You know you’ve captured something magical when there’s not a dry eye in the house at the end of a recording session. That was the case when Ray Charles finished what turned out to be his final recording, a duet with Elton John for his Album of the Year-nominated Genius Loves Company.
“We set them up three or four feet away from each other, facing each other, and we ran one take that was almost perfect and then one more and that was it. At that moment everyone was in tears,” said one of the album’s producers, Phil Ramone, who was behind the boards when Charles tracked his final studio song. Ray, who by that point was seriously ill, kissed and hugged everyone in the room, apologized for his lack of energy and was wheeled down the hall. It was the last time most of them would see the singer alive.
John immediately asked Ramone for a copy of the tape as a souvenir, and he, too, burst into tears when he heard the melancholy playback of his 1976 song “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” It is one of the many songs on the album in which Charles’ already world-weary voice seems to take on an added weight.
It was a fitting ending to a nearly yearlong project that Ray undertook with his typical energy and focus and which would serve as a musical epitaph to one of the most eclectic, celebrated careers in modern music history. Charles, who died on June 10 at the age of 73 due to complications from liver disease (see “Ray Charles Dead At 73″ ), didn’t live to see the album’s August release, or to share in the joy of it being the best-selling album of his 50-year career. But he sensed early on that the project had the potential to put him back on the world stage.
After a career of memorable duets, Charles’ first all-duets album featured friends and fans — ranging from old pals like B.B. King, John,
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Willie Nelson and Natalie Cole to Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones and Diana Krall — and was the brainchild of John Burk, executive vice president of Concord Records.
“I really felt that he was under-recognized for many years and hadn’t made a record in a while that had any major impact,” said Burk, the album’s executive producer. “We wanted to do something that brought attention to what a great artist he is and show how he broke down barriers and influenced so many singers, some of whom don’t even realize it.”
The project began with a song already in the can, a duet between Charles and Van Morrison, recorded live in June 2003 at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Morrison, who was being inducted, said he’d come only if he could sing a song with Charles. Ramone made it happen, but when Charles picked Morrison’s well-known hit “Crazy Love,” the Irish bard balked at the suggestion. “I said, ’But you’ve never done it as a duet,’ ” Ramone recalled. ” ’When you do it that way, it takes on another life.’ And when they got onstage, Van looked like a little teenager sitting in front of a genius.”
The proper sessions for the album began in October 2003 with the recording of the gritty Lowell Fulson blues song “Sinner’s Prayer,” a musical meeting of the minds between Charles and King. “I walked into the room and thought, ’I’ve got the genius of soul, the king of the blues and the fifth Beatle in here,’ ” Burk said of the recording, which also included Billy Preston on keyboards. “I said, ’Why don’t you guys just play? And B.B. said, ’Yeah, let’s do it like we used to, go head-to-head.’ ”
The result, a boogie-woogie blues summit, was a perfect example of why in this age of long-distance “collaborations” Burk insisted all the artists record their parts live in the studio with Charles. “Ray had a real way of making them feel at home and connecting with them,” Burk said. Ramone said even for the “coolest people in the world,” when the time came to sit down across from Charles, whether it was Krall, Raitt or Cole, “they’d all turn into kids when they heard that voice.” Ramone described scenes in which artists such as Krall, Raitt and John would show up hours early to go over their parts and calm their nerves before recording with Charles, with Krall pacing back and forth and Raitt “fidgeting and practicing all over the place.”
But it was Jones — whom Burk remembered had mentioned Charles’ influence in interviews early in her career — who had the quintessential Brother Ray experience. “One of the most emotional moments was when I introduced Ray to Norah,” Burk said. “He had heard of her, and I played him some of her stuff, and he said, ’I guess she’ll be all right.’ The first time they met I brought her up to his office and he was sitting at his upright piano and he starts talking to her about how to approach the song.”
Like many of the people involved in the sessions, from Burk to John and the people who wrote the orchestral charts for a handful of tracks, Jones quickly learned that Charles had his own ideas. In this case, they weren’t at all what she expected.
“He wanted her to do something different, and she just took to it, and it was amazing to see the teacher and the student side by side, both amazingly gifted, going into this collaboration on a song that was totally different from what she and I were expecting,” Burk said. The resulting track is the album-opening cover of “Here We Go Again,” a slow-burn country gospel ballad on which both play piano, their silk and sandpaper voices perfectly meshed.
From the easy bouncing pop of “Sweet Potato Pie” with James Taylor, to the jazzy “Fever” with Cole, the gospel burner “Heaven Help Us All” with Gladys Knight, and the sweeping standard “It Was a Very Good Year” with Nelson, Charles stayed engaged and hands-on until the end of the sessions.
“The arranger wrote the charts for the choir part in ’Heaven Help Us,’ ” Burk said. “And Ray came in and said he had an idea to do it differently and he starts singing all the parts. He sang the alto parts, the soprano parts and he rewrote the chart on the spot. He had a sound in his head before he came in for every session, and if they sang anything else it was not what he wanted.”
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Though the singer had been in failing health, Ramone said he didn’t think Charles knew until near the end of the sessions that Genius might be his final recording. “When you look at the song selection, ’Sinner’s,’ ’Heaven Help Us,’ ’Over the Rainbow,’ maybe he was thinking it would be his last statement,” Burk said.
And how would the notoriously cantankerous singer feel about the Album of the Year nomination? “He’d be laughing about it,” Ramone said. “We thought maybe a pop duo nomination, but not album and record of the year. He’ll be looking down, thinking, ’Damn, I made a comeback for the rest of the world to see!’ If nothing else, it’s guaranteed that a good couple of generations will hear him now.”
During the mixing of the album, Burk set up an intercom system so a weakened Charles could sit in his office and hear the mixing and chime in with suggestions. The last time Burk spoke to him, Charles said he was happy with what he heard, adding, “I’m going to rest now.”
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