"The Genius of Ray Charles" is an album that creates a great ethical debate between the critic and fan in me versus me, the human being. The album was designed to be Ray Charles's coming-out party, and it was certainly effective in doing so. Still, despite more than 50 years of critical acclaim, I can't help but feel that the album could have been better.
Let me clarify, before you get angry at my gall, that my criticisms here have absolutely nothing to do with Charles. The pianist and vocalist shines on every track. His voice is impressively genuine when he croons about love ("It Had to Be You") and heartbreak ("Am I Blue?"). He escapes the smooth R&B style of the aforementioned tracks and breaks into a soulful tempest on "Let The Good Times Roll." He's less than a virtuoso on the keys, but his subtle solos feed into the mood he evokes with his vocals. If I have no complaints about the star, what else could I possibly moan about?
Just about everything.
Side one is Charles in his native habitat, playing with a big-band ensemble. There are horns galore, and things can get raucous. Producers at Atlantic worried that the brass would distract from Charles's voice, which is what they hoped to advertise. To a degree, they were right. His piano-playing is much harder to find among the instrumentals on Side A. His voice sounds just fine however. Even "Alexander's Ragtime Band" can't disguise who's the star here. Atlantic decided Charles would be better in a gentler setting, and I'd say they were right. I would have had him perform solo. Atlantic decided to surround him with a string orchestra.
Charles's piano is much more evident on Side B, but the strings are just as big a distraction as the brass band. Look at "You Won't Let Me Go." Charles kills the eponymous line for the hook; the subtle display of emotion present in his voice is incredible. He's alone until :40, when the strings come in. Then comes the background vocals. I can't be more opposed to the background vocals. You've got Charles throwing himself behind these tracks, so why do you need the schlocky "ooohs" muddying the water during every song on Side B?
I realize why they did it. When you're Atlantic in 1959, and you want to make an artist huge, it means having him sell to the popular audience. Which means white buyers. That means cutting out the "noise" of a jazz band and adding silk-smooth background vocalists along with a score of violins. It's turning soulful music into Hollywood-worthy fare. Every track on this album is a standard, many written by folks like Irving Berlin, who aimed for pop gold, not emotional honesty. Side B is prepared like Atlantic wants these songs to appear in films.
So, yes, I would argue "The Genius of Ray Charles" could be much better. The ethical debate comes in when I consider whether Atlantic should be blamed. It's easy to say a talent like Charles would find his way to the top of the charts, regardless of whether the record label whitewashed his music, but I never assume. This album is worth it if you focus on Charles's performance and block out the orchestral nonsense.
INTERESTING FACT: Charles's birth name is Ray Robinson. He performed under the name "Ray Charles" to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.