Phil Ramone Discusses
The Making of Genius Loves Company
The Last Recording of Ray Charles
by Paula Edelstein
Genius Loves Company was completed only months before the legendary Ray Charles passed away. A giant among his musical peers and one of the most versatile musicians that ever lived, Ray Charles’ last days were spent recording some of his favorite music with many of today’s favorite performers. Concord Records and Hear Music has released this special duet recording which features Ray singing with such well-known artists as Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, B.B. King, Michael McDonald, and James Taylor! This is a true historic moment in musical history.
Produced by John Burk, Executive Vice President of Concord Records and the Grammy-winning producer Phil Ramone who has produced recordings for Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Billy Joel, Stan Getz,among others, Genius Loves Company reflects the stylistic contrasts, sensitivity, passion and love that was Ray’s essence and the love and respect Ray’s fellow artists held for him during the session and long after the tapes stopped rolling. We spoke to Phil Ramone about his involvement in the making of the project and here’s what he told us.
P.E.: Hello Phil, thank you for the interview about the making of Genius Loves Company. This must have been a very emotional experience for you considering the turn of events with Ray Charles’ health and impending death just months after the recording was finished. Did Ray show any signs of how ill he really was during the recording sessions?
Phil: Actually more at the point when I did the Elton John session when we did “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” he was quite fragile at that point. That was the first week of March. From November to March, which was when most of my time was spent with Ray and doing a song here and there, and right after Christmas he looked weaker. He was getting thin and his power to sustain…he was a trained entertainer and had been accustomed to doing two hour concerts with no problem.
P.E.: I imagine this had to be a very emotional situation. How did you initially become involved in the Genius Loves Company project?
Phil: Well it started when I did this duet with Van Morrison in June 2003 for a show called Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Van Morrison was among the honorees for that evening, and he was about to come to America. So in a conversation with him, he asked, “How does this show work?” I explained, “Another artist will sing one of your songs and part of your collection and the you will answer by singing one of your songs back to the artist.” So he said, “the only way I’ll do the show and the only way I’d feel comfortable is if I can sing with my dream artist, Ray Charles.” So after a lot of calling and testing, asking and begging and trying to change Ray’s schedule and seeing whether he’d be in New York, and if not, we’d fly him in…that’s how we started the whole idea because once the two of them appeared on the same stage, Concord Records had been talking to Ray’s people and to Ray for months and months. So it was probably another six months before we actually got started. November was when I got involved. But to convince Ray to want to do it, was all John Burk’s and Concord’s idea.
P.E.: Let’s talk about your involvement with his duets with Diana Krall, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Cole and Van Morrison all superstars in their own right with contrasting styles that span the musical spectrum whether pop, rock, blues, jazz, country, to R&B. Diana Krall hits her mark with the great Ray Charles on one of his most memorable ballads, “You Don’t Know Me.” Can you share a momentous highlight on the making of this song?
Phil: Well, I think number one, he was reticent about doing that song because it’s a classic record of HIS. Of any other artist who has done that song, we’ve all been sort of aware that Ray’s rendition was the perfect model. Once he’d said okay to it, he said, “I’d love Diana Krall.” I think that’s what I saw in the studio– which is pretty much what happened with almost every artist…they were a little nervous, asking questions, is there anything that I should know about, humble, making sure that they were comfortable. Ray had a very engaging way with her and Diana, being a wonderful perfectionist about the way she works, was so humble. She started out very nervous, but I told her that she had reached that stature in her career so that if she was uncomfortable, say so or I’d say it. Ray had a radar that was his own and he could tell…he’d say “that’s okay daawling.” He was very endearing.
P.E.: We were nearly moved to tears after listening to Ray Charles and Elton John’s rock ballad duet on “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” These lyrics can take on so many different meanings especially since Ray asks, “What did I do to make you love me?” “What have I got to do to be heard?” “What do I do when lightning strikes me?” He definitely had revved up his personal appearances over the past 3 years at various festivals, concerts and even did a television series with Clint Eastwood titled The Piano Blues for PBS. What was your experience with Ray and Elton that led to their recording of this particular song?
Phil: Well it goes back to the NAMM Convention in Anaheim, CA, where the manufacturers show off their products. They honored Elton John that night at The Pond. The guests included Norah Jones, Diana Krall and Ray Charles! Ray sang that song and it was so emotional, so good and Elton was just thrilled. So when I asked Elton if he wanted to do Genius Loves Company, and when Ray said, “I love this song, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” it seemed obvious that this song would be a high end, emotional time in both of their lives. I didn’t realize that Ray would be as fragile but when they got to the studio, there was so much love.
Elton got there a hour and a half before the session! They had tea, and talked about other stuff…he was preparing. I think artists have a way of preparing, I have my own way of preparing. He was always aware of how Ray would come into the room and he wanted him to feel the love and respect in the room. How exciting it was. Ray always knew what he was going to do, Elton knew what he wanted to do. I prepared the crew to make sure that if anything was going to happen…the cameras would be outside. The crowd in the studio was huge which is unusual for me.
P.E.: The City of Los Angeles recently designated Ray Charles’ recording studio as a historic landmark and that’s understandable. Among the songs he recorded there include “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” with Bonnie Raitt. His remarkable versatility continues to shine through with Bonnie Raitt and many people know of his ability to tell the story behind the song in any musical style. Ray said that Bonnie Raitt “proved something he’s always said country and blues ain’t just first cousins, they’re blood brothers.” Why was “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” so special for Ray? Had he worked with Bonnie Raitt previously?
Phil: I don’t know whether he’d recorded with Bonnie. When you look at the list of songs on the album, you know that he scrutinized everything before and after. Certainly, his love for the cross check here is to look at how and what Ray Charles has always been— a completely versatile musically diverse human being who never cornered himself into saying, “This is what I’m doing and this is the only song that I would like to do.” I think the counterpoint to that is that everybody had a couple of songs that he was happy to do with them. One of the classiest things that happened was when he said, “I would love for you to do that song. I’ve always liked that song.” I know with Bonnie, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” was the kind of song she always wanted to sing with him. I don’t think she’d ever recorded with him.
P.E.: “Fever” took on a whole new meaning when Ray dueted with Natalie Cole and one could surmise she has become quite adept at remote recordings and scoring. Is it true that they used the version done by Little Willie John (Raelette Mabel John’s brother) instead of the arrangement that Peggy Lee had made famous?
Phil: Well, he wanted to refer to that because the story on that is that Little Willie John made that record before Peggy Lee did. So there may have been some other lyrics…because Ray kept saying, “There are some other lyrics we’ve got to look at,” but we never got a chance to go check that out.
P.E.: Genius Loves Company closes with Ray and Van Morrison singing another great duet “Crazy Love,” which they recorded during Van’s induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.” Are the Raelettes singing on this song? Do you know what is happening with The Raelettes now? Will they go on to record with another artist, keep their name?
Phil: I don’t know that but I suspect that The Raelettes will go on and will be known as The Raelettes. But they were not in the television show…I know there is some misconception about that. Those were singers that I work with around New York.
P.E.: Needless to say, every time I play this CD, I get emotional and I’m sure that even though life goes on, it’s hard not to question one’s own mortality. The movie based on Ray’s life story UNCHAIN MY HEART: THE RAY CHARLES STORY is scheduled for release this year also. Are their any duets with these artists featured on the soundtrack for that particular movie?
Phil: Not that I know of. I haven’t seen the dailies and Taylor Hackford is one of my favorite directors. But I hear from everybody that Jamie Foxx is just incredible, but I haven’t seen or heard the soundtrack.
P.E.: Thank you so much for participating in the preservation of Ray Charles’ vast legacy. Unfortunately Genius Loves Company was Ray’s last recording on this planet, but Phil, you deserve a great credit for documenting his final hours and musical history. Do you have other plans for subsequent releases since I’m sure there are hundreds of previously unreleased songs written by the great Ray Charles?
Phil: Well, as in all cases, I know there are many recordings that he’s made and the person sitting there at the Ray Charles Studios archiving all of his songs will have a lot to do. But I’m sure that we’ll be hearing a lot of Ray Charles for some time to come.
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P.E.: Thank you again and here’s to the success of Genius Loves Company, an important and momentous event in musical history and the life of Ray Charles.