Concord Records is proud to announce the release of Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters, an incredible collection of newly discovered Ray Charles recordings. The tracks embody the remarkable breadth of musical styles that were synonymous with this classic American artist.
In 2009, after six months of sifting and sorting through four decades worth of demos and other previously unissued material at Charles’ R.P.M. International studios on Los Angeles’ Washington Boulevard, Concord Music Group’s executive vice president of A&R, John Burk, emerged with a handful of startling recordings from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s that reaffirm the vast scope of Charles’ artistic vision and stylistic range. Burk, who first worked with Charles as producer of his final studio album, 2004’s Grammy-winning Album of the Year, Genius Loves Company stated, “We have so much respect for Ray, and now being the guardians of his legacy, we didn’t want to release anything substandard. In the end, I think what we have here is on par with some of his greatest works.”
In addition to the tracks culled from R.P.M. International, the set also includes a surprise from the Sony vaults – a stirring rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?” a gospel flavored duet with Johnny Cash produced by Billy Sherrill in Nashville, recorded in 1981. This one-of-a-kind pearl has gone unheard by the public until now. Contrary to correspondence between Charles and Cash anticipating the release of the song on CBS, the track never saw the light of day for three decades for reasons that remain unknown. Cash takes the lead vocal, while Charles hangs back slightly and delivers hefty backup vocals and equally compelling piano lines. “Ray’s presence in the song helps to establish a sort of marriage between gospel, Christian and country music – the kind of thing Ray was so uniquely good at,” says Burk.
Some of the tracks which emerged from the R.P.M. vault in sparse, stripped-down form – have been sonically enhanced ever-so-slightly by a crew of top-notch artists: guitarists Keb’ Mo’ and George Doering, organist Bobby Sparks, trumpeter Gray Grant, trombonist Alan Kaplan, bassists Trey Henry and Chuck Berghofer, drummers Gregg Field and Ray Brinker, and background vocalist Eric Benét.
The dark side of ‘love’ is a running theme throughout Rare Genius. The highlights include the set opener “Love’s Gonna Bite You Back,” a track from a March 1980 session that features an upbeat horn arrangement behind what liner notes author Bill Dahl calls “a Charles vocal that’s a signature mixture of sandpaper grit and heavenly goodness.” Burk adds: “I don’t know how many other singers could really pull that off, and make it seem so effortless. What he does rhythmically is just incredible.”
“It Hurts To Be In Love” was one of the first unreleased tracks we heard,” Burk recalls. “Valerie Ervin, president of the Ray Charles Foundation, discovered it and played it for me. We were both stunned and excited by how good it was. This song quickly became the centerpiece of the album. The other songs were chosen, first and foremost because they were great Ray Charles performances, but also because they felt connected to this song, often thematically. Later, in doing research on our choices, we discovered Ray had begun compiling some of the same material and had put four of these songs on one reel, including “It Hurts To Be In Love.”
The soul-drenched “I Don’t Want No One But You,” is fueled by Charles’ emotionally powerful vocals and a gospel-charged backing chorus. “Something I learned about Ray in this process,” said Burk “was that he kept up with new recording technology as a tool for making music. He had developed the arrangement for this song by creating a demo with samplers and synthesizers, giving this song a bit more contemporary feel.”
Rare Genius contains examples of Ray’s love and mastery of country music including an imaginative arrangement of recently departed songsmith Hank Cochran’s “A Little Bitty Tear,” recorded in 1983. Ray pours a dose of the blues over Cochran’s gem that’s a long way from Burl Ives’ lilting 1961 hit reading. Ray’s version was nearly complete but had been recorded in an unconventional way. “Ray had recorded the piano, strings, lead and background vocals,” says Burk, “and he had just started to work on programming some drum ideas but hadn’t finished. We simply added a little bass and drums to finish it off.”
“She’s Gone” is a bit of sleight-of-hand as only Charles can do it. “It’s a sad song,” says Burk. “He’s losing the girl, but at the same time, it’s fun and playful. It’s really interesting how Ray delivers the message of pain, but he’s upbeat about it at the same time.”
“Wheel of Fortune” was a pop smash for Kay Starr in 1952, its intro the sound of a spinning roulette wheel. Charles gave the Bennie Benjamin/George David Weiss ballad a sultry spin in 1972 – his brilliant keyboard work and imaginative vocal leaving such gimmicky sound effects altogether unnecessary.
Regarded as “the Genius” by virtually everyone within the sound of his mesmerizing voice and powerful keyboard work, Charles was – and continues to be – a towering figure in the annals of American popular music whose influence on subsequent generations is incalculable. “The rhythmic and improvisational things Ray did with his vocals were incredibly influential to generations of singers in all genres of music,” says Burk. “And he would always get inside the meaning of a lyric and make the listener believe every word, as if he were describing his own experiences. His vocals carried incredible emotion and intensity, even on demo tapes. That’s how Ray approached his music; I don’t think he knew any other way to do it.”
Good things do indeed come to those who wait. Six years after Ray Charles’ passing and just in time for Ray’s 80th birthday celebration on September 23rd, Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters provides the world with a fresh look at what made him such a pivotal and enduring figure on the landscape of 20th century American music.