Ray Charles
Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection

In a time where the words “classic,” “superstar” and “legendary” are tossed around like confetti on New Year’s Eve, it’s good for everyone’s ego to acknowledge a true legendary superstar. Ray Charles is a legend.

The problem with being a legend is that too often people pay respect to the legend but forget to pay respect to how they became legendary. Sure everyone can instantly picture Ray Charles and even sing parts of three or four songs. People loved him enough to make a movie, but to paraphrase the mighty rap group Whodini, Charles’ fame is often discussed but seldom heard. Doing its part to set the record straight, Concord Records has compiled Genuis: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection.

There are a couple of problems with calling any single disc Charles collection “ultimate.” The first is that Charles has an almost six-decade body of work. A single CD would have a mighty hard time trying to sum that up in 80 minutes. But the bigger problem is that Charles recorded for a number of different labels over his career. There have been a couple of remarkable box sets that have done the best job in reuniting Charles’ songs and are as close to being definitive as can be.

However, the main problem with Genius is that it lacks any sort of big surprises. Of course, this type of compilation is going to have the hits to pull in the casual fans. By hearing this varied mix you realize why and how the emergence of Charles was such a shock to pop radio. By combining R&B with a church influence and touches of blues to create “soul” music, Charles was a master craftsman whose vocal delivery cut to the bone. It’s a revelation to hear “Georgia On My Mind” outside of its now overly Muzak’ed and misappropriated context. Instead of a love letter to the state, it’s actually a plea to a woman from a man who has clearly spent some dark nights with a bottle. But is there really anyone who doesn’t have access to that song and other such staples as “Hit The Road Jack,” “Unchain My Heart” and “What I Say”?

Where the collection succeeds is by highlighting some forgotten songs from Charles’ catalog. There’s a jaw-dropping cover of “You Are My Sunshine” that strips away all of the syrupy sweet baggage and recasts it as horn-driven bluesy barnburner. And who can’t love the real talk in “Let’s Go Get Stoned?” It’s about having a bad day and going and getting bombed, and wins for the outrageous factor alone. What may be the biggest shock, though, is that Ray was actually a pretty depressing writer. Woman are always leaving him or he’s trying to win them back or prove himself as worthy. An adventurous emo band could mine Charles’ catalog and ride that train to the bank—or at least to high MySpace page views.

Unfortunately the glaring failure of this “ultimate” collection is that all the songs are from the same time period. There’s barely any attempt to touch upon his later work. And the choices, an overwrought and misguided cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the overly beloved “America The Beautiful,” stick out like drag queens at a gun show. While any opportunity to listen to Ray Charles is a good one, The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection falls short of its title.
Dorian S. Ham