Ray Charles’ 90th Birthday Celebrated By ‘True Genius’ Limited 6 CD Box Set (ALBUM REVIEW)

Tangerine Records, the label Ray Charles founded in 1962, is rather cleverly releasing 90 tracks across 6 CDs in honor of his 90th birthday. This massive collection includes a previously unreleased recording of eight cuts recorded live in Stockholm in 1972.  While the set does an admirable job of showcasing Charles’ genre-crossing mastery, it does not touch on his beginnings in jazz in the late 1950s as Charles was under contract to Atlantic during that time. The set does a terrific job of covering his major hits and marks the first time most of this will be widely available on digital platforms. This writer is pausing with a slight chuckle, a fond memory of “Crying Time” on my late uncle’s 8-track tape (remember those?)

Given that this project is controlled by the Ray Charles Foundation, another nice feature beyond the 90 selections, is that they are presented in chronological order, so the listener gains a greater appreciation of his evolution through the many styles.  This writer is fortunate to have two Charles box sets that are more singularly focused and spanning five and four CDs respectively.  The former is Concord’s The Singular Genius – The Complete ABC Singles and the latter is Rhino’s The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986.  True Charles aficionados should also check out Atlantic’s collection of his entire output for the label (1952 -59) in the 7 CD box Pure Genius.

Like many box sets, this one includes a coffee table style book with rare photos, liner notes from Ray Charles Foundation President Valerie Ervin, contributions from music journalist A. Scott Galloway and a special message from Quincy Jones.  As one reads through the material, Charles comes across as every bit a masterful businessman as a musician, one of the first recording artists to have ownership of his masters as well as complete creative freedom.  His major ascent occurred during the 1960s amidst political strife and social unrest. His music broke down some of these barriers and he was able to cross over in many ways without, as Bobby Rush says, crossing out. Black audiences adored him as much as the redneck country types.  Having seen Charles perform with his large band and Raelettes at Radio City in the mid-80s, this writer can count the number of artists on one hand who had the ability to totally captivate and take an audience wherever he wanted to. 

As you listen to these selections, many of the orchestra settings will obviously sound dated as will the overused pop cliches that run through the first couple of discs.  Nonetheless, there never has been a more versatile artist as Charles covered gospel, R&B to soul, country, jazz, blues and pop. Heck, he even has by far the signature version of “America the Beautiful,” which should be the only version of this song ever aired.  

Disc 6 – The Live in Stockholm 1972 isn’t especially memorable except for his introduction of The Raelettes and the following “Games People Play” but it does offer insight to his stage demeanor.  Beyond that, one cannot go wrong with any of his titles that have “Blues” in them, as they are typically more stripped down.  We have a live version of “Am I Blue?” and the incomparable “Blues in the Night” on Disc 4, this writer’s favorite in the set as it also shows how he covered Stevie Wonder’s “Living in the City,” the Beatles “Let It Be” (Lennon’s “Imagine” is also worthy on Disc 5), and the Les McCann/Eddie Harris classic “Compared to What.”  The duets are especially worthy as well. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is with Betty Carter on Disc 1, “Summertime” with Cleo Laine on Disc 4, and a host of duets on Disc 5 with Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, Lou Rawls, Chaka Khan, Eric Clapton, and Nora Jones. 

If for whatever reason, your Ray Charles music is lacking or in older, unplayable formats, this set will serve you well. The breadth and depth of his artistry never ceases to amaze.

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