Ray Charles – Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters

January 01, 1970





The word genius is overused. Most of the time it typed or
spoken to describe artists who fall well below that mark, and for those who
actually do merit such praise, the word consigns them to the dungeon of good
taste, as if they’re classical composers or Mensa members. Ray Charles
certainly deserves the genius distinction, which has been attached to him for
nearly half a century now, but that particular campaign tends to paint him as
an artist you don’t listen to but study – or, more damningly, an artist you
don’t love but appreciate. He’s been so ensconced in the pop canon that it’s
hard to even approach him as a fallible human artist anymore.


Despite its title and respectful concept, Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters wobbles the pedestal a bit. The album collected unheard demos throughout the
singer’s career; most were unfinished, so producer John Burk hired session
musicians to fill in the holes. What could have been reverent and unrevealing –
a quick cash-in on a popular artist – is instead something like a true Ray
Charles studio album: cohesive, playful, randy, even exciting.


In just ten tracks, Rare
shows the extreme breadth of Charles’ music vocabulary. He grooves
with r&b complexity, laments with country melancholy, gets lowdown with the
blues, struts with gospel fervor, improvises with jazz authority, and croons as
smoothly as Dino and Frank. And that’s just the first song. Crucially, Charles
synthesizes all those styles, making them sound not just good but natural


Also: sex. In the hagiographies of biopics and box sets,
Charles’ lusty concerns are often disregarded as either minor or unseemly, but Rare Genius reinstates the dirty deed
into his repertoire. On “I’m Gonna Keep On Singin’,” he delivers a loose,
restless performance, as if he just can’t keep still, leering, “Tell me, woman,
can we…” Then the Raylettes interrupt, “Do it!” The six-minute jam stands out
for its sequencer groove and high-hat drumbeat, but even though the song likely
predates Watergate (the demo is undated), the only thing that’s aged is the
slap bass.


The headline here, however, is the closer, a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s
“Why Me Lord?” with Johnny Cash. The song itself is awkward and miscued, with
Cash’s stolid delivery at distinct odds with Charles’ accompaniment. It sounds
canned, as if the two men were never in the same room together. What makes it
all the more disappointing is that these two were perfect for each other – pop
populists who treated all genres as equally useful and valid despite their
racial and social boundaries. Even though they’re both dead, their large
catalogs continue to show music as endlessly mutable and exciting. Not
necessarily on this song, though.


Gonna Keep On Singin’,” “It Hurts to Be in Love,” “A Little Bitty Tear” STEPHEN

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