If Ray Charles is "The Genius," then Appellate Judge Dave Ryan must be "That Guy Making The Piano Emit Sounds It Was Clearly Not Designed To Make."
Our reviews of Ray Charles: Live At Montreux (Blu-Ray) (published November 26th, 2008), Ray Charles Live: In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony (published January 14th, 2005), and Ray Charles: Live In France 1961 (published November 6th, 2011) are also available.
"I see it in the same context as finding a complete, professionally recorded concert of Elvis Presley during his stint at Sun Records, or maybe The Beatles during their Rubber Soul period."—Producer James Austin, on finding this near-forgotten 1963 videotape in Ray Charles's personal collection.
Ray Charles Robinson (born September 23, 1930) seemingly already had three strikes against him by the time he hit elementary school: he was black, he was poor, and he was completely blind due to glaucoma. But he had spirit, drive, and a strong determination to make something of himself; to avoid becoming a pitied cripple for the rest of his life. He found his salvation in music—by the time he was 30 he had become a world-famous pop musician (along the way dropping the "Robinson" from his name to avoid confusion with a certain boxer of note), and had essentially invented contemporary soul music as we know it today. Equally adept at blues, gospel, jazz, boogie-woogie, and country music, Ray had a knack for making any song from any genre sound like it had been written just for him—from ballads like Hoagie Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind" to folk songs like "America the Beautiful." At the height of his creative career in the early 1960s, a Brazilian television network recorded a live Ray Charles concert in São Paulo. Backed by a big band and, of course, the Raeletts, the man nicknamed "The Genius" rattled and rolled through a selection of covers and his self-penned hits. Today, forty years later, Rhino Records has issued the complete Brazilian TV production—including commercials—as Ô-Genio: Ray Charles Live in Brazil, 1963. If you liked the movie Ray, you'll definitely want to see what he was really like in his prime.
Facts of the Case
Ô-Genio actually consists of two discreet programs. Although it's obvious that the two are closely connected, it's somewhat unclear exactly how they're connected. (Even the disc's liner notes aren't clear on the topic.) It appears that the two recordings are a staged-for-television performance show with an unseen live audience (the "First Show"), most likely recorded during the afternoon, and a filmed-live concert in a traditional concert hall (the "Second Show"), which likely took place in the evening. Both were (apparently) recorded on September 22, 1963, the day before Charles's 33rd birthday.
Since the First Show seems to be the rehearsal for the Second Show, there is quite a bit of overlap between the two in terms of song selection. Here's the complete rundown:
The Second Show is presented "intact," as broadcast, so it also contains two commercials for a Brazilian textile outfit (the show's sponsor), and an advertisement for a Ray Charles record.
To put it succinctly, Ô-Genio is a rockin' good time. The disc captures Charles at one of the high points of his long career, when he had truly become a complete entertainer. By this time he had become an international superstar, and suddenly had the clout to do pretty much whatever he wanted musically. He used this professional leeway to venture away from his stock-in-trade gospel/soul sound into balladry and country music, meeting with a good deal of success. Many music critics have accused Charles of resting on his laurels after this phase, seemingly leaving the innovation and creativity to others in order to churn out a non-stop series of middle-of-the-road covers of popular songs. But here, in 1963, he still possessed the dynamic and energetic style that first won him his musical acclaim.
Charles is backed by a traditional "big band" in these performances (á la Count Basie or Duke Ellington), which gives the show a bigger, richer sound than his old jazz-style combo would have produced. It works very well with this material and this large concert space. Obviously the band's sound perfectly fits the big-band style numbers here (such as Quincy Jones's "Birth of a Band"), but even Ray's older boogie-woogie style numbers, like "Hallelujah I Love Her So" or "Don't Set Me Free," practically leap off the stage with this ensemble driving them on. And then there are the two performances of "What'd I Say," one of the all-time great pop songs in American music history. Sheer bliss. Included in the band's horn section, by the way, are long-time Charles collaborators David "Fathead" Newman on saxophone and Phil Guilbeau on trumpet. They both get plenty of chances to show off their chops during the performances.
And let's not forget the Raeletts. Led by the talented Margie Hendrix (it's her growl you've heard for years on "Hit the Road Jack"), the Raeletts were more than just backup singers; they were musical contrapositives for Charles. It's almost unfair when you listen to them rip through a fast blues number—how's one guilty guy supposed to fend off four angry women?
Despite the strong overlap between the two shows, each performance has a different "feel," to the point that the Second Show doesn't feel at all like a mere rerun of the first. The First Show is more formal, and a bit more relaxed. The Second Show—with the bigger crowd and less interference from the TV people—is the superior performance; it's far more energetic and rip-roaring. But just as the two shows are different in feel, they're also quite different in technical quality. Which leads to the one big gripe about this set…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let me preface this by saying that you simply can't blame Rhino for this, because all they can do is work with what they're given, but…the video and audio quality on this disc is rather poor. These performances were part of Ray's personal collection of film and videotape, with the Second Show tape discovered only after Charles's death. Although presumably recorded on the same day by the same people, the First Show is of much higher quality than the Second Show. (In fact, as the liner notes explain, the Second Show was recorded on an archaic video tape format that no longer exists, and it took several days to even find a machine that could play the tape.) If you've seen some of the very low-grade video of the early Beatles performances in England, you know what the Second Show looks like. It's almost at the level of early telecine transfers. There are many instances of drop-out and video interference on the transfer, although it's infrequent enough that it doesn't become annoying. The First Show's transfer, on the other hand, is more along the lines of the video of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan's show. It's relatively good for a recording from 1963. Audio for both is a mono mix; again, the Second Show has some issues stemming from the quality of the source material, while the First Show is pretty decent.
There are also absolutely no extras included with the performances, unless you count the Brazilian commercials. Since the extent of my knowledge of Portuguese is knowing the lyrics to "Mas Que Nada," I'm not even sure what they were trying to sell me. I think it was some kind of material for business suits or something. Anyhow, Brazilian ad copy does not an extra feature make.
With Ray poised to take home some Oscars come Spring, it's not surprising to see some DVD products capitalizing on the resurgent interest in the late, great Ray Charles. Despite the serious issues with audio and video quality here, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better concert from Charles than this Brazilian twin-bill. He's on top of the world, and he just can't wait to get in front of that piano and sing 'till he drops. We've rarely seen performers with the talent and energy of Ray Charles, and this disc captures The Genius at his very best.
Not guilty. Hit the road, Ray. But come back any time you want—please.
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