Jazz Review: Tell me about your background in the music business that brought you to the project with Ray Charles.
John Burk: Most of my background has been here at Concord Records. I’ve been here for about 17 years; prior to that I was a freelance musician and producer/engineer. Early in my career I met Carl Jefferson, the founder of Concord, and he became a mentor teaching me about the business his approach to music and artists and record production. I worked with him for about six years until he passed away. It was his desire that I sort of take over the creative functions here at Concord and I’ve been in that role ever since.
JR: What was your first exposure to the music of Ray Charles?
JB: Oh God my first exposure goes way back to when I was a kid listening to the radio.
JR: Do you remember the first Ray Charles song you ever heard?
JB: I think it was "I Can’t Stop Loving You." I’ve always been a fan, since I’ve been aware of music. When I was four or five years old I started to really turn on to it. At that point it was, you know, the Beatles and Ray Charles. Later on, as I became a musician and learned to play I became a jazz fan, you know. I really started to appreciate what these guys were doing, and that opened my eyes. It’s funny though, because when you turn to jazz, there’s Ray. You turn to blues, there’s Ray. You turn to gospel (Laughs) In so many genres of American music, Ray Charles turns up as an influence. It’s really interesting. And that’s when I thought, "God, I’ve been a fan for so many years wouldn’t it be awesome to work with him?"
JR: How did Ray Charles come to Concord?
JB: We brought the project to him. Around the same time I was producing a record with Poncho Sanchez in which we were trying to marry two of Poncho’s musical roots: Soul and Latin music. We did a version of "One Mint Julep," which was one of Ray’s jazz hits, and a version of "Mary Ann," which was another one his classic tunes. I was beginning to develop a relationship with Ray about this time and I asked if he would guest on Poncho’s record. He did, and that’s when we really came together. We then talked about doing a duets project for Ray. When we came up with the idea I thought, "Wow, that’s probably already been done." So I did the research and found that he really hadn’t done it before.
JR: Except for the album with Betty Carter.
JB: Right, right. But he hadn’t done one with different artists. It seemed perfect because Ray had touched so many genres and influenced so many people. And who wouldn’t want to sing with Ray? That really made it easy; you know when you’re calling on behalf of Ray Charles People just responded in the most amazing and positive way.
JR: Were all the duet partners and songs Ray’s idea, or was it more of a collaboration?
JB: It was a collaboration, but Ray signed off on everything. He was very, very involved in every aspect of the project. At the beginning we had a target list of artists we’d like to get, and I brought that to Ray. In my mind I didn’t want it to be contrived. I wanted it to be artists that he really connected with and respected and vice versa. None of this was done for marketing purposes. We didn’t want any mismatching, just pure respect. No one was invited that Ray didn’t think the world of and had respect for musically.
JR: An obvious comparison exists between this album and the Frank Sinatra Duets albums. Some critics have been very hard on the Sinatra albums. Were you trying to avoid some of the missteps some have seen on that project?
JB: Not consciously. You know, the Sinatra album was really groundbreaking in terms of the technology they used to get people to do duets when they weren’t in the same room. It was very exciting at the time. But I had a different mindset for this project. I wanted to get the guests in the room with Ray, partly because, from a fan’s perspective, I just wanted to see what would happen! (Laughs) And it was really amazing to see. When you put great artists in the same room there is a certain magic that comes out of it. And that’s on the record. But you can’t really get that intangible quality when they’re not singing together, in the same room.
JR: We’ve all heard stories about Ray Charles in the studio, and how demanding he was both of himself and of the musicians he worked with. How did you find working with Ray?
JB: ‘Demanding’ is a good word, I guess. I would use the word ‘exacting.’ The process by which we chose the songs and the singers we couldn’t choose them separately. Ray had to have a song and a singer in mind in order for it to really come together for him. We spent a lot of time working on that, going back and forth. Once a song was selected we could go to work on the arrangement, and Ray was involved at every step. It had to come into view for him in order for it to work. Once that happened he was entirely focused and was very professional in the studio. You know, if we were starting at 10:00 am, we would be there at 9:59 ready to go. And as long as you were ready, everything was fine. But you’d better be ready! (Laughs) And he was extremely fast. I don’t think he worked with any of the artists for more than a couple of hours. He knew the song, he knew what he wanted. He even had ideas about what he wanted from the other artist. And the guests all came very prepared too. It all went by so fast; at times I really wanted to slow it down because it was such an amazing event. But it was like, boom, they’d nail it
JR: Over too soon.
JB: Yeah! And then you’d think, "Wow that was amazing. I can’t think of a way to improve upon it." And then they’d all go, "Yeah, that’s it!" And Ray would go home. (Laughs) Sometimes he would say, "I have my own studio at home. I can work on it later if I have to." But what I found almost every time was that once they settled in, they’d get it. It was a first take kind of a thing, you know, because the feeling was there. Ray used to say, "If you can sing from your heart and keep time, you’ve got it." Elton John, who’s an avid tennis player in fact, he’d been playing that morning said that whenever you play an opponent who’s really good, you up your game. And when you sing with Ray Charles, you up your game. So there was this magic that came from having these superstars and everyone who sang on this album is a genius in their own way. By the way, I have to credit Jeff Specter from our radio department for coming up with the title Genius Loves Company , because we’d been struggling with it and I think it sums up the album perfectly.
JR: What was Ray’s health like while working on the record?
JB: He did go through some things. At one point he took time off to have his hip replaced, but he came back pretty strong.
JR: Did that present any challenges in the studio?
JB: It was more about scheduling around the things he had to deal with. In some ways, it actually benefited the project because he stopped touring, and he’d been really hard to get into the studio when he was touring. Once he took time off, he was able to work on the album almost every day and it worked much better. We did a huge amount of recording in Ray’s studio, which is where he was most comfortable, and it became a matter of waiting for the guests to come through L.A. so we could get them into the studio there. The fact that Ray was available and focused on the project made that kind of scheduling so much easier.
JR: Do you have a favorite track on the album?
JB: I’ve been asked that quite a few times, and I still don’t know how to answer it. (Laughs) I’ve had time to mull it over, though. At certain times different tracks hit me differently, but I don’t think I have a favorite, you know, because they’re all so amazing. I guess the most moving track is the last one we recorded, which was with Elton ["Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word"]. It’s hard to describe the emotion that was in the air while that was going down. We were a little worried about a week before that session because Ray was starting to show signs of ill-health. So we did the track, and it was this emotionally charged moment for everyone: for Ray, for Elton, for all of us in the control room. We all had lumps in our throats when they finished singing. You know, that’s a very a deeply personal song for Elton because unlike a lot of the great songs he’s written, he wrote some of the lyrics as well. I think and I’m speculating because Ray didn’t say this but I think that song had a special meaning for Ray as well. Later that day, Elton came back to hear a rough mix we’d put together. Phil Ramone produced that particular track, and he and Elton are very good friends and go way back. Phil had done a little bit of his magic on the track. So Elton came in to listen and he sat down and about half way through the song he shed a tear and he said, "This is one of the most impactful moments of my recording career;" And when he said that I thought, "My God, this is Elton John!" That moment was the most poignant of the whole thing. Ray never sang again after that.