Ray Charles: The Genius Hits the Road

RayCharles_TheGeniusHitsThe RoadFresh remaster of Ray Charles’ 1960 ABC-Paramount debut

When Ray Charles left Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, he also sought to expand his stardom on the pop carts, solidifying the crossover success he’d begun with the single “What’d I Say” and the album The Genius of Ray Charles. The first outing for his new label was this 12-song release, whose travel- and place-related theme was sufficiently broad to leave Charles room to roam. The song list was compiled from numbers familiar to Charles and others pitched by his new producer Sid Feller. The titles include tin pan alley classics, Dixieland standards, trad jazz and pop numbers and even the nineteenth century minstrel tune, sung here as gospel with the Raeletts, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”

The productions are backed by brassy orchestrations, lush strings and chorused vocals, leaving only short spaces for piano and sax solos. The upbeat numbers are sizzling, swinging supper club jazz, and the ballads, especially Charles’ tour de force interpretation of Hoagy Charmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” are deeply soulful. A few of the songs play like novelties today (and perhaps did so in 1960), but Charles gives each his complete his attention and has fun on lighter numbers such as the boastful “New York’s My Home” and the gleeful “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Still, even Charles’ effort can’t save a jokey call-and-response version of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

By this point in his career, Charles was marketing himself more as a vocalist than a pianist, but his mastery of the keys can be heard in the rolling notes of “Basin Street Blues” and the dreamy flights of “Moonlight in Vermont.” The seven bonus tracks on this reissue duplicate the first four appended to Rhino’s 1997 version, including the chart-topping “Hit the Road Jack” and a swinging soul take on Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Newly added are a romantic version of “The Long and Winding Road,” the country-soul original “I Was On Georgia Time,” and a ham-and-cheesy cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Rhino’s bonus picks of “I’m Movin’ On” and “Lonely Avenue” were more solid outings.

These tracks aren’t the gutty jazz and soul of Charles’ Atlantic period, nor the groundbreaking interpretational work he’d unleash on 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. They’re a way-point, a transition between Charles’ roots as a jazz player and his future as a pop crooner. The material is a mix of novelties and well-selected chestnuts, and though the orchestrations can get a bit strong, Charles holds down the center with a voice that makes it all worth hearing. As his first top-10 pop album, and hosting his first chart-topping pop single (“Georgia on My Mind”), there are enough winning cuts, particularly the ballads, to merit adding this to your collection. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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