Elton John to be featured on posthumously released Ray Charles album
It's one of those situations no label would wish for. Concord Records is about to release a star-studded duets album by Ray Charles. While the project was highly anticipated in its own right, the legendary performer's death on June 10 is expected to propel the title to even greater heights. In fact, Concord general manager Gene Rumsey believes that Charles's final album, Genius Loves Company, could become the label's all-time best seller. Still, Concord resisted suggestions that it move up the release date to take advantage of the artist's passing. "We wanted to treat this with the utmost respect," Rumsey says. "While we wanted it to be commercially successful, we agreed unanimously that we were not going to exploit anything that happened along the way." So Concord stuck to its original August 31 release date. The label is shipping 1 million units--700,000 domestically, with the rest going to international territories. "We're spending millions of dollars in marketing and advertising," Rumsey says. "The $300,000 we're doing for television initially is a drop in the bucket compared to what we're going to be doing through the holidays."
The project, distributed under Concord's new deal with Universal Music & Video Distribution, comprises duets by Charles and a host of luminaries from a cross section of musical genres. Concord executive vice president-senior vice president of A&R John Burk produced the album with Phil Ramone. Burk says the idea of cutting a duet set arose after Charles signed up for a Concord album last year. "Here's a guy who had an amazingly far-reaching influence and impact on American popular music," Burk says. "He's influenced so many vocalists in so many different genres... That segued into, 'Wow, he's a natural for a duets project.'" He adds, "Some were really important to Ray, because they were some of the best friends that he had in life--B.B. King and Willie Nelson and Gladys Knight fall into that category. Then there are artists on the other end of the spectrum, like Norah Jones. That came about because I was reading one of her articles early on in her career, and she cited Ray as a major influence." Other singers appearing on the set include James Taylor, Diana Krall, Elton John, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Michael McDonald, Johnny Mathis, and Van Morrison.
Keyboardist Billy Preston, who first performed with Charles as a teenager, plays on three of the duets. He says that though the singer-pianist was in failing health during some of the sessions, he stayed on top of the music. "Ray was very weak at the time," Preston recalls, "but he would come back and listen to the track and see if he liked it or not. We would make adjustments to the track as he wished. He was very much actively involved." King, one of Charles's closest friends, says the musician remained as exacting and good-humored in the studio as he was when the two cut their first session together in 1988. King adds, "The first time I recorded with him, he wanted me to do 'Save the Bones for Henry Jones.' Ray wanted to change it; he didn't want to do it the way it was written...I couldn't ever get it right. And he said to me, 'Goddamn, Brother B, I thought you was a musician!'"
Sessions for Genius Loves Company took place at Charles's Los Angeles studio and at the Eastwood Scoring Stage on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. They lasted from July 2003 through this spring. The last session, for the John duet "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," came in March, as Charles's health was declining. "It was pretty awesome, and we were all deeply moved," Burk says. "People were actually crying in the control room... Elton came back in to listen, and he started crying." The marketplace is awaiting the release with similar emotions. Charles's death has made his Rhino catalog releases a fixture on the Billboard Top Pop Catalog chart. This week The Very Best of Ray Charles stands at number 17 on the list with 6,000 units sold for the week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Charles's Anthology is at number 34 with 5,000 units sold.