Ray Charles recorded one of the great concept albums of all time, 1960’s The Genius Hits The Road, a collection of 12 songs about different places and states around the nation. How good is it? It might seem impossible for a postwar R&B artist to improve on a Depression-era movie musical ditty written for Bing Crosby and Shirley Ross — but one of these Friday nights I’ll play Ray’s version of “Blue Hawaii” and you’ll say, “Bing who?” (Yes, Elvis too.)
TGHTR was a massive seller and an instant classic, and I’m pretty sure it has stayed in print more or less continuously these last 55 years. There was just one problem: It wasn’t finished yet.
Two years after Ray’s album came out, country/rock singer-songwriter Tony Joe White wrote a little number which went nowhere for him, but you might have heard of “Rainy Night In Georgia” anyway. That song finally got the commercial success it deserved when Brook Benton recorded it in 1970, launching his comeback. But Benton’s recording, like TGHTR was missing something.
It was missing Ray Charles, who made his own record of it in 1972.
Benton’s recording is quite good, but it’s also safe. His ‘Rainy Night” is pleasant and smooth, but sounds pretty much exactly like every other radio-friendly R&B number of the late ’60s and early ’70s. What Ray did with his bluesy, meandering vocal was to put himself right there in that boxcar, “with just a little half pint” to drown his sorrows — and he takes you along for the ride. That line about the “half pint” was part of Ray’s addition to the lyric, an extended finish as his character slips into an alcohol- and Sterno-induced sleep. His performance there is so convincing, you’d believe Ray got himself messed up just to sing it — except that his keyboards remain rock solid right until the end. Gripping performance as a vocalist and as an instrumentalist.
I’ve always wondered who the woman was in the photograph he lays on his chest as he prepares to pass out. The love of his life who left him because of his drinking? The daughter who died of some horrible illness? It had to be something awful for him to end up drinking Sterno in a boxcar. But as Tom Waits said about the time he spent on LA’s skid row to research one of his songs, “Every guy down there… everyone I spoke to, a woman put him there.” So I don’t suppose it matters if the woman in “Rainy Night” was a wife, a lover, or something else.
This all ties together because when Rhino Records re-released The Genius Hits The Road in 1997, they included seven bonus tracks of similar material Ray had record after 1960. The selections included “Hit The Road Jack,” “Sentimental Journey,” and of course “Rainy Night In Georgia.”
And so after more than a quarter of a century, one of the greatest concept albums of all time became even greatest-er.