"Better late than never" is an old adage that happens to be true. I never heard Genius Loves Company, the last album recorded by Ray Charles before his death, until recently and I'm glad I finally did.
When this CD was released two albums of duets by other musical icons came immediately to mind, most notably those by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and because I was disappointed in their efforts I wasn't all that excited about The Genius's release. These projects always seemed like gimmicks to me, especially when I learned that on Sinatra's CD the guest vocalists were not always in the studio with Ol' Blue Eyes when they added their voices to a song. It was obvious why the results were less than pleasing.
Genius Loves Company is very different. Apparently duetting with Charles was quite a privilege so the guest vocalists poured their hearts and souls into every note. Michael McDonald is surprisingly restrained on "Hey Girl." B.B. King and Lucille are there to help out on the appropriately bluesy "Sinners Prayer." Charles and James Taylor turn the latter's "Sweet Potato Pie" into a jazz tune with a full brass section and Elton John offers a less schmaltzy version of his own "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word." Charles's soulful voice makes the song even sadder. The album closes with a live version of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love." Both singers sound as if they worked together all of their lives.
Best of all are the five female singers who are perfect on every single one of their tracks. The CD opens with Norah Jones (who is always better singing other people's songs than her own) trading leads with Charles on "Here We Go Again." (Be sure to catch Billy Preston's B-3 on this one). Diana Krall is her usual sultry self on "You Don't Know Me" and Bonnie Raitt brings both her voice and slide guitar to a perfect version of "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" Gladys Knight takes a gospel turn with Charles on "Heaven Help Us All," and finally, there is Natalie Cole's upbeat assistance on "Fever."
There are only two minor flaws. Johnny Matthis provides a smooth counterpoint to the host's gruff lines on "Over The Rainbow" a song not everybody should sing. Matthis easily upstages his host because it's not a song that easily fits into Charles's vocal style. The other one is Willie Nelson's tired performance on Sinatra's "It Was A Very Good Year."
The productions include full string sections, small jazz and blues groups, horn sections, and more. All this diversity is overseen by producers John Burk and the legendary Phil Ramone.
If you haven't heard Genius Loves Company make sure you do. Don't wait three years like I did.