LP Number: Pure Audiophile PA-009 (2)
Ray Charles needs no introduction. This titan of the musical world has appeared on approximately 250 recordings. Before he passed away on June 10, 2004, he left us this album, and we are richer for it. Genius Loves Company is the first album by Ray Charles to go platinum, and the Concord Records/Hear Music original CD in fact went triple-platinum (defined as sales of three million worldwide). Ray Charles has influenced a large number of vocalists who span many genres of music, making the man himself difficult to categorize. On Genius Loves Company, Ray collaborates with outstanding singers in the fields of jazz, blues, R&B, pop, country and gospel, and he can sing them all. These recordings were made at Ray's studio in Los Angeles, and at the Eastwood Scoring Stage in Burbank, California, between July 2003 and spring 2004. Although Ray was in failing health during that period, his voice is predominantly strong, expressive, and emotional, and his duets with good friends Willie Nelson and B.B. King struck this reviewer as especially heartfelt. And Elton John reportedly cried upon hearing the playback of his collaboration with Ray.
The CD of this album was released on August 31, 2005, eleven weeks after Ray Charles passed away. Besides going triple-platinum, it garnered eight Grammy Awards: Best Album of the Year, Best Record of the Year (for "Here We Go Again" with Norah Jones), Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Pop Vocal Album Collaboration, Best Gospel Performance (for "Heaven Help Us All" with Gladys Knight), Best Surround Sound Album, Best Engineered Album (non-classical), and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals. Impressive. The CD itself was a collaboration between Concord Records and Hear Music, which is Starbucks' music label.
I'm here to tell you that if you loved the CD, you'll absolutely flip over the LP. Dennis Cassidy of Pure Audiophile wisely chose this album for his latest release, and once again he had the wisdom to have it mastered by Stan Ricker, the best damn mastering engineer in the known or unknown universe. (If you don't know why, see my interview with Stan. Stan half-speed-mastered Genius Loves Company from the original half-inch analog 30 ips (inches per second) master tapes onto two 33 rpm LPs, using three tracks per LP side. The LP was pressed on 180g virgin vinyl at RTI. The big gatefold jacket is gorgeous, and is a lot more fun to hold and look at than is the CD jewel box.
The LP bests the CD in almost every important way. For example, Norah Jones' voice on the first cut of the LP sounds more natural, seductive, and involving, capturing more of the subtlety, while eliminating the tizz and digititis of the CD. (Note also that Billy Preston puts in an amazing performance on the Hammond B3 on this cut, in addition to two others.) Ray and Norah are so in synch on this piece that it sounds like they're reading each others' minds. No wonder it won a Grammy. As another example, on the "Heaven Help Us All" cut, the LP sounds far more organic and natural, with a sense of real musicians in a real space, including the massed choir, which by comparison sounds artificial and pinched on the CD. Note that all of this was accomplished with no EQ of any kind. Stan Ricker reports that this was the first tape in a very long time that he was able to play back flat (with the treble and bass equalizer circuits switched out) straight into the electronics feeding his cutting lathe. Also, the vocal polarities on about 50 percent of the songs were reversed, and those were changed for the LP. As you know, absolute polarity can make a huge difference in the realism of the reproduction, and Stan is a stickler for such details. The results speak for themselves.
Stan also solved an important problem with the CD, namely, the image is pulled to the left. On the CD, Ray Charles is always left of center, and the guest vocalist is always in the middle. Kick drum and bass are also pulled a bit to the left (but not as much as is Ray). While this may not sound too terribly objectionable, the problem becomes really obvious on "Heaven Help Us All." On the CD, the choir is pulled to the left to the point that it sounds spatially unnatural. For the LP, Stan adjusted the left-right balance such that Ray Charles is always left of center, the guest vocalist is always an equal amount right of center, and the off-center problem with the kick drum and bass is completely fixed. The result is a more natural soundstage, which really becomes evident when the choir on "Heaven Help Us All" comes in ... it now sounds like a real choir singing in a natural, real space, when they open up. Now if only I could listen to the LP in the car...
Ray's collaboration with Elton John on "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" is stunning, sounding like a perfectly natural pairing of two great voices. On "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" with Bonnie Raitt, the vocals really blend together wonderfully, and Bonnie adds some dexterous slide guitar licks to the mix. The collaboration with Willie Nelson on "It Was A Very Good Year" will send chills down your spine, especially considering that Ray passed away not long after this was recorded, and the song is about two aging gentlemen reminiscing about their lives. Willie's voice is recorded here in stark relief, perhaps the best I have ever heard it. Ray then engages in some great repartee with B.B. King on "Sinner's Prayer," trading some killer riffs between piano and guitar. And Billy Preston on Hammond B3 is fantastic. "Over The Rainbow" with Johnny Mathis really works as well ... each voice is showcased, but each voice also perfectly complements the other ... quite an accomplishment, but they make it sound easy. I also liked "Sweet Potato Pie" with James Taylor. This piece is dynamic, clean and lively, with a great soundstage. I could go on, but you get the idea.
If you own the CD of this album and like it, you don't know what you're missing. Please support Dennis Cassidy and Pure Audiophile and buy this album. It's an absolute stunner, and is a tribute to everyone involved.