Meeting and Memorial: Ray Charles’s duet anthology Genius & Friends, with Diana Ross and Angie Stone, Chris Isaak, Leela James, Idina Menzel, George Michael, John Legend, Willie Nelson, and Alicia Keys

By Daniel Garrett

Ray Charles, Genius & Friends
Produced by Phil Ramone
Executive Producers: Ahmet Ertegun,
Peter L. Funstein and Quincy Jones
Atlantic/Rhino, 2005

Ray Charles voice—earthy, grave, hurt, insinuating, masculine, sexy, sly, wise, a voice of experience—joins Angie Stone in a flirtatious duet, “All I Want to Do,” on Genius & Friends; and on the same album, Ray Charles performs a jazzy take on “You are My Sunshine” with Chris Isaak; and Charles caresses and colors each word he sings in “It All Goes By So Fast,” a performance that inspires duet-partner Mary J. Blige to reach his level. Such an exhibition of talent does not require justification, and yet in America questions may be raised: Why did he choose to make such an album? Why is he singing with these people?

The United States of America is a geography and a nation, a history and an ideal; and there are individuals who embody its aspirations and struggles, its limitations and possibilities: not only George Washington and Betsy Ross and Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Singer Sargent, Henry James and Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, but also Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Lena Horne, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Martin Luther King Jr., Leontyne Price, Ray Charles, Bob Thompson, Toni Morrison, Jessye Norman, Wynton Marsalis, and Barack Obama. It is arguable that each of us, native or immigrant, represents an articulation, if not fulfillment, of the American story and its inspiring dream of liberty, happiness, and success. Yet, our experiences are often interpreted very differently; some people are seen to embody civilization, and others raw experience; some intellect, and others emotion. If civilization is seen as respectable accomplishment, it is also seen as a peculiar prohibition on freedom, as a complex of manners that deny impulse and passion. Often minority cultures are heralded in ways that are questionable, ways that suggest the survival of the image of a noble savage. The shrewd pianist, writer and interpreter Ray Charles was celebrated for bringing the realism of the blues and the passion and style of the black church into popular music, but the man was interested in different kinds of music, evident by his singing jazz, country, and traditional American theater songs, and by his plans for the collaborations taking place on the album Genius & Friends. He is joined by Angie Stone, Chris Isaak, Mary J. Blige, Gladys Knight, Rubben Studdard and the Harlem Gospel Singers, Leela James, Diana Ross, Idina Menzel, George Michael, John Legend, Patti LaBelle and the Andrae Crouch Singers, Laura Pausini, Willie Nelson, and Alicia Keys.

Angie Stone’s warm, wordless murmurs and Ray Charles’s assertion of personal—that is, erotic—interest commence their duet, “All I Want to Do,” produced by Narada Michael Walden. Angie Stone’s tone as she moves through the lyrics is pitch-perfect, inviting, soothing, and Charles’s inflections, as a man intent on seduction, are believably sincere, which is to say that he sounds affectionate, calculating, and a little desperate. Sensuality and spirituality are one in the voice of Angie Stone. Stone’s singing has to be saluted for what it is not: it is not silly or vulgar. Stone sounds like a mature woman, not merely in age but in mind, in self-knowledge. It is quite a switch to listen to the fast, jangly (show-bizzy and show-busy) “You Are My Sunshine,” but I know many performers—especially African-American performers—take pride in belonging to an established theatrical profession, and love to entertain (to many African-Americans, popularity is a vindication of talent, rather than a betrayal of it; whereas being a failed artist is simply one more way of being a bum); and the song “You Are My Sunshine” is an energy-raising romp with Chris Isaak, who allows his big handsome voice to howl. It is an announcement that it is all here, the vastness of American music, in Ray Charles, and in this particular collection, Genius & Friends.

The slow, sad declamation of Ray Charles in “It All Goes By So Fast,” the song about how fleeting experience can be and the value of loyal love, is Ray Charles at his best, and his partner Mary J. Blige treats the lyrics with care, making them firm, real; and, rather than being off-key or grasping for notes, her enunciation is clear and tone smooth. The song was produced by Jerry Hey and Phil Ramone, and is a duet both earthy and exalted. “You Were There,” Charles’s duet with a dignified Gladys Knight, about having a companion despite the travails of time and trouble, is somewhat formal in tone, like the renewal of marriage vows. The lesson? It is easy when young, to cherish impulse, pleasure, and will, but as one gets older one understands more the value of compassion, decency, fairness, kindness, logic, love, and serenity, knowing that they may be gifts but they are not always granted.

With piano and choir and a downbeat gospel tone, Ray Charles and Rubben Studdard resuscitate “Imagine,” the John Lennon song that probably did not need one more interpretation—but it is a popular classic that illustrates an aspect of Charles’s personal taste and social vision: “imagine all the people, living life in peace.” There is nothing wrong with Studdard’s large, smooth voice, but it is Charles’s voice that has age and attitude, personality. The social atmosphere is conjured in the richly arranged “Compared to What,” the emphatic blues-soul anthem written by Gene McDaniels and produced by Charles with Ramone, a catalog of social woes, that Charles and Leela James reap for as much blues and funk as it holds, with James hitting the lyrics hard, her notes as fierce as Bessie Smith or Koko Taylor.

Most of the duets on Genius & Friends were begun in 1997 and 1998 before Ray Charles became seriously ill, and were completed after his June 2004 death. Two of the songs were completed years long before—a comic song of commiseration with country music master Willie Nelson, and a scintillating orchestral blues with singer-actress Diana Ross. (I would like to know more about when the Ross duet was completed, as it sounds like the work she did in the late 1980s for her Red Hot Rhythm & Blues album, which producer Tom Dowd helped with, but the song was featured in an early 1990s film.) Diana Ross is not the first person I would think of for a duet with Ray Charles, her voice being so much lighter than his, but in their vocal differences one can hear male and female personalities. Ross’s sensuousness is delicate and diction precise, and her performance is, of course, the most elegant on the album, despite the sexual suggestion in the lyrics she sings. Diana Ross has sometimes, mostly inaccurately, been referred to as a rhythm-and-blues singer, but the closest she has come to that genre is with her albums Red Hot Rhythm & Blues and Baby, It’s Me, the latter produced by Richard Perry; in fact, what Ross has done is to sing a panoply of music that equals nothing less and nothing more than “good music by Diana Ross,” and that is what it means to be a singer of popular music: true individuality, broad appeal. It is something Ray Charles admired. “Big Bad Love,” the Charles-Ross duet written by Steve and Stephanie Tyrell, was arranged and produced by Steve Tyrell, and appeared in the 1994 moving picture The Favor, a film with Brad Pitt.

The Broadway, television, and film performer Idina Menzel affects a tone influenced by soul music, but not limited by it, an eloquently feminine sound, in her duet with Charles, “I Will Be There,” a melodramatic ballad that ends in loving testimony. Ray Charles, sounding busted and brave, performs Motown legend Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun” with George Michael, who uses his beautifully creamy, flowing voice as witness to Charles’s despondent experience. It is amusing to realize that John Legend’s voice has its own distinguishing roughness in his Charles sing-along, “Touch,” a pop-soul arrangement of a song about erotic excitement (written and produced by Narada Michael Walden), with a female chorus. “Shout, shout, that’s what love’s all about,” sings a fervent Patti LaBelle in “Shout,” a boisterous gospel song. (It may not be a rational affirmation, but it is not that uncommon, among certain people. Why is Patti LaBelle, like Aretha Franklin, always expected to scream; and when did screaming become an admired technique of eloquence rather than a sign of failed communication? Is that anything more than a cliché?) “Surrender to Love,” about willingness to move beyond routine, and the seeking of transformation, is a duet with Laura Pausini, who has a voice similar to Idina Menzel, I think; and in it Charles sings, “I wanna feel like I got heaven all around me.”

The subject is desperation, being down on one’s luck, but the tone is self-aware, self-mocking, in the Charles-Nelson duet “Busted,” which was part of a 1991 television special, “Ray Charles: 50 Years in Music,” and the song has this chastening, truthful line: “I’m no thief, but a man can go wrong when he’s busted.” The collection Genius & Friends concludes with “America the Beautiful,” with Charles and Alicia Keys, whose singular, soulful voice is strong enough to carry the song, though she does not give it any special conviction. Charles, who launched songs like “Hit the Road, Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind” and “Crying Time” straight into the famished minds, imaginative hearts, and aching souls of the American public, has conviction to spare; he is an artist who always sounds as if he is telling the truth. The collection Genius & Friends, with its marvelous participants, is a tribute of sentiment and thought to the appetite and depth of a great and memorable musician.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.
Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or