The word Genius is thrown around far too cavalierly. At this writing, Michael Jackson (the self-proclaimed King of Pop) has been dead only a few days, and tributes everywhere call the onetime child star a genius. Oh yeah? I recently sat through Martin Bashir’s 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson (an icky title in light of subsequent events, it must be said), and to me, one scene is particularly telling: In Jackson’s studio, Bashir asks Jackson to demonstrate how he writes music. Seated at a grand piano, Jackson purrs that he’s too shy. Bashir presses him, and so Michael prepares to give in. So then he demonstrates how he “writes a song.” He stands up, presses “play” on a nearby machine, and out comes a backing loop from his 1982 hit single “Billie Jean.” Jackson then proceeds to dance, and moonwalk, and all that shit. That, my friends, is how the genius wrote songs, I guess.
Ray Charles was a musician. He actually played instruments (most notably and famously, the Wurlitzer Electric Piano and the organ). He wrote music. He wrote lyrics. He led a band as a musician. He managed a long, long list of accomplishments; it will be many years before his full contribution is realized. He was one of the first “crossover” artists, showing — especially with his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums — that a great song is a great song. He broke through to white audiences at a time when few African Americans did so. He toured endlessly and released dozens upon dozens of albums, often several in a single year. All without grabbing his crotch onstage or engaging in extramusical shenanigans merely to gain press. The. Man. Was. A. Genius.
Jackson released eight solo albums. Two were arguably excellent, if you like that kind of thing. Six were good-to-fair. Jackson was, from 1979 to around 1990, a true pop phenomenon. But a phenom does not a genius make. Using the word to describe a commercial phenomenon cheapens its meaning. Yes, Fred Astaire was mightily impressed by Jackson’s dancing. Rudolf Nureyev was a pretty good dancer, too. But genius?
Concord Records now has control over all of Ray Charles’ recorded material. And as part of an ongoing reissue project, Concord released Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection in 2009. This single-disc release brings Charles’ biggest hits into the digital age (shockingly, many of these tracks have never been available on CD before now). Over 21 tracks, the disc makes the case — not that it needed making, you understand — that Ray Charles was one of the greatest musical acts of the 20th century and beyond. The sound on this disc is pristine (though mastering is a bit flawed; volume does jump a bit between songs, a bit like a quickly-made mixtape) and the track selection is peerless. Without a doubt listener favorites have been left off, but all the really big hits are here, alongside some lesser-known but equally worthy numbers.
It’s revelatory to hear Charles charging ahead on his Wurlitzer, while the band follows him. His gospel-inflected soloing is so natural, yet so precise, that it defies description. It is, after all, the embodiment of soul. As Charles’ career developed — and as his star rose — he went off in myriad directions (though he never recorded anything like Muddy Waters’ psych excursion Electric Mud), but he always remained grounded. Later records featured his voice more prominently, his keyboard playing less so. But his excellent taste in arrangers meant that even an average record — like the recently-reissued A Message From the People — is worthwhile.
The state of Georgia adopted his rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” as the official state song in 1979. It stands as one of the greatest recordings in musical history; Charles’ singing is so pure, so heartfelt, that even a Yankee could be moved by it. Heavy on strings and other MOR trappings, it’s nonetheless an amazing piece of music. And it’s merely one of twenty-one tracks on Genius.
Whether interpreting standards (the Beatles’ “Yesterday”) or performing his original compositions (like the uber-influential 1959 number “What’d I Say”), the unique genius of Ray Charles shone through. And this single-disc compilation is as best an introduction to the man’s music as could be hoped for. So to add another overused word, let’s call this one…essential.