“One of the best and most comprehensive Ray Charles compilations” – MusicWeek
The term legend is used all too loosely in this day and age, with music arguably the worst offender. But in Ray Charles, modern music has someone it can proudly label one of culture’s true geniuses. Charles blazed his own trail through a career spanning nearly six decades, merging gospel and R&B to create soul music. He later found success in the country and rock‘n’roll fields as he demonstrated his diversity and talent.
As well as musical barriers, Charles helped break down racial ones, living and performing in a transformative and difficult time for black men and women in America.
Born in Georgia in September 1930, Ray Charles Robinson experienced adversity from early on. His family, including mother Aretha, father Bailey and brother George, moved to Florida during the Great Depression, and Ray witnessed his younger brother drown in an horrific accident. As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, it was around that time that he began losing his sight to glaucoma, becoming completely blind at seven. He’d showed an early propensity to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a mechanic, but his affliction ushered him in the direction of music.
Charles was always interested in music, beginning with a friendship with a piano-playing neighbour while still in single digits. But a near-decade stay at the St Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind saw him hone those skills, mastering numerous instruments and arranging and composing his own material. It would be his skill on the piano that made Ray Charles’ early name and reputation.
Idols like Nat ‘King’ Cole, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong were masters of jazz and the big-band sound, so it was no surprise that Charles cut his music teeth in a variety of outfits in the genre playing in and around Seattle and, later, Los Angeles. But it wasn’t long before he went it alone, signing for the then-fledgling Atlantic Records label in 1952.
It was at Atlantic that Charles would make his name, and he in turn would help them make theirs. The label quickly relinquished creative control to Ray, making him the first black artist to earn such an honour. He would storm the charts in the mid Fifties and become a mainstay in the R&B listings for the rest of the decade with tracks like self-penned breakout hit and R&B chart-topper ‘I’ve Got A Woman’, the million-selling ‘What I’d Say’ and ‘Drown In My Own Tears’; all these landmark recordings may be found on disc one.
His Atlantic output put Ray Charles on the wider musical map, with ‘What I’d Say’ propelling him into the mainstream pop charts in 1959. The crossover hit placed Charles in front of a white audience and helped him transcend racial and musical divides.
The Sixties kicked off with a new record label to call home – Charles had moved to ABC-Paramount – and no less than four Grammy awards. Key to his success at the 1961 ceremony was his take on Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s ‘Georgia On My Mind’ (disc two), which featured on his first Paramount LP, ‘The Genius Hits The Road’. Ray would forever be the artist associated with the ballad which later became the official song of the US state of Georgia.
Charles would follow it up with perhaps his most commercially successful number – ‘Hit The Road Jack’. The Percy Mayfield-penned hit, which appears on disc one, would top the US pop charts with help from duet partner Margie Hendricks of all-girl backing group the Raelettes. It would also earn another Grammy for best R&B recording.
The decade also saw Ray Charles experiment with his musical direction, having created soul and conquered jazz and the big-band scene in a little more than a decade. He shocked the world of music with a country album, ‘Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music’, in 1962. Ray’s take on classics like ‘You Don’t Know Me’ (disc three) and Hank Williams’ ‘You Win Again’ (disc one) would propel the album to the top of the US charts and bring the genre to a new audience.
But regardless of genre, audience or appeal, Charles always had one thing: soul. From his difficult childhood and problems that followed him into adulthood like heroin addiction, he had a story to tell – and boy, did he tell it! That music was all he knew is evidenced by the fact that he never stopped performing right up until his death in 2004 at the age of 73.
This three-disc collection encompasses some of Ray Charles’ most popular, influential and seminal recordings. Listen to these recordings by one of music’s true greats, from his formative, pre-Atlantic days to his later genre-defying work, and discover why he was known simply as ‘the Genius’.