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wasn't prepared to like the Ray
Charles' (read more) The
Spirit Of Christmas nearly as much as I did. And, it's not that I don't like
Ray. Back in the 1950's, this mellifluous son of Georgia all but invented soul music
by singing the Lord's music in Satan's vernacular. In the 1960's, he turned Nashville
on its head by singing country music with urban grit and sophistication. Known as
the Genius of Soul, Ray earned his title well, but by the time he released The
Spirit Of Christmas he was well past his prime.
Don't get me wrong - Ray produced great music throughout his life. When the spirit
moved him, he could uncork astounding vocal performances, and he became a consummate
- if less daring - producer and arranger (and, by all accounts, an astute businessman).
But, Ray all but ceased writing by the late 60's, another sign that the creative
fire in his belly - the fire that produced "I've Got A Woman," "Hallelujah
I Love Her So," and "What'd I Say - had cooled. More fundamentally, the
nature of Ray Charles' music shifted, assuming an easy-listening, middle-of-the-road
demeanor that dulled its sharp, soulful edges.
So, while The
Spirit Of Christmas (1985) isn't as funky as it would have been if recorded
in, say, 1959, it percolates with the jazzy energy and stately grace that characterized
Ray's best later work. Here, he plays mainly electric piano, and employs brassy,
small combo arrangements (with a few too many strings). While the contemporary
ballads (like "This Time Of Year" and "Christmas In My Heart")
don't quite measure up to Ray's inventive, lively interpretation of the standards
(like "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"), the charts are topnotch - all
written or cowritten by Ray. The Genius has a few surprises up his sleeve, too,
like the steel guitar in "Little Drummer Boy" or the bluesy workout on "Rudolph
The Red-Nosed Reindeer." In the end, The
Spirit Of Christmas creates a warm, refined, mellow (but soulful) vibe unlike
anything else in the Christmas oeuvre.
in no small part to Rhino Records - whose magnificent reissues of Charles' Atlantic
and ABC catalogs culminated in Genius & Soul:
The 50th Anniversary Collection (1997), a boxed set that qualifies as a national
treasure - Ray experienced something of a comeback late in life. Rhino was also
responsible for the 1997 CD reissue of The
Spirit Of Christmas, which had been released briefly on LP by Columbia in 1985
(or 1986, depending on which source you believe).
Rhino adds Ray's classic 1962 single with Betty Carter, "Baby It's Cold
Outside," as a bonus track. It's a great addition, though it helps illustrate
the evolution Ray's music through the years - the loss of the "sharp edges" mentioned
above. But, Brother Ray aged as gracefully as any of rock's early pioneers (he
died in 2004), and The
Spirit Of Christmas is an object lesson in class. (Concord Records' 2009 reissue duplicates the Rhino track listing.)
Ray's last performance and recording before his death was a Christmas special
Charles Celebrates A Gospel Christmas With The Voices Of Jubilation! (2003).
Recorded with a 120-member choir from New Jersey, the show (issued several times
and in 2004 and 2006 on
CD) is fairly typical of modern gospel's heavy-handed, kitchen-sink approach.
Nevertheless, Ray keeps things cooking throughout the largely
his unique take on "America The Beautiful"). Certainly, Gospel
Christmas is no substitute for The
Spirit Of Christmas, and it is best experienced in DVD format.
Christmas will please Ray's more forgiving disciples, though probably not soul
music purists. [top of page]
- All I Want For Christmas
- Baby It's Cold Outside (with Betty Carter, 1962)
- The Little Drummer Boy
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town
- Winter Wonderland
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