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Ray Charles, "The Spirit Of Christmas"I 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.

Ray Charles, "Gospel Christmas"Thanks 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 called Ray 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 on DVD, 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 traditional program (including 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. Nevertheless, Gospel Christmas will please Ray's more forgiving disciples, though probably not soul music purists. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • 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

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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