Genius Loves Company Ray Charles
CD Review by Brian McAlley
/ 10/2005

Track listing
1. Here We Go Again with Norah Jones 2. Sweet Potato Pie with James Taylor
3. You Don't Know Me with Diana Krall 4. Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word with Elton John
5. Fever with Natalie Cole 6. Do I Ever Cross Your Mind with Bonnie Raitt
7. It Was A Very Good Year with Willie Nelson 8. Hey Girl with Michael McDonald
9. Sinner's Prayer with B.B. King 10. Heaven Help Us All with Gladys Knight
11. Over The Rainbow with Johnny Mathis 12. Crazy Love with Van Morrison

Label: Concord Records / Release Date: August 31, 2004

Genius Loves Company is the final studio recording by Ray Charles, finished just 3 months prior to his death on June 10, 2004. The idea of recording an album of duets with Mr. Charles was conceived by John Burk, Executive VP of Concord Records after hearing Charles and Van Morrison perform at the 2003 Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards. Charles was given the honors of inducting Mr. Morrison, after which the two legendary entertainers teamed up for their very own crowd-pleasing version of Morrison's "Crazy Love" (which is included on this disc).

Mr. Charles entered the studio a month later to begin work on the album which featured Norah Jones, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Elton John, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, B.B. King , Michael McDonald, Gladys Knight, and Johnny Mathis. Under the supervision of producers Burk, Terry Howard, Herbert Waltl and Phil Ramone, the project lasted 8 months with instrumental backing on the individual songs ranging from a basic sextet to a full orchestra.

The album features several different musical styles, but there are some better suited to Mr. Charles than others. The first number, "Here We Go Again" is classic blues, originally recorded for the 1967 Charles album, "Listen." It's an exquisite duet with Norah Jones and features a smoldering Hammond B3 performance by the great Billy Preston. It has a smooth and melancholy feel throughout, with sensational vocal harmonies the perfect tune to kick off the album. Unfortunately, the next number doesn't fare quite as well. "Sweet Potato Pie" performed with and written by James Taylor, just doesn't seem to work for Mr. Charles. It's a light and airy contemporary pop tune that is all fluff with not an ounce of soul definitely one of the weaker tunes on the album.

Fortunately, the next number, "You Don't Know Me" with Diana Krall is a real winner. It was included on Ray's 1962 classic album, "Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music," and is beautifully performed on this disc. The throaty delivery of Ms. Krall and the classic Charles vocal (though diminished somewhat by illness) meld together perfectly on this exquisite cover of Eddy Arnold's country & western classic. Next up is "Sorry Seems to be The Hardest Word" featuring the pop maestro himself, Elton John. This is the beautiful and haunting John/Taupin composition from Elton's 1976 Blue Moves album and it works very well in this setting. It's a very dramatic pop ballad and somewhat of a departure from the usual Ray Charles style, but both performers give it their all and create an entirely new interpretation of this wonderful song.

Back to more familiar musical territory, Mr. Charles shines with Natalie Cole on the Little Willie John standard, "Fever." With a subtle, jazz-tinged musical backing, both vocalists complement each other on this oft-recorded classic. The country/blues number "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" is next and features the talented Bonnie Raitt. This is a flawless collaboration with Bonnie playing some excellent slide guitar as well. This tune, by the way, is true to the original version, which can be found on Ray's "Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986" box set.

I was very excited to see Willie Nelson performing with Mr. Charles on this disc, but at the same time was disappointed with the selection that they covered. The very solemn "It Was A Very Good Year," made popular by Frank Sinatra in 1967, just doesn't seem to be an appropriate number for these gentlemen. The tune is bogged down with heavy orchestration, plus Mr. Nelson's voice in particular is just not suited for this type of material. I would have preferred to hear them collaborate on one of Willie's original numbers, or another country/blues title. Although a minor setback, it's still a treat to hear these two legendary performers working together.

The remaining tracks feature notable performances with Michael McDonald ("Hey Girl"), Johnny Mathis ("Over The Rainbow"), Gladys Knight ("Heaven Help Us All"), and Van Morrison ("Crazy Love"), but without question, the crème de la crème of the album is a fabulous duet with the great B.B. King. "Sinners Prayer" pairs Charles with the legendary bluesman and the results are absolutely stunning. It's the blues exactly the way it was meant to be performed with Mr. King whaling on guitar, Mr. Charles playing some excellent improvised piano, and Billy Preston once again laying down some heavy grooves on the Hammond B3. And the vocals? Well, who could sing the blues better than B.B. King and Ray Charles? It's an outstanding track and definitely one for the ages.

Genius Loves Company is a marvelous disc that makes for some very enjoyable listening, even though there are a few minor setbacks. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Charles was ill during many of the sessions and at times his vocals are a reminder of that fact. Nonetheless, the fragility of his voice does not hinder the quality of this project in any way. If anything it intensifies the raw soul that has been a trademark of his work for so many years.

There is special significance in knowing that Genius Loves Company is Mr. Charles' final recorded work. It's the last musical contribution from an incredibly gifted man who had beaten the odds and achieved greatness during the course of a remarkable 6-decade career. Mr. Charles touched many lives through his music, and although he is no longer with us, his music and his spirit will live on forever.