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Ray Still Burns Bright

Mark Hanauer

The Genius of Soul delivers a "Strong Love Affair" on latest album

By Nicky Baxter

They call him the "Genius of Soul." Ray Charles, the man who singlehandedly hijacked gospel from the clutches of the black church and made it accessible to the secular world, is without question one of a small handful of supersignificant players in the evolution of popular music. It's been said before, but in this case it is plain fact: Any attempt to pigeonhole "Brother Ray" fails to gauge the musician's immense and far-reaching impact.

Charles started his 40-year-long career riding Charles Brown's and Nat Cole's jock; back then, in the late 1940s, the Georgia native aped suave balladeer Cole to near-perfection, toiling behind the piano and cooing sweet nothings to his budding coterie of fans.

By the time "Mess Around" was released (circa 1953), the pianist, singer, arranger and composer was already a regular hitmaker. Plus, he was starting to vastly his expand his scope to encompass boogie-woogie, hard-swinging jazz and, of course, then-unnamed soul music. In the early 1960s, he even initiated a love affair with C&W.

Although Charles' newest album, Strong Love Affair (Warner Bros.), doesn't feature any country numbers, it can nevertheless be considered an off-the-cuff encyclopedia of soul, big-band jazz and balladeering. His jazz soul is represented on tracks like "All She Wants to Do Is Love Me" and "Tell Me What You Want Me to Do," both of which are up-to-the-nanosecond modern but incontestably Ray­like rompers. These unabashedly extroverted numbers are tempered by similarly contemporary slow-burning tunes like "Angelina."

There is nothing on Strong Love Affair that breaks new ground. Such expectations are unrealistic--silly, really. The bottom line is that even post-peak Ray Charles kicks the shuck out of today's smartly appointed but faux soul boys and girls.

"Say No More" is an excellent illustration of how a ballad ought to be sung. In lesser hands, the tune would sink in a wash of semibathetic orchestral maneuvers. But Charles knows precisely how to squeeze every ounce of genuine emotion from such a song. His voice, still a magnificent instrument after all these years, aches with anguish, guilt and remorse. The King of Pain? Charles is its very paragon. Indeed, the emotional pull of "Say No More" is not unlike that of Billie Holiday's troubled blues.

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