A Fitting Farewell
(Ray Charles and Gladys Knight photo by Dennis Shirley)
With music, the cliché, “timing is everything,” oft applies, whether referring to beats on a metronome or the charismatic stage presence of a star. Perhaps timing is what’s most striking about Genius Loves Company, the final record from Ray Charles, on which the last song was recorded just three months prior to the singer’s passing. With Charles gone, the album has taken on historic proportions.
The duets compilation features the “Genius of Soul” alongside 12 other luminaries who, altogether, have garnered an astounding 79 Grammy awards—Norah Jones, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Elton John, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis and Van Morrison. The album, released Aug. 31, was the brainchild of John Burk, the executive vice president of Concord Records, who co-produced the project with Grammy-winning guru Phil Ramone.
The day Charles died, both producers understood the heightened poignancy of the album. Ironically, Burk received the news while in a meeting with Starbucks and Hear Music, who co-released the album. On the opposite coast, Ramone was pulled aside with the information during rehearsals for another project—the 35th Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony—a show whose stage Charles had graced just a year earlier, in a duet with Van Morrison. (That performance of the Irish rocker’s “Crazy Love” happens to be the final track on Genius Loves Company.)
Later that night, as legends of songcraft mingled backstage and the sadness of a lost legend hung over the house, the awards show became an impromptu memorial for Charles, with the likes of Hall and Oates, Stevie Wonder and more giving praise to a man who influenced them all.
That same chord of appreciation rings true on Genius Loves Company. It’s a diverse album, appropriate for a man who brought gospel to the mainstream, pioneered soul music and crossed over into R&B, blues and country. Boundaries of genre didn’t concern him so, with musical partners, he never wanted for company.
In his own words, Charles said of the CD, “I’ve recorded with so many amazing artists in my career but never on a duets album of my own. I thought it was time to have some of the friends that I love and the artists that I admire come into my studio and sing with me live, the way we did it in the old days. All the guests brought their own magic to each song.”
That magic included bringing Elton John to tears during a playback and introducing Charles to an admiring Norah Jones before her own Grammy sweep made her a sensation. Though poor health made some days difficult, Burk says Charles didn’t complain and never rescheduled a session, maintaining humor all the while. Burk recalls, “I would try to convince Ray to do one song and he’d try to convince me to do another one and we’d go back and forth. And more than once, he’d say to me, ‘I don’t care. Do whatever you want to do. I’m a singer. I could sing the phonebook.’ But, you know, the truth is he could sing anything. He wasn’t being boastful. It was a way of deferring and saying, ‘OK, I’ll go with you on this one.’ But it was a very funny way to do it. And he delivered. He delivered every time.”