Let me just get something out of the way right up front: I love Ray Charles. I think he’s one of the few artists whose work justifies multiple boxed sets, and he deserves immeasurable credit for helping draw clear lines between R&B and country during a time when doing it could get a guy killed. Ray Charles is so good, he made me watch a movie starring Jamie Foxx.
But this series is devoted to the notion that no artist is perfect; that occasionally, in every major musician’s career, bad decisions are made. People get greedy for hits, label suits start meddling in things, producers start fooling around with new sounds, artists lose their inspiration…all kinds of things can happen between an album’s conception and its completion. No one is immune.
Not even Ray Charles.
In the early ’90s, after years in the pop culture wilderness, Charles was hauled back into the spotlight by a confluence of unlikely factors: first, there was his sprightly cameo opposite Chaka Khan on Quincy Jones’ “I’ll Be Good to You,” followed by Charles’ eyebrow-raising selection as the face and/or voice of Diet Pepsi. Before you could say “you got the right one baby, uh huh,” Charles was part of the Warner Bros. family, where hopes were high that he’d reverse his recent artistic fortunes — he’d been dogpaddling his way through his albums for years, and things had gotten to the point where “halfway charming” was about the best you could hope for when you tore the wrapper off one of his new releases.
Here’s the thing, though: brief ’70s flirtation with disco aside, Charles always seemed to exist in a world blessedly set apart from current trends. He might have grown helplessly lazy in his musical middle age, but at least he sounded happy; unlike a lot of veteran acts in the ’80s, he never wasted much time trying to be hip. (In fact, for much of the decade, he was recording country records, dueting with Ricky Skaggs and covering the Bellamy Brothers.) If Warners had only given Ray a decent budget and set him loose to do his thing, free from interference, they might have provided him with a tasteful postscript to his truly essential work. But no — someone had the bright idea to try and make Ray Charles relevant to younger listeners, leading to a terrible trilogy of New Jack-stained records that found the man who gave the world “What’d I Say” fronting embarrassingly canned rhythm tracks like a bewildered grandfather at the world’s worst wedding reception.
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It’s really sort of pointless to try and pick a “worst” from the three; all of them, from 1990’s prophetically titled Would You Believe? to 1996’s Strong Love Affair, seem to have been beamed in from a parallel dimension in which an evil dictator has vacuumed all the soul out of humanity and buried it beneath Yucca Mountain. But as foul as they are, the albums that bookend Charles’ Warners tenure are at least consistent — top to bottom, all you get is cynically assembled high-priced garbage from the likes of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. What sets apart 1993’s My World is that it’s comparatively eclectic: you get abysmal machine-driven pop like “One Drop of Love,” but every so often, producer Richard Perry — who had worked on enough great albums to know better than to drop a turd this pungent — slips in a really well-made recording, like the covers of “A Song for You” and “Still Crazy After All These Years.” You’d think this would make My World a better album, but it doesn’t; it just makes you angry, because it keeps reminding you that Charles was better than this. At least Would You Believe? and Strong Love Affair afford the listener the luxury of tuning out early — My World is like the Lucy Van Pelt of late-period Ray Charles albums, repeatedly promising to quit fucking around and get down to business, only to yank the football away at the last minute and leave you flat on your back, howling in pain and listening to “Love Has a Mind of Its Own.”
“But Jeff,” you might be saying, “you’ve gone on for almost 700 words, and you haven’t said anything about how Ray Charles is partly to blame for My World.” To which I say SHUT YOUR FILTHY SLANDEROUS MOUTH, RAY CHARLES IS AWESOME. I can’t believe Charles really had a hand in any of this. I mean, he could play piano and sing a mean tune, but he was blind; he had no way of knowing where he really was at any given moment, and I prefer to imagine that when he was brought into the studio for My World‘s worst tracks, he believed he was recording a long and especially stupid Pepsi commercial. There’s no other satisfactory explanation for why he’d waste his time with poisonous drool like “I’ll Be There.”
And he had company, too: Mavis Staples and Angie Stone lend their peerless vocals to a couple of songs, Billy Preston contributes organ, and Eric Clapton pops up for a solo on “None of Us Are Free” (which is appropriate, given that Clapton would largely appropriate My World‘s battery-powered sonic template for his next album, 1998’s deadly boring Pilgrim). Even the names in the small print are suitably high-priced: Abraham Laboriel, Greg Phillinganes, and Steve Gadd all show up in the credits. You couldn’t crush major artistic talent against indifferent material any more brutally if you put them in the Large Hadron Collider. My World is an anti-masterpiece, a bitter hodgepodge of desperate fumbling and half-hearted concessions to the towering legacy of the man behind the microphone. (And only the microphone, for the most part: musically speaking, Charles contributes nothing but a mercifully brief synth solo on “Still Crazy.”)
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Eventually, of course, Charles received the lavish career sendoff he deserved, signing with Concord for 2004’s pleasant, albeit utterly artistically bankrupt, Genius Loves Company and consulting on Taylor Hackford’s Ray before passing away in 2004. While absolutely nowhere near his best album, Genius at least had some of the spark missing from the handful of releases that came before it. Charles’ Warner Bros. years are really just a footnote in his discography, and I wish I could tell you they were all out of print; alas, Concord brought them back when they mounted their reissue series after his death. Meanwhile, the marvelous Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection box has been discontinued, as has the handsome Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959). Pick either of them up on the used market, and ignore the endless stream of cheapie compilations. Charles’ artistry is too big to be contained in a single disc — especially one as misguided as My World.