Ray Charles: Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters

Videos by American Songwriter

Ray Charles
Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters
Concord Records
[Rating: 4 stars]

When he passed away in 2004 at the age of 73, Ray Charles left behind a musical legacy of daunting breadth and depth, reflecting an extraordinary life that traced the contours of late-21st century American history like those talented fingers once traced faces into familiarity out of darkness. His hagiography was well-deserved. Charles afforded us a vision of ourselves you didn’t need sight to see, translating our collective experience into sound for four decades, a flawed hero who’d paid his dues and lived to sing about it — which he did like no other, with the voice of a lion and the vulnerability of a lamb. It’s hard to find fault in the man’s output, even in a catalog of 60+ studio albums. For those of us wishing he’s left even more, there’s Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters, commemorating what would have been his 80th year.

John Burk—producer of Charles’ final album, 2004’s Grammy-winning Album of the Year, Genius Loves Company—spent most of 2009 sifting through a treasure trove of rare, unreleased, and quasi-completed tracks from the vaults of Charles storied career, settling on ten for this release. As some were unfinished, Burk somewhat controversially “sonically enhanced” the pieces with a crack crew of monster musicians like guitarist Keb’ Mo’ and vocalist Eric Benét—no slouches here. The few inclusions have been doled out tastefully, imbuing the set with a pleasing clarity that should quell purists’ protests.

During his life, Charles’ pop-culture cameos and collaborations were myriad and mythically well-curated, helping to cement his iconic status and broaden his appeal. Rare Genius features one of the more interesting ones, closing with the Kris Kristofferson-penned blues-gospel of “Why Me Lord?”, sung with none other than Johnny Cash. This track by itself is worth the price of admission, two of the most famous baritones in American history embracing on tape like old friends. It’s a stunning juxtaposition that works perfectly, even between such outsized and recognizable musical personalities.

There doesn’t seem to be a hair out of place on the record, yet Charles’ famously fluid performances allow tracks like the soulful “Wheel of Fortune” and brutally honest “It Hurts To Be In Love” to explode with horn flourishes that don’t seem flashy or extraneous, regardless of when they were dropped in the mix. Even the jammed-out funk of “I’m Gonna Keep On Singin’” is perfectly paced, never overstaying its welcome or upstaging the maestro.

Arguably, Charles was at his strongest when he was singing about his weaknesses. That being said, you’ll be hard-pressed to find more suitable candidates for that particular part of his canon than the adjacent weepers “A Little Bitty Tear” and “I Don’t No One But You”. Both feature the man at his most endearingly fragile, his voice at its most dolefully passionate, showcasing an empathy that remains preternaturally intense.

Where a project of this scope and audacity could have easily devolved into a sprawling, unctuous mess, Burk’s production skills and intimate knowledge of his late friend keep things professional and taut. Even the most skeptical fan should be able to get behind this album for what it is: a lost-and-found labor of love.

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