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Ray Charles

Reviewed on this page:
Ray Charles - Soul Meeting - What'd I Say - The Genius Of Ray Charles - In Person - Genius Hits The Road - Ray Charles and Betty Carter - Genius + Soul = Jazz - Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music - Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music Volume Two - Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul - Sweet & Sour Tears - Have A Smile With Me - Live In Concert - Together Again - Crying Time - Ray's Moods - Invites You To Listen - Portrait Of Ray - I'm All Yours, Baby - Doing His Thing - Volcanic Action Of My Soul - A Message From The People - Jazz Number II - Come Live With Me - Renaissance - True To Life - Love And Peace - Ain't It So - Brother Ray Is At It Again - Wish You Were Here Tonight - Friendship - From The Pages Of My Mind - Would You Believe? - My World - Strong Love Affair - Thanks For Bringing Love Around Again - Genius Loves Company - Genius & Friends

Ray Charles died at his home in Beverly Hills on Thursday, June 10, 2004.
Brother Ray is a phenomenal talent, and it's hard to say what's most outstanding: his rough, expressive, one-of-a-kind voice; his funky swing on piano and organ; or his obliteration of musical and social boundaries. After turning pro in his late teens, Charles kicked around for a few years, then signed to Atlantic in the early 50s. He soon came up with a string of classic R&B singles that made his reputation: "What'd I Say," "Hallelujiah I Love Her So" (both of which he wrote), "The Right Time," "Drown In My Own Tears." But he didn't cross over to the pop charts until The Genius Of Ray Charles, where he dropped small-band R&B in favor of big-band jazz and string-heavy ballads. After hitting with this release, Ray promptly jumped ship for ABC-Paramount, where he made most of his best-selling LP's, crossing over further with Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, and continuing to explore pop, ballads and R&B throughout the 60s. Since then he hasn't been much of a force saleswise, but continued to tour and record, trading on his icon status and undimmed vitality, right to the end of his days.

Ray's own web site has lots of discographic and chart information, though it's rather graphics-intensive and slow. (DBW)

Ray Charles (rec. 1950-2, rel. 1958)
A collection of pre-Atlantic sides, released on the tiny Coronet label after he gained a measure of fame, and including his first regional hits: the slow, passionate "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" and the over-the-top silly "Kissa Me Baby." It's definitely not Charles at his best, but interesting for fans: on several tracks he's singing as smoothly as possible (apparently imitating Nat King Cole) to humorous effect on "I'm Just A Lonely Boy," which comes off like a sendup. He also gets in some rapid-fire piano on a few numbers ("Easy Riding Gal"). A pretty good value for curiosity seekers; tracks from this era have been repackaged in various forms and I don't know which is the definitive collection, if any. (DBW)

Do the Twist With RC (1956?)

Yes Indeed! (1957)
Contains the bouncy title track, the relentless, sorrowful "Lonely Avenue" and "The Sun's Gonna Shine Again." (DBW)

The Great Ray Charles (1957)
Most of Charles' Atlantic LPs were jazz, as his R&B output was mostly issued only on 45s. Accordingly, this disc contains eight tracks with jazz-sounding titles ("The Ray"), including his version of "I Surrender Dear" (also recorded by Thelonious Monk). The recent CD rerelease contains most or all of The Genius After Hours added as bonus tracks. (DBW)

Soul Brothers (Ray Charles & Milt Jackson: 1958)
A jazz blues album with the Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist. It's not easy to find; I saw it on LP once, but it was badly scratched and I passed it up. (DBW)

Soul Meeting (Ray Charles & Milt Jackson: rec. 1958, rel. 1962)
All instrumental; presumably outtakes from the sessions for the previous record. Four songs are by Charles and two by Jackson, but aside from Charles's mellow "Love On My Mind" and a superfluous remake of "Hallelujah I Love Her So," they're all pretty basic blues numbers ("Bags Of Blues"). Jackson plays his usual speedy, pristine blues runs, and Charles plays some tasty stuff (title track) when he's playing, but for some reason guitarist Kenny Burrell takes most of the solo space, and his fleet, predictable playing is so cool it's ice-cold. Percy Heath (bass) and Art Taylor (drums) stay in the background. Charles plays alto sax on his "X-Ray Blues," one of the few times he played that instrument on record; Oscar Pettiford guests on "Bags Of Blues." (DBW)

What'd I Say (1959)
One of the few Atlantic LPs to focus on R&B, and Charles wrote almost everything including the powerhouse title track - one of Ray's biggest hits, and his first to crack the pop charts. The instrumental "Rockhouse" is nearly as good, and "Tell The World About You" is gorgeous even if it's a lineal descendant of his earlier "Hallelujah I Love Her So." However, his reliance on simple arrangements and familiar riffs and chord progresssions really hurts him on the lesser material: "Jumpin' In The Morning" and "Tell Me How Do You Feel" are obvious, derivative blues numbers, "You Be My Baby" is forgettable early 50s rock and roll, and "What Kind Of Man Are You" (sung by one of the Raelets) is a torch song that never really takes off. And with such basic material, the band rarely gets to show off its strengths. The high points are indeed high, but since so many Charles albums are solid all the way through, I can't recommend this hit-or-miss collection very strongly. (DBW)

The Genius Of Ray Charles (1959)
Charles' breakthrough, a mix of big band jazz with orchestrated ballads. The players are top notch, including several musicians each from the Basie and Ellington bands, as well as Atlantic sax legend David "Fathead" Newman, and the arrangements (mostly by Quincy Jones or Ralph Burns) are servicable if not particularly groundbreaking. The track selection consists mostly of well-known standards: "Let The Good Times Roll," Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Cryin'" (recently covered by Rickie Lee Jones), Mercer & Arlen's "Come Rain Or Come Shine." What makes the disc stand out are Charles' vocals - his piano playing is barely audible - his unvarnished phrasing was then unknown among ballad singers, and the effect was stunning. Since Charles has gone on to do so much more in the same vein - often better - it's hard to appreciate what a breakthrough this was at the time. (DBW)

In Person (1960)
A combination of R&B smashes ("Yes Indeed!"; "What'd I Say") and jazz (Alberto Dominguez's "Frenesi"). The R&B sticks close to the original recordings ("The Right Time"), except that "Drown In My Own Tears is unaccountably slowed to a crawl, sapped of all energy. The instrumentals are a bit more interesting (Milt Jackson's "The Spirit-Feel"), with David "Fathead" Newman outstanding as usual on tenor sax, but Charles isn't featured on them. Stick with the later Live In Concert. I believe this was the last album Charles cut for Atlantic, though they continued to release successful compilations for several years after he left. (DBW)

The Birth Of Soul (rec. 1952-1959, rel. 1995?)
One of the few boxed sets that's not a ripoff; these three CDs collect all the R&B tracks (i.e. no jazz) Charles recorded at Atlantic, (originally released only as singles) and can't possibly be a bad buy. (DBW)

Genius Hits The Road (1960)
His ABC-Paramount debut was a smash success, and it set the mold for most of his hit 60s work. The formula was alternating tearjerking ballads (the unforgettable version of "Georgia On My Mind" here was a #1 single) with lively big band work ("Alabamy Bound"), all tied together with a loose, lighthearted concept. In contrast to his Atlantic recordings, his ABC output almost never features his own compositions, and this disc is no exception. This time the overriding theme is different places in the US, featuring songs like the rousing "Mississippi Mud," the tender "Moonlight In Vermont" and the swinging "New York's My Home." The urgency of Ray's delivery makes the oldest chestnuts sound fresh ("Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "Basin Street Blues"), the arrangements are sharp ("Moon Over Miami"), and there's a lot of humor (though the spoken straight-man routine on "Deep In The Heart Of Texas" falls flat). If only Charles had played some organ I might've made this his five-star record. Arranged by Burns and produced by Sid Feller. (DBW)

Dedicated To You (1960)
The gimmick this time is that every song contains a woman's name. (DBW)

Ray Charles and Betty Carter (Ray Charles and Betty Carter: 1961)
Determined to stretch himself at any cost, Charles hooked up with bebop singer Betty Carter for a set of the most vapid nightclub dreck you can imagine: "Cocktails For Two," "Takes Two To Tango," etc. Arranged and conducted by Marty Paich, and he lays everything on thick, from syrupy strings to sappy singing from The Jack Halloran Singers. The tracks alternate between big band R&B and Mantovani-style muzak, but there's no variation within the formula - listening to "Goodbye" I thought my CD player was replaying the leadoff track, Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." The interaction between the lead vocalists is dry ("Just You, Just Me"), and while Carter's range is impressive, her interpretations are cloying ("People Will Say We're In Love"). Apparently the tacky seduction number "Baby, It's Cold Outside" was the single. Produced by Sid Feller; I could rate this even lower, but it's a curiosity because it's so unlike the rest of Charles's catalog. (DBW)

Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961)
An unvarnished big band jazz album. Like Genius Of, Jones did the arrangements, but the results are far grittier and swing a lot harder: Ray's distinctive organ playing is prominent (the Top Ten hit "One Mint Julep"), the horns are blowing like crazy ("Birth Of The Blues"), and though most of the tracks are instrumental, Charles' stamp is unmistakable throughout, and his vocal features just stand out further by contrast ("I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town"). Three tunes are Charles originals, including the opening "From The Heart." (DBW)

Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music (1962)
Yep, a country-western record, heavily orchestrated to boot. If you're not a nostalgia buff, you may be unable to get past the syrupy backup singers and cornball swelling strings. But if you focus on Ray, you'll hear some of the most expressive, touching vocals ever put on record: his take of Hank Williams' "You Win Again" is a standout, as are the traditional "Careless Love" and "Born To Lose," with a mournful vocal. Then there are the huge hit singles, Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" (#1) and "You Don't Know Me" (#2), originally a hit for the author Eddy Arnold. Finally, on the album's last track ("Hey Good Lookin'") he cuts loose with a scorching jazz piano solo. This album hasn't aged as well as some of Charles' other work, but it's still well worth tracking down. (DBW)

Greatest Hits (1962)
Boy, the ABC folks knew how to exploit a talent. This contains the hits from his first couple of years at ABC, including the non-album classics "Hit The Road Jack," "Unchain My Heart" and (I think) "Hide Nor Hair." (DBW)

Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music Volume Two (1962)
After the phenomenal success of the first country album, another one was inevitable - the surprise is that this sequel is just as solid as the original, and more varied. It went to #2, powered by two singles: the ancient standard "You Are My Sunshine," redone as powerhouse R&B (!), and a soulful, slow reading of "Take These Chains From My Heart." There are also tunes by C&W heavyweights Hank Williams (his signature love song "Your Cheating Heart") and Don Gibson ("Don't Tell Me Your Troubles," the only Raelets appearance on the album, and "Oh Lonesome Me," later attempted by Neil Young). The arrangements (by Marty Paich) are half big band and half orchestrated ballads, as usual, and this time one side is given over to each approach, rather than alternating each track. The result is mixed: the mood is maintained more effectively, but each individual track doesn't stand out as much. Still, the song material and performances are so strong (I can't pick a cut here I dislike) there's nothing really to complain about. Produced by Feller. (DBW)

Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul (1963)
Actually, the record's more of a buffet, with something for everyone: the hit single "Busted," though written by Nashville writer Harlan Howard, is big band swing in Genius + Soul style, and two other songs arranged by Benny Carter ("In The Evening," "Ol' Man Time") are slower, more soulful efforts in the same vein. Then there's a lot of wrenching pop balladeering: the hit "That Lucky Old Sun" and "Born To Be Blue" are standouts. "You'll Never Walk Alone" crosses the two approaches, as melting strings compete with a savvy horn section. There are even a couple of numbers with strident backup vocals a la Modern Sounds ("Ol' Man River," which opens with a lengthy, intriguing string interlude; "Over The Rainbow"). Arrangements - by Paich, Feller and Johnny Parker - are sometimes laid on a bit thick, but they're never clichéd or dull. As with Modern Sounds, though, there's no Charles keyboard playing to be heard, and thus it's not a great introduction to the breadth of his talents, but it's an easy choice for fans. Available on a twofer CD with Have A Smile With Me that also has two versions of "Without A Song" as bonus tracks. (DBW)

Sweet & Sour Tears (1964)
No variations in the formula here, and it's starting to sound a bit tired. The conceit is songs about crying, from "Teardrops From My Eyes" to "You've Got Me Crying Again," territory he'd explored since at least "Drown In My Own Tears." The trouble is, the compositions aren't that interesting ("A Tear Fell" by Dorian Burton and Eugene Randolph, "After My Laughter Came Tears" by Roy Turk and Charles Tobias) and Feller's arrangements are nothing new ("Cry"). But Charles has a way of transforming the most trivial material, and the musicianship keeps this a few notches above the average pop record. The one brilliant cut, "Willow Weep For Me," combines Ray's ballad and big band sides and tops it off with one of his patented sorrowful vocals. "Baby, Don't You Cry" was the hit, in Charles' new "swingova" rhythm (a modified version of the bossa nova which was then Sweeping The Nation), and it's pleasant but not a standout careerwise. His last Top Ten album, this marked the sudden end of Charles's brief domination of the album charts. Arranged by Feller and Calvin Jackson, produced by Feller. (DBW)

Have A Smile With Me (1964)
Mostly a collection of light-hearted novelty tunes cut at the same mid-1963 sessions that produced Ingredients, plus the single "Smack Dab In The Middle," recorded almost a year later. Most of the lyrics are silly ("Two Ton Tessie"), but the swinging soul backing is perfectly serious, and hearing Ray in such a good mood ("Move It On Over," later destroyed by George Thoroughgood) is a refreshing change from all the tortured love songs he'd been releasing. Charles does throw in one "straight" tune, the Don Gibson ballad "Who Cares (For Me)." He also gets in some tasty piano playing ("I Never See Maggie Alone"). At times the approach is astonishingly similar to the soulful growling, kitsch backing and off-the-wall lyrics of Screamin' Jay Hawkins ("The Man With The Weird Beard"). Produced by Feller; arrangements are by Paich, Parker and Gerald Wilson. Not Charles's deepest work, it's still thoroughly satisfying entertainment. (DBW)

Live In Concert (1965)
This must have reassured fans who wondered if Ray was ever going to record R&B again. Recorded at the Shrine Auditorium in LA, the set list includes Charles's biggest Atlantic hits ("I Gotta Woman, "What'd I Say") plus some powerful recent material like "Hide Nor Hair" and "Baby, Don't You Cry" (harder hitting than the Sweet & Sour version) and a couple of oddities like "Makin' Whoopee," which features hilarious off-the-cuff Charlesisms. In fact, it's so predominantly big band R&B that there's hardly any of the restructured pop balladeering that made him a crossover success: "You Don't Know Me" is the only representative of that style, and even that is faster and looser than the Modern Sounds original. Not terribly well recorded, and the old hits sound a bit rattled-off ("Hallelujah I Love Her So"), but if you're looking for live Ray this'll do the trick. Produced by Feller. (DBW)

Together Again (1965)
This time out, Charles wanted to rely more heavily on his backing vocalists, and on a few tracks he uses the Jack Halloran Singers to sing string parts while the Raelets sing horn parts ("I Don't Care"). There are a few other mini-concepts in evidence: he rolled out his "swingova" rhythm on two tracks ("I've Got A Tiger By The Tail," "Blue Moon Of Kentucky"), recorded four songs by country-western legend Buck Owens (title track, a single), and wrote new compositions for the first time in years ("Please Forgive And Forget" and "Light Out Of Darkness," both from the movie Ballad In Blue). The trouble is, many of the tunes are dull ("Don't Let Her Know," both of Ray's compositions), the Halloran singers substitute volume for subtlety, and for once Ray doesn't rise to the occasion as a vocalist. Fortunately, fine gutbucket blues tunes close out each side: "Next Door To The Blues" and Percy Mayfield's "Watch It Baby." Aside from I'm All Yours Baby, this is the least essential release from the ABC period. (DBW)

Crying Time (1966)
A careful return to the R&B sound of his first Atlantic hits: funky, piano and horn driven, with plenty from the Raelets and very little use of strings (except on the ballads "Tears" and "Don't You Think I Ought To Know"). Charles was rewarded with another hit album, his last to crack the Top Forty. The title track (one more Buck Owens tune) was a Top Ten hit, and the arrangement is closer to pure C&W than anything on his C&W records. Most of the rest, though, is straight bluesy R&B, including the hit "Let's Go Get Stoned" (written by Ashford & Simpson with then-writing partner Josephine Armstead), and a Charles-penned 12-bar blues ("Peace Of Mind"). His vocals are just as impassioned as they'd been a decade before, he plays some fine piano, and the approach is refreshingly unambitious after the previous run of calculated crossover albums. There are problems, though: "Drifting Blues" runs over six minutes thanks to a lengthy, unexciting guitar solo, there are too many tunes with no distinctive melody ("You're Just About To Lose Your Clown"), and since everything's in the same deliberate slow tempo, the record doesn't really build up momentum. Recorded at Ray's own R.P.M. International studio; produced by Joe Adams. (DBW)

Ray's Moods (1966)
Another variety album, with all the requisite components: an amusing treatment of an ancient ballad ("By The Light Of The Silvery Moon," with a verse in vocalese), a novelty song that's not really funny ("Granny Wasn't Grinning That Day"), a Don Gibson tune ("A Born Loser"), Raelet-powered R&B ("What-Cha Doing in There (I Wanna Know)"). Though nothing here was a hit, it's quite solid, with well chosen tunes (the bluesy "You Don't Understand"), innovative arrangements (the gospel/doo wop rendition of "Sentimental Journey") and none of the failed experiments that marked much of Charles's mid-60s work. Best of all is the Charles-penned "Chitlins With Candied Yams," a slow, powerful instrumental that fully displays his prowess on organ and piano. If you already have a greatest hits, this is an excellent companion piece. (DBW)

A Man And His Soul (1966)
This is a greatest hits, with just two previously uncollected single sides: "I Don't Need No Doctor," another smoking Ashford and Simpson number with chanted backups on the chorus, and "I Chose To Sing The Blues" (co-written by Charles) (DBW)

Invites You To Listen (1967)
Another heavily orchestrated album of standards, but with a difference: Ray breaks into falsetto several times and it sounds just as weird as you'd expect (Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean," "Love Walked In"). On that basis alone, the record is hard to get into for most people, even Charles fans, and the schmaltzy cover of "People" doesn't help. Fortunately, half the record is falsetto-free, and there's one incredible high point: The Beatles' "Yesterday," certainly the best version of the tune I've heard other than the original, and Charles had a Top 40 hit with it. There's also some fairly standard (for Ray) big-band R&B like the album's biggest hit single, "Here We Go Again," and "You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want To Do It)" (previously recorded by Screamin' Jay Hawkins). Arranged by Feller, produced by Adams. "In The Heat Of The Night" cracked the Top Forty in late '67, but isn't on this album. (DBW)

Portrait Of Ray (1968)
After eight years at ABC, Charles was finally running out of ideas. Mostly ballads ("Yesterdays," "The Sun Died"), all routinely done - arrangers Feller, Oliver Nelson and Rene Hall just put slow-moving, high-pitched strings on top of everything. Charles indulges his falsetto again (for the last time, I think), as if he wanted to be Johnny Mathis. Meanwhile, one of the few songs to get an R&B treatment, "Eleanor Rigby," would have been better off without it: the fast tempo, belted backups and spoken asides strip the tune of its understated impact. His one co-write is on the sexual stereotyping blues "Understanding." Aside from the gentle but gripping Aretha-ish love song "A Sweet Young Thing Like You" (which alone made the record worth my $5), the disc is even less entertaining and interesting than Together Again. (DBW)

I'm All Yours Baby! (1968)
Ack. Another batch of string-swamped ballads, this time with no relief from the boredom - apparently it's supposed to be a soundtrack for a romantic evening. Mostly standards (Rodgers & Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," the Gershwins' "Love Is Here To Stay") with a few songs that were unfamiliar to me (Jack Sherr's "Yours"). The tempo is consistently lugubrious, the slowest I've ever heard on a Charles album. The arrangements (all by Feller) are predictable and unvarying, and Ray doesn't stretch himself at all, except for some odd vocalising on Hammerstein's "Indian Love Call" and a pleasant piano solo on "I Had The Craziest Dream." I can't recommend this except for insomnia. (DBW)

Doing His Thing (1969)
Here Charles gave up on the Mantovani strings and shifted to contemporary soul, more stripped-down and up-to-date than Crying Time, with most of the tunes written by Jimmy Lewis. The first side is packed with furious uptempo R&B featuring sparely-used horns and great riffs - "Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers," "Come And Get It" and especially "The Same Thing That Can Make You Laugh (Can Make You Cry)." Side two is a bit slower, and heavily Motown-influenced, particularly in the rhythm section: "That Thing Called Love," complete with doubled guitar licks, sounds like a Marvin Gaye hit, except for Charles' hoarse vocals. Throughout, Charles' shouting and piano and organ playing are in top form, and he throws in plenty of wry offhand comments. All the tunes are good, except for the dull "I Told You So," and though it's not groundbreaking, if you can find this (it's out of print) you'll be glad you did. (DBW)

Love Country Style (1970)
The hit "Don't Change On Me" is here, as is "If You Were Mine." (DBW)

My Kind Of Jazz (1970)
The source of the intriguingly-titled instrumental "Booty Butt," Charles' last Top 40 single. (DBW)

Volcanic Action Of My Soul (1971)
Ray's genre-blender is set on "puree": rock tunes with soulful vocals and country-western instrumentation. But in recording the same tunes everyone else was cutting in this era - the Beatles' "Something" and "The Long And Winding Road," Jimmy Webb's, "See You Then" and "Wichita Lineman" - his reinventions inevitably sound less fresh than his other work. Making matters worse, Ray occasionally sounds like he's sleepwalking through the tunes (the traditional "Down In The Valley"). Feller's arrangements are capable, but lack the spark that would have made this collection more than just an exercise; the most exciting track ends up being "The Three Bells," done up as gospel with no country elements. (DBW)

A Message From The People (1972)
Seems like all of a sudden Charles got passionate about music again. As the title suggests, this is mostly a collection of message tunes (the Stevie Wonder hit "Heaven Help Us All," the rich/poor lament "Hey Mister," the overrecorded "Abraham, Martin And John"), and Ray puts everything into them - producing the album to boot. But he's even better on the blues ("Seems Like I Gotta Do Wrong") and soul numbers ("Every Saturday Night," with marvelously knowing backup vocals). Arranged by Quincy Jones, Feller and Mike Post, and they keep it simple, leaving maximum room for Ray to shine. By the time he gets to the closing "America The Beautiful," he brings me to tears with that mawkish, unmelodic piece of music - there's nobody else in the world who could do that. Strangely enough, the album's weakest track - not counting John Denver's "Country Roads" - was the single: Melanie Safka's corny "Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma." (DBW)

Through The Eyes Of Love (1972)

Ray Charles Presents The Raelettes (The Raelettes: 1972)
A compilation of singles Ray had produced for his backing singers (not unlike The Ikettes' Fine Fine Fine). (DBW)

Jazz Number II (1972)
A big band album featuring the Ray Charles Orchestra, and maybe I'm spoiled because I've been listening to so much Duke Ellington, but I can't find anything to like here. Most of the material is contributed by Charles's arrangers - Alf Clausen ("A Pair Of Threes"), Jimmy Heath ("Togetherness"), Teddy Edwards ("Going Home," "Brazilian Skies") and Roger Neumann ("Our Suite") - and none of it is memorable or exciting. The arrangements are servicable, but far from innovative, and no soloists stand out: Charles is all but inaudible throughout, and if you told me he wasn't playing piano on some cuts, I'd believe you. (DBW)

Part of Charles' 1973 Newport performance is preserved on Live At Newport 1973, including his dramatic performance of "Just A Man." (The album also contains performances by Aretha Franklin, Stevie , The Staples Singers and Donny Hathaway, and I should review it someday.) (DBW)

Come Live With Me (1974)
At this point he left ABC for his own Crossover Records, and served up one side of MOR crooning, and one side of R&B shouting. Charles saved the best for first with a wonderful, wistful performance of Meredith Willson's "Till There Was You," a throwback to his Modern Sounds approach with an arrangement that's slow but strong, and sparely used backup singers. His reading of Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen's "If You Go Away" is similar, though he doesn't completely conceal the tune's mawkishness. The shouting side isn't as much fun, surprisingly, due to weak songwriting: Ray's own "Somebody," an admonition to take care of business at home that take time out to bash Women's Lib, is enthusiastic and jovial but uninvolving. "Where Was He" (by longtime associate Jimmy Lewis) and "Louise" have the same problem, running a simple concept into the ground ("Louise" borrows a hook from "I'll Take You There" to boot). There's one song on each side by Boudleux and Felice Bryant, and they exemplify the contrast: the swaying, countrified title track, versus the generic blues complainer "Problems, Problems." Produced by Charles and arranged by Feller. (DBW)

Renaissance (1975)
In the same mold as Message From The People - a blend of social consciousness tunes and down-home soul - but with defter production and even more feeling. The gorgeous, slow-moving version of Wonder's "Living For The City" won a Grammy, and the big band scorcher "Then We'll Be Home" and the breathtaking testimonial "My God And I" are even better, among his most memorable work ever. There are no real duds, and pleasant surprises even on the covers: his take on Joe Raposo's "It's Not Easy Being Green" features swelling Stax-style horns, while Randy Newman's "Sail Away" boasts a gospel chorus. Produced by Charles. (DBW)

My Kind Of Jazz, Part 3 (1975)

True To Life (1977)
Back on Atlantic, Charles delivered a surprisingly enjoyable set of familiar MOR tunes ("Let It Be"), with energetic, often intense vocals (Solomon Burke's "Heavenly Music"). He revitalizes even the oldest songs, occasionally modifying them - "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" gets a jazzy suspended chord intro - but more often by singing them with extraordinary conviction (the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On"). The instrumentation stays simple, with a refreshingly retro soul horn section, though there are a few unwelcome modern touches, e.g. disco percussion battles Ray's organ on Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." Just for variety, there are a couple of new tunes, including the bluesy R&B "Anonymous Love." Arrangers include Feller, Larry Mahoberack, Roger Newman and Charles, who also produced. (DBW)

Love & Peace (1978)
The same arranging/producing team as the previous release and the same approach, but the execution is lazier, with faceless arrangements and Charles giving about 25% effort on vocals ("No Achievement Showing"). Appalling disco-induced lite pop kicks things off ("You 20th Century Fox"), followed by the equally gimmicky R&B "Take Off That Dress." Things improve from there, but only slightly: the ballads are unoriginal ("She Knows"), and the one social consciousness track is a weak echo of similar efforts on Message From The People ("Give The Poor Man A Break"). And you know you're in trouble when the best tune on the disc is a Seals & Crofts cover ("Riding Thumb"). (DBW)

Ain't It So (1979)
Mostly standards (Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do") but some get a distressingly modern update: Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening" is camped up with a disco beat. And as with Love & Peace, Charles never sings at full strength, so he can't reinvigorate tired tunes like Mentor Williams' "Drift Away." But Mercer & Arlen's "Blues In The Night" gets a fine extended soulful treatment, and the ballad "Just Because" (credited to Sitoussi, Tobaly and Wedrott though it sounds like Pachelbel's Canon to me) has a long, moving fadeout. There's just one song from the Charles camp, Jimmy Lewis and Frank Johnson's "Love Me Or Set Me Free." Produced by Charles, with Feller the first of four arrangers; musician credits aren't listed though it was standard practice by this time. (DBW)

Brother Ray Is At It Again (1980)
The same approach as the last three records - I believe Eugene McDaniels's "Compared To What" marks the end of Ray's flirtation with disco - but he seems to have found his conviction again, which makes all the difference. His emotive singing makes compelling listening out of unexceptional material like the Bruce Roberts and Carole Bayer Sager ballad "Don't You Love Me Anymore?" and "I Can't Change It" (with a gospel chorus), while Robbie Robertson's old-timey "Ophelia," which could have been a tired nostalgia exercise, is fresh and vital. Class consciousness also makes a comeback, on the rollicking "A Poor Man's Song" and Ray's own "Questions." Produced by Charles, with arrangers including Mike Post, Charles and Feller. (DBW)

Wish You Were Here Tonight (1983)
Another label change, this time to Columbia, and a switch back to country-western (the Bellamy Brothers hit "Let Your Love Flow"). But this time he conforms to all the conventions of the genre - steady tempos; simple harmony vocals; prominent use of banjo, fiddle and steel guitar - instead of making the tunes fit him. So the record doesn't stand comparison to the Modern Sounds masterpieces, but it's still a lot of fun, mostly because of Ray's vocals (title track, a wrenching ballad). The songs are also well chosen for the most part (the clever "3/4 Time," a single). As usual, he holds your attention as easily when he's quiet ("Ain't Your Memory Got No Pride At All") as when he's belting ("I Don't Want No Stranger Sleeping In My Bed"), but the record does run out of steam toward the end, with too many jokey tunes like "String Bean" and "Shakin' Your Head." Mostly arranged by James Pulk; produced by Charles. (DBW)

Do I Ever Cross Your Mind (1984)
C&W again; the title track was a single. (DBW)

Friendship (1984)
Duets with country stars like Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., Johnny Cash and Ricky Skaggs. The songs are 2 1/2 minute cardboard cutouts ("Two Old Cats Like Us"), and maybe Ray could've brought some life to them if it hadn't been for the profusion of guests: he's so determined not to overshadow such modest vocal talents as B.J. Thomas and Merle Haggard he ends up staying completely in the background. In fact, Charles is barely audible on the overblown Willie Nelson feature "Seven Spanish Angels," which I believe was a single. The best match for Ray is Cash: "Crazy Old Soldier" has the only true emotion on the album. Produced by Billy Sherrill, who goes with the same crisp Nashville approach on every track. The band prominently features Pete Drake on steel guitar; Chet Atkins contributes a guitar solo to the George Jones duet "We Didn't See A Thing." Unless you're a fan of mainstream country hacks like the Oak Ridge Boys, you're unlikely to enjoy this much. (DBW)

The Spirit Of Christmas (1985)
Arranged by Paich and produced by Charles, this features very familiar tunes ("The Little Drummer Boy," "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Raindeer") performed with a cast including Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard and the Raelets. The same year, Charles contributed vocals to "We Are The World." (DBW)

From The Pages Of My Mind (1986)
Straightforward country-western produced by Sherrill and Charles, but it's tons more engaging, sincere and (paradoxically) varied than the previous star-studded duets record. Though the musicians are mostly the same Nashville crew, the arrangements are subtler and slower moving, with strings prominently featured on many cuts, frequently recalling his 60s ABC work. And as he'd done on those early country albums, Charles really gets inside the tunes ("Dixie Moon"), finding their transcendent emotional cores rather than cranking out genre exercises. The hired-gun writers (unknown to me except for Bobby Whitlock, who co-wrote "Slip Away") generally acquit themselves well, though there are a few too many one-joke love songs ("Class Reunion"). (DBW)

Just Between Us (1988)

Would You Believe? (1990)
No, it's not a concept album about Maxwell Smart. Produced by Charles and Jimmy Lewis, this is a failed experiment: what do you get when you take 50s-style rhythm & blues and give it 90s-style computerized production? Exactly what you'd think: soul music without any soul, despite Ray's stirring-as-usual vocals. He doesn't play many of the keyboard tracks, and even when he does, they lack his usual grit ("Leave Him!"). Lewis wrote about half the tunes, including the most lively track, "Child Support, Alimony," a disturbing attack on chiseling ex-wives. Some of the other songs are knockoffs of earlier Charles classics: "I Can't Get Enough" is a rewrite of "Hallelujiah I Love Her So," "Living Without You" is like a less-powerful "Drown In My Own Tears," etc. A tease that just made you wish Charles would cut a real R&B record again. (DBW)

My World (1993)
Produced by Richard Perry, and he uses his one-size-fits-all approach: covering tunes by white pop-rockers. Like a broken clock, though, it's right this time, largely because Charles is still an exceptionally moving singer: for the first time, I thought Leon Russell's "A Song For You" was actually a good tune, and Ray also brings a lot of soul to Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years." The original material isn't bad either, including the earnest religious number "So Help Me God" (by Jud Friedman and Allan Rich), and "None Of Us Are Free" by Brenda Russell, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. The arrangements aren't very interesting, just big-name session cats (Steve Gadd, Abe Laboriel, Greg Phillinganes, etc.) going though their MOR paces, but there are some guest stars to liven things up: Eric Clapton's guitar solo on "None Of Us" is his usual blues riffery, and Billy Preston is barely audible on organ, but Mavis Staples and Rosie Stone add dramatic backing vocals to "Love Has A Mind Of Its Own" and "Let Me Take Over" respectively. Ray doesn't play a note except for a gimmicky synth solo on "Still Crazy," but if you want to hear him sing in an ably-produced contemporary setting, this will do the trick. (DBW)

Strong Love Affair (1996)
A failed attempt to update Charles's R&B sound for the 90s; two-thirds of the tracks were produced by Jean-Pierre Grosz with a slick European studio band, the rest produced and written by Charles backed only by synthesizers. It's all so soulless that his usual rasping, wrenching vocals feel totally out of place ("Angelina"), and it doesn't help that the compositions are either trivial (title track, "I Need A Good Woman Bad") or just painfully tacky ("The Fever," "No Time To Waste Time"). The closing duet "If You Give Me Your Heart" with Peggy Adams Scott is touching; otherwise this career-tarnisher is best forgotten. (DBW)

Thanks For Bringing Love Around Again (2002)
Produced (with Charles) and mostly written by Billy Osborne (a former member of LTD and I think Jeffrey Osborne's brother), and he resorts to the same off-the-rack synths and drum programs that made Would You Believe such a waste of time. The whole affair is so perfunctory and forgettable that when a live instrument comes in (Jack Wargo's blues guitar solo on "I Just Can't Get Enough Of You") it sounds like it came from another dimension. The low point is a remake of "What'd I Say" (the sole track produced by Jerry Hey) which obliterates the spontaneity of the original so completely you'd think that was the intention. Osborne does come up with one good song, the plaintive elegy "Mother," and fortunately he sticks it at the end of the record as a reward for persevering through everything else. (DBW)

Genius Loves Company (2004)
A superstar duets album, and considering how problematic those are, and that Ray's health was failing as the recordings were made, it's surprisingly okay. Partly that's because the producers avoided picking flash-in-the-pan artists - with the exception of Norah Jones, who's completely overmatched on "Here We Go Again" - in favor of veterans who mostly had their greatest success in the 70s or earlier: Van Morrison ("Crazy Love"); Bonnie Raitt, whose rough vocals and slide guitar make "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" a highlight. About half the songs had been previously recorded by Charles ("Heaven Help Us All," with Gladys Knight), and most of the rest were written by the duet partner (Elton's "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word"; James Taylor's "Sweet Potato Pie"). As a result, spontaneity is minimal, except for the freewheeling B.B. King feature "Sinner's Prayer" (one of four tunes with Charles on keyboards); some of the singers aren't suited to the material (a notably unfeverish Natalie Cole on "Fever"); and "It Was A Very Good Year" (with Willie Nelson) was a very bad song. But the record's worth having just for the brilliant pairing of Charles with his couldn't-approach-ballads-more-differently contemporary Johnny Mathis - whose velvety croon is undimmed by the 500 years he's been recording - on "Over The Rainbow." (DBW)

Genius & Friends (2005)
After the massive revenue generated by Company (and the Ray biopic), the record company dredged up a bunch of Charles vocals recorded in 1998, and rounded up a bunch of new duet partners: some big names (George Michael on "Blame It On The Sun"; Mary J. Blige, Chris Isaak) and some young upstarts (John Legend; Leela James, whose appearance on "Compared To What" is the album's high point; Alicia Keys). A couple of tracks are even older: the strangely passionless nightclub blues "Big Bad Love" with Diana Ross is from a 1994 movie soundtrack, and a live version of "Busted" with Willie Nelson was recorded in 1991. The album has all the problems of Company, without the strengths: neither the duet partners nor the songs are well selected (Ruben Studdard crooning "Imagine"?). There are several originals by Narada Michael Walden, not worthy of any note except that they might make you think they're covers of better known songs with the same title: "All I Want To Do" with Angie Stone; "Shout" with Patti LaBelle. (DBW)

Time to hit the road.

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