Charles' last album out today

Young and old helped with duets

August 31, 2004|By Steve Morse | Steve Morse,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Critics who assume that artists make their best work when they are young just haven't been paying attention lately.

Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, and Joe Strummer made exceptional music in the last years of their lives, and joining that list is Ray Charles. His final album - in stores today - is a tantalizing collection of duets with old and young admirers, from B.B. King and Willie Nelson to Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones and James Taylor.

Charles' Genius Loves Company, completed before he died of complications from liver disease at age 73 on June 10, is a true musical event that confirms his status as the "Genius of Soul." It is his first full-length duets CD, and he sounds fabulous with so many soul mates around him.

"I thought it was time to have some of the friends that I love and artists that I admire come into my studio and sing with me live, the way we did it in the old days," Charles says in the liner notes.

That meant doing just one or two takes of songs to generate maximum emotional impact.

"Ray was real quick. He'd nail it right away," says producer John Burk. "We did a lot of things live with the band - and Ray's whole thing was, as he used to say, `Sing from the heart and sing in time, and you've got it.'"

A lasting impression is the pure enjoyment that Charles got from these sessions. "Oh, I love this, I love it!" he exclaims during his duet with Taylor on "Sweet Potato Pie," a playful, horn-accented, R&B/jazz tune about a woman who is "as tender as a night in June, sweeter than a honeymoon ... and just about as crazy as a loon."

Charles shares evident glee with Van Morrison on "Crazy Love" and turns exuberant in the finger-snapping swing jazz of the Peggy Lee hit "Fever," done with Natalie Cole. "Chicks were born to give us fever!" he shouts, before Cole answers, "That's right - be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade." To which he responds, "What a lovely way to burn."

Since this is Charles' final album, observers will surely hunt for clues as to what was going on in his mind during his last days. "You look at the song choices, and it looks like he wanted to make a statement," Burk says.

Charles was involved in the song choices - some extremely moving. He enlists Nelson, one of his best friends, for "It Was a Very Good Year," a jazz standard that addresses the aging process. "And now the days grow short/I am in the autumn of my years," Charles sings wistfully, as lush strings rise behind him. And on the blues lament "Sinner's Prayer," he testifies to his maker, "I done somebody wrong, won't you have mercy if you please?"

This song was done with B.B. King, and the moment was a daunting one for Burk, who had never met Charles before. "I walked into the studio, and there was B.B. - the King of the Blues - and Ray - the Genius of Soul - plus legendary organist Billy Preston," Burk says. "And B.B. said to Ray, `Let's go for it. Let's go head to head like we used to.' It was something to see."

Charles confronts his own mortality in the classic "Over the Rainbow," performed with Johnny Mathis in a version that features a whispery, gut-wrenching fadeout. And on the gospel tune "Heaven Help Us All," with Gladys Knight, Charles offers the socially conscious message: "Heaven help the boy who won't reach 21 - and heaven help the man who gave that child a gun."

There's not a bad song in the lot. The intention was to show all sides of Charles' talents - from soul to jazz to country, gospel, and blues - and the disc achieves that. Jones coaxes out a country inflection on "Here We Go Again," Diana Krall sings some dusky jazz on "You Don't Know Me," Elton John brings out Charles' bittersweet side in the John/Bernie Taupin tune "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" and Raitt plays stinging slide guitar on the bluesy "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?"

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