When I set out the parameters of this Web site, I decided not to review anything before 1960, as explained on my Web site's FAQ. For the great Ray Charles I'm going to make an exception, however, because what kind of so-called "soul site" would this be without Ray Charles' Atlantic r&b recordings? By now many people know Ray's story due to the movie Ray and Jamie Fox's spot-on impersonation of Ray (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar), how he lost his brother due to a tragic accident as a child, how he became blind soon afterwards, and how his two vices aside from music were women and drugs. It's amazing that a guy who couldn't even see could accomplish so much (ditto Stevie Wonder), but Ray Charles was nothing if not an independent go-getter, and his idea to merge two existing musical forms, gospel and blues music, to create a brand new genre ultimately labeled soul music, was in fact pure genius, Brother Ray earning his nickname. Don't get me wrong, he had his influences, chief among them Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown, and much credit belongs to his terrific band, especially sax players like David "Fathead" Newman and Donald Wilkerson, not to mention his talented female backing singers the Raelettes, but it was Charles' vision, (mostly) his original songs, his piano playing (he also plays clarinet and sax), and most of all his raw, distinctive voice (this is one dude who could sing the phone book and I'd be willing to listen) that dominates these superlative 3-cds comprising 53 mostly concise songs.
Although Brother Ray is most renowned for soul music, he played all kinds of music, jazz, pop, country, you name it, but regardless of the style it always came out sounding like Ray Charles music. These cds concentrate primarily on sad, lonely ballads like "Losing Hand," "Sinner's Prayer," and "Nobody Cares," as well as faster paced, rhythmic, danceable numbers like the catchy, fun "It Should've Been Me" and "Mess Around," the latter written by legendary Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun. Ray wasn't above self-mythologizing ("Ray's Blues," "Mr. Charles' Blues"), but typically his relationship-based, often woebegone lyrics had a universal touch that all could relate to, though he was also capable of atypical, clever fare such as the gambler's lament "Blackjack."
Those are some of the highlights on disc one, but if anything Ray got better as he went along (the cds are chronologically sequenced). Disc two includes many highlights, including catchy, swinging numbers with stellar sax solos such as "I Got a Woman" (his first big hit), "Greenbacks" (his first recording with his own band), and "This Little Girl of Mine." To quote wikipedia: "Much like the previous "I Got a Woman" and the later "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" (a jaunty Sam Cooke-ish swinger also on disc two), "This Little Girl of Mine" played off a classic gospel-based hymn. And much like those songs, replaced sacred lyrics with secular blues lyrics with doo-wop call and response harmonies." So yeah, much like Led Zeppelin, Brother Ray wasn't above borrowing from his elders, but what he ended up with was (like Zep) his very own thing. I mean, Ray's passionate vocals carry slow, bluesy ballads like "Come Back Baby," "A Fool For You," and "Hard Times (Nobody Knows Better Than I)." Elsewhere, the Raelettes are introduced on "Drown In My Own Tears," an utter classic, and from this song forward they are an integral part of the proceedings, enhancing other classic ballads like "Lonely Avenue" (written by Hall of Fame songwriter Doc Pomus) and "It's Alright" (that's some deep soul there). Not every song on this disc is a classic, but even the lesser tracks are always at least impressively fun (the upbeat, energized dance numbers or jazzier sides) or are emotionally affecting (the ultra-serious, downtrodden ballads).
Disc three is the strongest one yet, but the great thing about the box set is how consistently tuneful and listenable the whole thing is. Among the notable entries here are the ballad "That's Enough," the swinging r&b of "Talkin' 'Bout You" (later covered by The Animals), "What Kind Of Man Are You," on which the Raelettes actually take center stage and knock it out of the park, and "I Want A Little Girl," whose classy, elegant mood music contrasts with Ray's gritty lead vocal. "Yes Indeed" and "The Right Time" are catchy lighter numbers with classic call and response vocals between Ray and his Raelettes, while "Tell Me How Do You Feel" and "Tell The Truth" are agreeably girl group-ish. Better yet, "What'd I Say - Parts 1 & 2," amazingly knocked off when Ray had some time to kill at the end of a show after he had run out of material, is arguably his greatest up-tempo tune, as well as the song that started Ray's crossover success into the white market. By contrast, "I Believe To My Soul" may be Ray's deepest soul ballad.
Anyway, this aptly titled collection is simply a must-have for Ray Charles fans, and for anyone who enjoys great soul music. The band plays with energy, elegance, power, and precision, the Raelettes rule, Ray's piano fills are always tasty, and again there's that tear in Ray's voice that gets to me every time. These self-produced sides (as are almost all of Ray's recordings come to think of it) are before syrupy strings, big bands, popular standards, and country music entered the equation, and believe it or not there were many who felt that what Ray did, turning spirituals into secular music, was "blasphemous" at the time. Thankfully we live in a much more forgiving age, and Ray is now given his just due as "The Genius"; all the evidence needed is right here on these three discs.
The Genius Of Ray Charles (Atlantic ‘59) Rating: A-
This is an interesting album because it shows another side to Ray Charles, in fact it shows two different sides of Ray Charles, neither of which are all that similar to the songs compiled on the box set, though all are in his own inimitable style. The first six songs here are jazzy pop standards on which members of Ray's small combo are joined by members of Duke Ellington and Count Basie's bands, with the horn-heavy arrangements handled by Ray's friend Quincy Jones. Of course, the highlight of these big band numbers, including well-known songs such as "Let The Good Times Roll," "It Had To Be You," and "Deed I Do," is Ray's passionate as always vocals. I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed it as much as his soul/r&b sides, as the horns are a bit much at times and a certain grit is lacking, but I do enjoy these songs and they provide further evidence that Ray Charles was a master of many styles, and that he wasn't content to stick with any one style. What used to be side two on the original record is even better, being comprised of classy, elegant supper club ballads, again all covers, with Ralph Burns handling the lush, at times heavy-handed string arrangements, which occupy a place of prominence, whereas Ray's piano playing takes a backseat. Again, however, it is his excellent up-front-and-center vocals that are most notable, especially on "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'" and "Come Rain Or Come Shine." On the whole, The Genius Of Ray Charles, which plays like two EPs and which was Ray's most commercially successful long player to date (though none of the individual songs were big hits), is resolutely adult and is undeniably impressive, and the album is all the more worth seeking out because these aren't typically songs that you'll see included on his many "greatest hits" compilations.
Genius + Soul = Jazz (ABC '61) Rating: A-
After leaving Atlantic for the greener ($$$) pastures of ABC, among other albums Ray released Genius + Soul = Jazz, another big band jazz album, albeit a much harder hitting one than The Genius Of Ray Charles. Although Jones and Burns again handled the arrangements, and Count Basie's band again backs him, there are other major differences between the albums as well, the primary ones being that most of these ten songs are instrumentals, and the album showcases Ray's electric keyboard playing rather than his piano skills. His playing throughout is tasty and hot, and there are many notable sax and trumpet solos as well; Ray's own trumpet player, Phillip Guilbeau, is the album's standout musician along with himself. In addition to the crisply played, swinging big band jazz numbers, there are two vocal tracks that are markedly different due to Ray's soulful singing; his wild, unencumbered vocals highlight the still horn-heavy "I've Got News For You," while "I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town" has a more mournful, blues-based mood. "Birth Of The Blues" also delivers mellower, more pensive late night mood music, but the majority of this album is much more upbeat. This includes Ray's groovy cover of The Clovers' "One Mint Julep," on which he briefly shouts/talks and which became an improbable hit, and his own groovy compositions "From The Heart," "Let's Go," and "Mister C." (the rest of the album is comprised of covers, however). As on The Genius Of Ray Charles, Genius + Soul = Jazz further proved that not only could Ray Charles play jazz, he could play good jazz, and though again this style doesn't appeal to me as much as his grittier soul sides (but this is album is much grittier than The Genius Of), this is a really good album within its chosen style.
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (ABC '62, Rhino '88) Rating: A
Upon joining ABC Ray primarily concerned himself with making concept albums on which he mostly covered other people's songs. 1960's The Genius Hits the Road was Ray's travelogue and contained the classic "Georgia On My Mind," arguably his greatest ballad, while 1961's Dedicated To You dedicated twelve songs to specific women, most famously "Ruby." Perhaps most surprising was when Ray decided to record an album of country songs, only these weren't your typical country songs, as Ray himself explained: "I wasn't trying to be the first black country singer. I only wanted to take country songs and sing them my way." You see, Ray just liked country music, always did, and it just so happened that this album brought him the crossover success (i.e. it captured the white market) that he'd always craved. Simply put, this is the album that made him a superstar, and it is a great album, though musically the majority of these lush, string-laden ballads have more in common with Bing Crosby than Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, only with Ray singing in his inimitably soulful style. In addition to lush (many would say "schmaltzy") strings and brushed drums, the Raelettes are again prominent while horns make only occasional appearances, most notably on the two up-tempo tunes that open and close the original version of the album (the Rhino reissue adds three bonus tracks). These are a cover of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love," on which the Raelettes sound like the Andrews Sisters and Ray integrates some of his own "What'd I Say" as well, and Hank Williams' "Hey, Good Lookin'." "I Can't Stop Loving You" was the smash hit, going #1 on the pop, r&b, and country charts, and it's both typical of the album's classy charms and its most memorable moment. This album delivers consistent quality, however, and it greatly expanded Ray's audience; rather than Ray "selling out" as some have suggested, doing an album of country songs, in his own way, was simply another way to show another side of his music, much like he had previously done with his jazz albums. The album was such an unqualified success that it spawned a successful sequel later that same year, Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music Volume Two, which is similarly strong if not quite as classic.
Ray Charles Live (Atlantic ‘87) Rating: A-
This compilation album consists of live recordings from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 (the first ten tracks) and an Atlanta stadium show in 1959 (tracks 11-16). Most of these songs previously appeared on Ray Charles at Newport and Ray Charles in Person, but I don't have either of those so let's focus on Ray Charles Live, shall we? This album contains a nice mix of jazz and soul, and instrumental and vocal tracks, with the instrumental jazz tracks being lively and flat out wild at times, with his hot band (especially the horn section) shining. Still, fine though most of the jazz numbers are, they tend to blend together for me though I still enjoy them. As usual I prefer the soul-based vocal tracks because Ray is such a great singer, and his Raelettes are in exemplary form as well, particularly Marjorie Hendricks who steals the show on not one but two terrific renditions of "Night Time Is The Right Time" as well as on "Tell The Truth" (the Raelettes lend stellar support elsewhere as well). Not to be outdone, Ray puts in his own spectacular vocal turns as well, singing with a wild abandon on tracks such as "I Got a Woman," "Swanee River Rock," and of course on a swinging "What'd I Say," which ends this album on an upbeat high. Before then there is also the matter of two ballads that are the highlights of this set. Simply put, these epic, slowed down 6+ minute versions of "A Fool For You" and "Drown in My Own Tears" are the best versions I've heard, period, and they'd be prime examples I'd show anyone who questioned whether Ray Charles was one of the greatest singers ever. After listening to this album, which delivers more raw power and unbridled passion than his studio sides (Ray basically lived and thrived on the road, after all), I can't imagine anyone questioning that.
Ultimate Hits Collection (Rhino ‘99) Rating: A+
There is no shortage of Ray Charles compilations out there, but this 36-track, 2-cd, career-spanning retrospective is a great place to either start getting acquainted with Ray Charles or to simply gather all of his best known songs all in one place. Most of the 17 songs on disc one I've already talked about as highlights in my previous reviews, and disc two continues the high quality, starting with his cover of Percy Mayfield's "Hit the Road Jack," which always reminds me of my days as a New York Knicks season ticket holder (back with they were actually good in the early-to-mid '90s), as the public announcer would always play this catchy, fun up-tempo tune whenever an opposing player would foul out. "Unchain My Heart" is similarly famous and also features the Raelettes prominently along with Ray at his gritty best and a vintage Fathead sax solo, and disc two then continues with several big r&b hits ("But On the Other Hand Baby," "Hide Nor Hair," "At The Club") before running through the top 10 pop hits from his two country albums ("You Don't Know Me," "You Are My Sunshine," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Take These Chains from My Heart"). You could argue that Ray Charles' truly groundbreaking work stopped at that point, in part because he was content to interpret other people's songs rather than to write his own. Still, though perhaps his later career output is comparatively disappointing, he still continued to release some fine cover versions, and the rest of this compilation collects the best of the rest of his career, including (among others) "Busted," "Crying Time," "Let's Go Get Stoned," and his unforgettable cover of "America the Beautiful." Man, Ray Charles could take damn near any song and make it his own, imbue it with 100% soul, and these 36 songs offer proof positive that the man was indeed an incomparable "Genius."
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