  16. Take Me Home, Country Roads
  17. I Can Make It Thru The Days (But Oh Those Lonely Nights)
  18. Ring Of Fire

Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles is scheduled to be released on November 15, 2011.

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