november 2009

Ray Charles The Genius Hits The RoadTHE GENIUS HITS THE ROAD
Ray Charles
Concord Records

When Ray Charles left Atlantic Records and signed with ABC-Paramount in 1960, drawn most of all by the right to own his own master recordings (yes, money factored into it too), he didn’t dither in finding a direction. Teamed for the first time with ABC’s in-house A&R man Sid Feller in what would become a near-career-long creative partnership, and employing the services of ex-Woody Herman arranger Ralph Burns, Ray dove into a collection of songs about the road and various U.S. destinations, most from a time predating his life by decades and from the pens of some of the finest pop craftsmen of their day. One certified classic emerged from these March 1960 sessions in the sumptuous beauty courtesy Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, “Georgia On My Mind.” It wasn’t something Brother Ray would have done at Atlantic; if anything it hearkened back to his brief, pre-Atlantic tenure with Swingtime, when he was more in a Nat King Cole bag than his own. At the same time, the ensuing album, The Genius Hits the Road, its title playing on the critical and commercial success of his powerhouse Atlantic album, The Genius of Ray Charles, found Charles marking off some new turf—more pop-oriented, with a liberal use of Burns’s rich string arrangements and smooth pop backing choruses—really smooth, like Mitch Miller singalong choruses, in fact—but into this popish terrain walks the gritty, earthy, romantic soul of Ray Charles. Given how enjoyable the result is for the listener, Ray himself must have had as much fun recording these songs as he sounds like he’s having on the disc.

And that’s the point: The Genius Hits the Road is the sound of  a great artist enjoying himself to the hilt, in many ways to a degree we hadn’t heard even on the Atlantic recordings. It starts with the first blaring burst of sputtering horns on “Alabamy Bound,” a 1924 vintage vaudeville tune recorded by, among others, Al Jolson before Ray got hold of it. Here, against a persistent, propulsively charging backdrop, Ray sings against the grain, restrained, even a shade melancholy, only to gather his forces into an emotional charge as the song hurtles towards its close.

Evidence to support this conclusion. Try the way Ray playfully syncopates his phrasing of “It’s-a-treat-to-beat-your-feet-on-the-Mississippi-mud” in the jubilant “Mississippi Mud.” Kick back to Ray’s comically dispassionate appraisals of other cities’ virtues preceding his excited recitations of Gotham’s  many wonders in “New York’s My Home”—the understatement of “San Francisco’s a lovely place..and it’s on an ocean of some size” is hilarious. Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” one of seven bonus tracks recorded from the mid-‘60s to the early ‘70s included here, percolates with a pulse equal parts country and R&B—a country melody, the Raelettes singing R&B responses to him as the whole thing merrily trundles along. And is it merely an accident that Ray, in calling out to his musicians during an instrumental break near the end, shouts, “That’s all right!” or is he figuratively tipping his hat to Memphis’s Hillbilly Cat, Elvis, whose first Sun single happened to be “Blue Moon of Kentucky” b/w “That’s All Right”? Nice touch.

On the mellow side, we get a luscious “Sentimental Journey” (another bonus track) with a “Night and Day” sway that adds a low, bluesy tint to the proceedings, making the song seem less hopeful, less dreamy, and more foreboding than most pop interpreters would dare, but “Moon Over Miami” (from the album proper) is as seductively romantic and longing as “Georgia,” a real beauty. Another bonus track, Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” is a gem, too. Done suitably bluesy and moody, it finds Ray digging around TJ’s lyrics and adding some extra-lowdown soul testifying—almost preacherly, you might say—and, as he did on “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” finding a way to acknowledge another artist’s great work on the same song by emulating the swoon inducing bass swoop Brook Benton employed to make women weak in the knees and at other critical body junctures in his original landmark version. If you’re not hip to subtext with Ray, you’re not getting the deepest experience possible with his music. In the end, the ride is well worth it—another singular Brother Ray experience, lovingly restored on CD and overflowing with warmth and bracing good vibes. Truly wonderful music here. –David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024