Charles Says Hello, Goodbye With Box, Duets

In celebration of what would have been the 75th birthday of Ray Charles, Rhino is releasing two albums by the icon Sept. 20.

In celebration of what would have been the 75th birthday of Ray Charles, Rhino is releasing two albums by the icon Sept. 20: a collection of duets, "Genius and Friends," and, as previously reported, a 146-track boxed set of his seminal work, "Pure Genius -- The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959)."

Charles, who would have been 75 Sept. 23, died June 11, 2004. Before his death, he asked the label to complete and release the duets project.

"The box[ed] set is sort of a 'hello' from when Ray made his astounding early 45s on Atlantic," Rhino VP of marketing Mike Engstrom says. "The duet album is a final 'goodbye.'"

The new duets album has Charles singing with Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Chris Isaak, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, George Michael and Angie Stone. He also teams up with John Legend, Italian pop star Laura Pausini and Idina Menzel, star of the Broadway play "Wicked."

Rhino rounded out the album with two tracks originally recorded for other purposes: Alicia Keys' performance of "America the Beautiful," a tune associated with Charles, at last year's Super Bowl halftime show, and Charles singing "Busted" with buddy Willie Nelson for a 1991 TV special. Keys is accompanied by 150 students from the St. Augustine-based Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, which Charles attended as a youth in 1937.

As for the boxed set, the most amazing material is 36 unreleased studio "rehearsal" performances. By all rights, former Atlantic execs and producers say, they should not exist.

Atlantic suffered a major vault fire in its Long Beach, N.J., warehouse Feb. 8, 1978. The blaze destroyed an estimated 5,000 reels of session tape, including outtakes from such artists as Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin and Charles. Many of the tracks were of fine quality and were not released simply because the vinyl LP format demanded shorter recordings.

Atlantic never issued an announcement about the fire. Sheldon Vogel, the label's former CFO, says the company collected $1 million in insurance from the destroyed tapes. Before the advent of the CD and the subsequent value derived from outtakes, Vogel says, "We were thrilled. Now, of course, that's a joke."

Many of the outtakes heard on the boxed set would have been lost to the fire, were it not for a reel-to-reel dub copy of two early Charles rehearsal sessions made for Atlantic co-founder Jerry Wexler by late Atlantic producer/recording engineer Tom Dowd, shortly before the fire. "I kept it for years," Wexler says. "Then I made a cassette copy, and then a CD."

One rehearsal documents longtime Atlantic chief Ahmet Ertegun in the studio with Charles, teaching him the lyrics to "The Mess Around," which he wrote to get Charles singing more rocking material -- a session re-enacted in the "Ray" film.

The releases come at a time when Charles' profile remains as high as ever: His first big seller on Atlantic, "I Got a Woman," is the sample that anchors Kanye West's single "Gold Digger," which is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.