When I saw Ray Charles in 2002, he was much thinner and shorter than I expected, possibly due to the slow encroachment of liver disease upon his good health. Whenever he finished singing one of his famous tunes, he would hug himself, symbolically drawing in all of the members of the audience for his embrace as he beamed with his famous smile that appears on the cover of Genius Loves Company... or in almost any other photograph one sees of him. The audience loved it, as he transmitted his joys in singing and in being with people, who automatically became his friends. I always thought the Raeletts were a hoot as they backed him up on songs like "What’d I Say" or "Hit The Road Jack," and they didn’t disappoint during that concert. On Genius Loves Company, it appears that the Raeletts are the only thing missing from its broad presentation of Ray Charles’ talent as he sings duets with friends of his choice.
Just look at the number of singers and musicians required to produce Genius Loves Company, most of which was recorded in Ray Charles’ Los Angeles studios, which now are a historic landmark, in an area renamed Ray Charles Square. No less than Phil Ramone was involved in the production of five tracks. And the disparate styles of the singers involved in the duets of Genius Loves Company provide evidence of Charles’ natural versatility. For, if the tables were turned, which of the guest singers could have melted into the variety of musical styles that The Genius adopts with each on the CD? Johnny Mathis singing country/western (with any degree of authenticity)? Elton John singing jazz? Norah Jones singing gospel? Such combinations may sound far-fetched for anyone but Ray Charles.
But when he comes in to join Jones at the repeat of "Here We Go Again" (originally from his Listen album), we recognize Charles' inimitable ability to wring meaning out of songs. Perhaps that’s because Charles perceived meaning within the songs before he recorded them, as he told Terry Gross on Fresh Air not long ago. For it made eminent sense to him that a country/western song could be included on one of his albums, which included references to R&B and pop as well. Ray Charles listened to the lyrics of the songs and understood their content before he sang them.
Unintentionally, Genius Loves Company includes some poignant highlights as well. Natalie Cole sounds entirely effective and relaxed on "Fever," which Charles modeled after the original Little Willie John version, rather than the more famous but derivative Peggy Lee rendition. Laughing lightly throughout the recording, and ending the track with Cole telling The Genius, "You ain’t right, Ray," both of them recognize the significance of the recording: that her father was Charles’ primary influence when he started his career. Another very good moment occurs when Ray Charles and Willie Nelson do Frank Sinatra, complete with oboe and clarinets reminiscent of Sinatra’s version, by singing "It Was A Very Good Year" with its prescient words like "But now the days grow short./I’m in the autumn of my years./And I think of my life as vintage wine/From fine old kegs."
Charles seemed to have brought out the best in everyone, and Gladys Knight’s participation in "Heaven Help Us All" raises the entire proceeding to the level of musical irresistibility as both of them are backed by a gospel choir: "I want everybody in the audience this evening to fall down on their knees and say a prayer, asking for His guidance, His grace, His mercy. Lord have mercy. Heaven help us all." And please forgive my ignorance, but I didn’t know that Johnny Mathis was even singing any longer, but he sounds oh so fifties on "Over The Rainbow," his voice has changed not a bit. While Ray Charles recognizes that they possess different approaches to music, he respect Mathis’ ability to shape a ballad and of course, Charles does that too, but from a different perspective. And I guess I haven’t been following Elton John much lately, but I didn’t realize that his voice was as intact either, but "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" involves John’s effective shaping of notes and the build-up of narrative (which ends with a question) without excess.
Ray Charles singing "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word"? It strikes me that Ray Charles’ selection of songs for Genius Loves Company implies his gentlemanly demeanor. Rather than asking the other singers involved in his duet project to adapt to his music as Sinatra did on his Duets CD, when the duets were overdubbed after Sinatra sang alone in a studio Charles adapted to theirs. After all, The Genius loves company. And the world misses him.