An obituary always boosts record sales. But there's more than mourning to the success of Ray Charles' (who passed on June 24) latest and last album, Genius Loves Company. It's also because of the company being kept in a series of lushly overproduced duets with the likes of Norah Jones and James Taylor. A perfect fit for the folks who pick it up at Starbucks when running in for a low-fat, caramel Frappuccino, but fans of his classic work are less than thrilled. The title brings to mind the Genius + Soul equation referred to on several of Ray's albums and reminds us that, despite the man's best efforts, soul is what's largely absent from his finale.
Not that it's surprising. Sweet soul music tore hearts, grabbed guts and shook asses from Detroit and Memphis to the far corners of the globe. It encompassed the sultry-sweet croon of Mary Wells and the brassy howl of Ruth Brown, the elegantly forlorn Sam Cooke and the sweaty shake of James Brown, and Marvin Gaye from his days as a pop matinee idol to his role as a prophet of troubled times. Yet, with all this range, little today falls within the realm of soul.
Usher and Beyonce may sing lovelorn ballads, but their robotic physical perfection reminds us that, unlike we mortals, they won't be lonely for long. Contemporary rap is all about puffing oneself up to the size of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float. Modern R&B instrumentation may be the most painfully synthetic sound on the airwaves, all absurdly canned drum machine and gulp-and-tinkle synthesizers—a far-ass cry from when Motown's Funk Brothers picked up riffs from strippers and after-hours clubs. The rawness and vulnerability that define classic soul seem to be not only absent from today's music, but anathema to it.
Soul music is rarely the sound of the winner; it's most potent subject is loss, most frequently illustrated through something that could be called the Otis Redding Principle. Otis' songs are always about how much he loves this woman. How does he know he loves her? By how miserable he is without her. How does he tell her he loves her? By telling her how miserable he would be if she left. "Living without you is so painful / I was tempted to call it a day / I love you more than words can say / I can't sleep when I lay down in my bed ...." The Otis Redding Principle: love equals pain.
Soul music reminds us that suffering is the currency of human interaction and we are far more likely to be drawn together by common grief than shared joy. Which is probably why these artists have such a wide audience: Mercedes-driving seniors, brothers in throwback jerseys, old punks, teenage mods: We've all been heartsick, insomniac and alone.
Of course, Las Vegas doesn't know you when you're down and out. The Hard Rock used to display the tail of the plane Otis died on, eerily emblazoned with his name in aqua-blue script, but it's since been tossed into storage to make room for Slipknot's jumpsuits and Britney's miniskirts. Still, some soul legends haven't received the usual local treatment—blasting history up to heaven, gambling away anything of worth—and have found a home here. Gladys Knight, formerly of Motor City, currently of Sin City (and, unsurprisingly, the strongest duet on Genius Loves Company) holds court at the Flamingo. The Drifters, Platters and Coasters work the Sahara night in and out. And, occasionally, we are graced with a visit by one of the legends still touring: Al Green brought his preacher-man/lover-man fervor to the House of Blues to open the summer and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, closed the season last week.
In her fifth decade of majesty, Franklin remains a force of nature who has torn off more roofs than Charley, Jeanne and Ivan combined. Certainly it's the pipes that are God's gift, not only to her, but to the world. It's also the conflicts she has both epitomized and transcended: gospel-singing preacher's daughter vs. fire-breathing troubadour of woman scorned; teenaged mother of two vs. rising singing star; kitchen-loving homebody vs. disdainful, diamond-dripping diva. This tension between opposites provides the torque for soul music to tug on our hearts, minds and a few other organs. It's too bad today's young vocalists don't possess the strength for that kind of pull, but thankfully Aretha, Al, Gladys and others still have arms to hold the beacon high. I know that up in heaven's honky tonk, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash are performing a duet on "You Don't Know Me" and Ray looks down from his keyboards and sees the light.