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Genius Loves Company – Ray Charles

Concord/Hear 2248-2

I can't help but approach the final studio effort by Ray Charles in the same manner I digest a news story — take in the original source but don't forget to look at what's behind the curtain.

Charles recorded Genius Loves Company, and finished it shortly before his June 10th passing. Like the title says, the groundbreaking artist and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who merged gospel, R&B, blues, jazz and even country is joined on the album by a number of peers and contemporary vocalists. The list sounds like the typical record company marketing team’s wet dream. The legend is paired with a number of Boomer-friendly artists in order to receive maximum interest. Sure, a buzz was initially created by Genius being Charles’ next studio effort, but the contributions surely amped up the commerciality of the release.

While some of the artists are able to make a musical connection with Charles, it's apparent throughout the album that letting him have the vocal track to himself would have served each and every song just as well. He shows little sign of weakness due to age or recent illnesses. And what's most impressive is that he's able to submerge the 12 covers here to his own soulful will. That's most apparent during his heartbreaking opening verse on "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," which finds him sharing the mic with Elton John, and on what turned out to be a touchingly prophetic "Over the Rainbow" with Johnny Mathis.

But, until there's a future release called Genius Loves Company… Naked, ala the reworked version of The Beatles’ Let It Be, we’ve got to deal with what we’ve got. I won’t back off on my desire for Charles-only vocals tracks, I will admit that the mix of voices and styles blend comfortably well. Norah Jones, Bonnie Raitt and Natalie Cole supply some of the best highlights on the female side while the tenderness supplied by Willie Nelson and splendid tone achieved by B. B. King prove mighty good on the male side. The success rate for this can be easily attributed to the fact that the artists were actually in the studio collaborating on the numbers.

Genius Loves Company concludes with a live performance between Charles and Van Morrison. It was recorded almost one year to the day before he died, and it shows, like much of the album, that under right circumstances Charles remained an impressive figure, even with a little help from his friends.

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