The son of Southern sharecroppers, Ray Charles Robinson was raised in Georgia and Florida. He learned to play boogie-woogie at a young age, despite being beset by glaucoma and blindness. At school he played classical piano, specialising in Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and read music via braille, reading left-hand while his right hand held down the chords. Despite his formal talents young Ray was way more into jazz and blues records and built a reputation as a performer when he was a teenager. His early friends included Charles Blackwell and Quincy Jones and Ray enjoyed his first national hit aged 19 with “Confession Blues” in his group The Rocking Chair. Prodigiously accomplished he was already arranging for Cole Porter (“Ghost of a Chance”) and Dizzy Gillespie (“Emanon”) and was hotly pursued by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun who signed him to the label and then reaped a fantastic reward when Ray sold millions of albums.
A turbulent personal life and problems with drugs might have hampered a lesser man but in Charles case pain and experience only enriched his work. His stellar break out came with “What’d I Say”, a single divided into two parts and a revolutionary number that impacted on everything from nascent R&B to the British Blues Boom and the country blues revival of the 1950s and 1960s.
Let’s pick him up when The Genius Hits The Road (1960) where he is sympathetically backed by Ralph Burns, David “Fathead” Newman and the rhythm section of Milt Turner and Edgar Willis on bass and drums respectively. This album features “Georgia On My Mind” and splendid examples of his style in “Alabammy Bound”, the immortal “Basin Street Blues” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. This disc is virtually a crash course in vintage soul/R&B. It isn’t just recommended it’s mandatory listening.
Dedicated to You and the Ray Charles and Betty Carter album (both 1961) find our hero in rampant form. The latter includes a gorgeous version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and a host of evergreen gems like “People Will Say We’re In Love” that find Charles straddling the old and new worlds of blues. Owing to a complex legal situation Charles found himself contracted to several paymasters in this time but a more generous ABC-Paramount deal gave him artistic control and he repaid that debut in full with the vital Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962), the album is simply a Treasure Island disc. Containing Charles immaculate takes on “Bye Bye Love”, “You Don’t Know Me” and Hank Williams’ classics “You Win Again” and “Hey, Good Lookin’” this album (arranged by Marty Paich) is just glorious. If you’ve never heard it you’re lucky, because discovery is everything. Released originally in Mono and Stereo versions the current technology restores this magnum opus to thrilling clarity. Get it and do yourself a favour.
So it goes: the Volume Two is another five star affair including “Take These Chains From My Heart” and “Oh, Lonesome Me” but it’s the chestnut, “You Are My Sunshine” that will establish Ray’s fame worldwide. Thereafter Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul (1963) introduces the generic word to a whole new audience and “You’ll Never walk Alone” and Sleepy John Estes’ “Worried Life Blues” simply rubber stamp Charles status.
The standard doesn’t drop. Sweet & Sour Tears (featuring “Cry Me a River”) and Have a Smile with Me are two sides of a coin; one is darkly brooding, the other light and humorous. By now Sinatra’s show business assessment has come to fruition.
The Live in Concert disc (1965) is another stand-alone classic and a massive influence on wannabe soul singers everywhere. Van Moirrison, a true disciple, often mentions this work, and if it’s good enough for Van… Recorded at the Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles in 1964, this is an example of an artist at the height of his powers. Together Again marks one of the last times Ray works with his producer mentor Sid Feller while Crying Time (1966) meets the new hippy movement head on during “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “You’ve Got A Problem”; both cuts will be a main influence on Donny Hathaway. Ray’s Moods and Ray Charles Invites You to Listen return Ray to his roots and are expertly helmed by Joe Adams. The latter features Ray’s version of The Beatles’ “Yesterday”, a take that Paul McCartney reckons is his favourite.
A Portrait of Ray (check out his emphatic interpretation of “Eleanor Rigby”) and I’m All Yours Baby! Are marvelous keyboards and voice excursions and Doing His Thing bookends the end of the decade with flair and humour – particularly on the oft-covered “If It wasn’t For Bad Luck”, a co-write with accomplice Jimmy Lewis. Just for good measure the artwork on all the covers has a delicious period charm.
Now able to boss his own imprint, Tangerine, with ABC’s advantageous backing, Ray releases Love Country Style, another must-hear recommendation. Discover him dig into Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and “Good Morning Dear” and wonder at his grand version of Jimmy Webb’s “I Keep It Hid”. Volcanic Action of My Soul (1971) mines similar territory with total success – adding folk blues to more Webb (“Wichita Lineman”) and the best take on The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” outside the original. The fact that Buddy Emmons provides pedal steel makes it all the sweeter. Another classic from 1971.
Thereafter the albums flood out so we urge you to consider all the above and delve into the best of the anthologies and collections.
A Man and His Soul originally released 1967) as a double-album is the perfect introduction to a cross-section of the breakthrough material and any compilation that features “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, "Hit the Road Jack” or “Together Again” has to be explored.
In latter years Ray returned to his love of country music, recording with Willie Nelson and George Jones from his peer group as well as newer artists like Hank Williams Jr. and B.J. Thomas.
Immortalised on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in statue form in his hometown of Albany, Georgia, Ray Charles blessed us with his presence right though to 2004 when he sadly passed in his California home. Latterly his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and The Ray Charles Foundation enabled him to help those who like him emerged from poverty and sought to better their lot. .
His legacy is immense and so obvious it doesn’t need stating. The biopic Ray, starring Jamie Foxx, in an Oscar-winning performance did much to bring him back into the public eye. That film may already have turned your attention ti this extraordinary man. The original is really all you need.
Words: Max Bell
Down-home, anguished laments and moody ballads were turned into triumphs by Ray Charles. He sang these songs with the same conviction, passion, and energy that made his country and soul vocals so majestic.
Words: Ron Wynn
One of the best early-'60s examples of soul/jazz crossover, this record, like several of his dates from the period, featured big-band arrangements (played by the Count Basie band). This fared better than some of Charles' similar outings, however, if only because it muted some of his straight pop aspirations in favor of some pretty mean and lean, cut-to-the-heart-of-the-matter B-3 Hammond organ licks. Most of the album is instrumental and swings pretty vivaciously, although Charles does take a couple of vocals with "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town" and "I've Got News for You." Yet one of those instrumentals, a cover of the Clovers' "One Mint Julep," would give Charles one of his most unpredictable (and best) early-'60s hits. In 1997, it was combined with the much later My Kind of Jazz album (from 1970) onto a single-disc CD reissue by Rhino.
Words: Richie Unterberger
For his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 5, 1958, Charles pulled out all the stops, performing raucous versions of "The Right Time," "I Got a Woman," and "Talkin' 'Bout You."
Words: William Ruhlmann
Issued under the title Ray Charles in 1957, this Jerry Wexler-produced set was Ray Charles' debut album for Atlantic Records, and it was a gem, with powerful, timeless performances of "I Got a Woman," Henry Glover's "Drown in My Own Tears, Ahmet Ertegun's "Mess Around," a stomping version of "Hallelujah I Love Her So," and Lowell Fulson's "Sinner's Prayer," among other vintage Charles delights. The album was reissued in 1962 with the title Hallelujah I Love Her So, and has since also been reissued under the title Rock & Roll, but whatever it's called, it introduced one of the most dynamic performers of the 20th century to a new and wider audience.
Words: Steve Leggett
A partially successful revisiting by Charles of his country sessions of the early '60s. These songs weren't quite as transcendent as those on the prior dates, but he showed once again that the lines between country, R&B, and soul weren't as rigid as many in the various camps thought.
Words: Ron Wynn
Having struck the mother lode with Vol. 1 of this genre-busting concept, "Brother Ray," producer Sid Feller, and ABC-Paramount went for another helping and put it out immediately. The idea was basically the same -- raid the then-plentiful coffers of Nashville for songs and turn them into Ray Charles material with either a big band or a carpet of strings and choir. This time, though, instead of a random mix of backgrounds, the big band tracks -- again arranged by Gerald Wilson in New York -- went on side one, and the strings/choir numbers -- again arranged by Marty Paich in Hollywood -- were placed on side two. Saleswise, it couldn't miss, but, more importantly, Vol. 2 defied the curse of the sequel and was just as much of an artistic triumph as its predecessor, if not as immediately startling. Charles' transfiguration of "You Are My Sunshine" sets the tone, and, as before, there's a good quota of Don Gibson material; "Don't Tell Me Your Troubles" becomes a fast gospel rouser and "Oh Lonesome Me" a frantic big band number. Paich lays on the '50s and early-'60s Muzak with an almost gleeful, over-the-top commercial slickness that with an ordinary artist would have been embarrassing. But the miracle is that Charles' hurt, tortured, soulfully twisting voice transforms the backgrounds as well as the material; you believe what he's singing. It appealed across the board, from the teenage singles-buying crowd to adult consumers of easy listening albums and Charles' core black audience -- and even those who cried "sellout" probably took some secret guilty pleasures from these recordings. While Charles didn't get a number one chartbuster à la "I Can't Stop Loving You" out of this package, "Sunshine" got up to number seven, and "Take These Chains From My Heart," with its Shearing-like piano solo and big string chart, made it to number eight -- which wasn't shabby at all.
Words: Richard S. Ginell