reprinted from BRE Magazine, June 2005
Ray Charles’ ‘Genius Loves Company’ was the most important and noteworthy album of 2004 in terms of overall impact and significance to the music industry and the country. Not only because it swept the Grammys with a record eight wins, sold five million worldwide, and was the biggest album of Ray’s career and in the history of Concord Records. But, in an age of rampant digital piracy, it brought Boomers back into active record-buying mode — at full price! And it launched coffee seller Starbucks as a major alternative music retailer in the process. Meanwhile it brought the country together around a musical legend, an American cultural treasure, and a hero worldwide.
‘Genius’ was a long shot against the contemporary grain and the proverbial odds. It broke all the rules, crashed the party, and stole the show, to historic kudos all-round. It’s an album, which defies labels and limits, embraced by white, and black, young and old, blue and white collar alike, crossing boundaries and shattering stereotypes in the process. After 25 weeks on the charts, it went No. 1, with no hit single and no video. And it was not the soundtrack for the movie! Go figure.
So, why does company love ‘Genius’ so?
Don Mizell, the originator of the concept for this remarkable album, and one of the five producers, talked to BRE about what can only be described as a phenomenon. Mizell is a noted creative executive/producer (and music attorney trained at the Harvard Law School) with a 25-year track record of varied accomplishments in the entertainment industry.
“The scope of Ray’s artistry was as broad and diverse as the canvas of America itself — all of America. Ray Charles was not just a soul music artist. Ask Willie Nelson who avows that Ray brought country music into the mainstream back in 1962 with the smash hit, ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You.’ Ray’s genius spanned race, creed, color, genres, styles, and eras. He found the common ground in American musical culture. Ray showed us themes of heartache, hope, and humor shared by both blues and country music, and that both the joyful shouts of soulful gospel and the mournful lamentations of the blues are but two sides of the same universal existential coin. He took us to the very heart of music so we could take the music to heart.”
The ‘Company’ on this album can be defined as mostly the ‘children’ of Charles’ great musical vision from across the vast musical spectrum Ray traveled over five decades. Except for legendary peers Willie Nelson, B.B. King and Johnny Mathis, they are Baby Boomers all. “Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Michael McDonald, Gladys Knight, and Natalie Cole are all Baby Boomer icons in their own right, whose anthems helped define
their generations from the late-60s on (and Nora Jones and Diana Krall are such spirits they’re like honorary Boomers). Yet all considered, it the highest honor and the highlight of their careers to pay special tributes to Ray by the opportunity to sing their classic favorites with him on this spirited album. After all, they were lifelong fans, who had been deeply influenced, in one way or another, by Ray early in their formative years. But equally important was that Ray was just as big a fan of their classic songs as they were of his, truly excited about recording with most of them for the very first time. We got the benefit of the bargain: the rainbow magic of a mutual admiration valentine. And we were hungry for it! Not just for ourselves, but for family and friends, for an America needing it since long ago.”
According to Mizell, the album was also noteworthy because the premise of its concept runs counter to the conventional wisdom of today’s pop music business. “It’s a wake-up call. It harkens us back to real music: samplefree songs with real singing, played by real musicians — an album with real heart, filled at its core with the ‘stuff ’ of living, poignant themes, expressive of the bittersweet journey we are all on in life looking for, and at, love and loss. Just a few producers were involved, presenting a wide diversity of musical artists and styles cohesively —blues and country, gospel and soul, jazz and pop — all on one album. Not the vice-versa trend!”
But it almost didn’t happen.
Mizell explains, “I was writing a few select album music reviews for BRE back in 1998 and took home a Rhino special collection of Ray’s work because, like most Boomers, I grew up listening to and loving Ray’s hits for grownups in the late ‘50’s to the mid-’60s. The Rhino box set was a revelation. It was the bomb! I began jotting down notes outlining the creative direction for what ultimately became the ‘Genius’ CD format.”
A few years later, while developing a concept compilation album project for Rhino, Mizell got to explore more of Ray’s recordings from Rhino’s fabulous catalog, especially his complete five-volume collection of country music. “It was clear to me Ray’s legacy should have been more celebrated. After all, Ray Charles was arguably the most significant innovator in modern pop music over the last half of the 20th century. By first fusing soulful elements of gospel and blues, he was seminal to the birth of R&B, which, of course, spawned rock ’n’ roll; he first popularized country music in the pop music mainstream boldly combining country with symphonic orchestration and, to top it off, was a major monster as a jazz musician.”
Mizell began to map out in detail how to showcase the significance of Ray’s legacy in a way that was fitting and proper as the career climax of an historic artist who had made such an enormous contribution to American culture. He started putting together a concept proposal to produce an ‘event’ album to accomplish this objective. Mizell developed a detailed concept/blueprint to produce an unprecedented album from Ray that would cross musical boundaries, re-cap all the styles, genres and lyrical themes he covered over a stellar 50-year career, but never before on a single album of new recordings, while weaving retro duets with mostly Boomer icon artists from each genre/style into a holistic musical tapestry. This would galvanize anew Baby Boomers, now grown-ups, who had grown up digging Ray’s ‘grown-ups’ music back in his heyday, but hadn’t really ever bought his albums.
“In early 2002, I met with Ray and presented my concept for such a Boomer-ish, groundbreaking tribute/valentine/recap/career climax ‘event’ album. He leaned back in his chair, smiled that warm smile of his, and said, ‘Well, that’s all right! You go ahead and set up the deal, young man. I’ll do it. Oh, and don’t let those folks who ignore you or oppose you get you down, O.K.? Keep your spirits up.’“
Inspired by Ray’s prompt approval and unequivocal support, Mizell renamed his production company Genius Arts, then went to nearly every label to pitch his album concept with a blueprint proposal (which included partnering with a corporate consumer products company to sponsor a marketing campaign targeting Boomer demographics). Finally, John Burk over at Concord stepped up to the plate. I had already approached him and was touching bases with him again. By September, on behalf of Concord, he made a formal offer based on their wholehearted and enthusiastic embrace of my album concept/blueprint for a ‘pop’ chart-oriented album. Thank God, because as it turned out, without John’s pluck and drive, Terry’s moxie, Phil’s Big Time studio wizardry, and Ray’s dogged determination, even as he was often sick and wracked with pain, this record may not have been completed before Ray passed. Remember, he died shortly after finishing the record and just before its release, which is sad, really.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The spectacular triumph of ‘Genius’ (and the movie ‘Ray’ that followed) has gone on to indelibly brand the brilliant legacy of Ray Charles on the public consciousness for many years to come. “The profound impact of the album on behalf of Ray’s magnificent legacy turned out just as I had envisioned, and even predicted. So, I’m gratified, but not surprised, that the viability of my concept/blueprint, which undergirds the whole album, has been validated in no uncertain terms.”
There is much more to this story than the cementing of Ray Charles’ legacy though. Concord and Starbucks have both enjoyed enormous financial benefit capitalizing on the mega success of this historic album. ‘Genius’ is the first ever smash hit on the pop album charts for Concord, formerly an obscure boutique label specializing in mostly releases for jazz aficionados. The success of this project brought new financial backing from Tailwind Capital Partners enabling Concord to acquire Fantasy’s entire catalog and Bay-area recording studio, reconstitute itself as the Concord Music Group, and emerge full-blown as a vital new force in the music industry.
And what better starchild for a big bang launch of Starbucks’ Hear Music label’s, Concord co-branded, first-ever release of an album of newly recorded music? With sales on this album approaching two million units, Starbucks/Hear Music is now recognized as THE new direct-to-consumer music outlet for Boomers in the everelusive distribution game.
Don Mizell is certainly no stranger to conceptualizing, developing, and producing successful, innovative, concept-driven music projects. He produced the double Platinum concept album ‘Sebastian’ (the sequel to Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ soundtrack) and also coined the industry term ‘Jazz/Fusion’ in launching his label of the same name at Elektra back in the late-70s, signing and supervising production of albums from Gold-selling Grammy Award winning artists Grover Washington, Donald Byrd, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lee Ritenour and Patrice Rushen.
“ ’Genius’ is also a clarion call to the industry pointing the way forward for new winning paradigms,” Mizell forecasts. “The success of this album is no accident.”