Ray Charles – Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles (Concord, 2011)
Ray Charles long ago graduated from a hit-seeking artist to an omnipresent musical god. His iconic singles, innovative albums and sizzling live performances are so monumental as to obscure the time before they existed. It’s all but impossible to recall the excitement of a new Ray Charles release climbing up the charts to popular acclaim and immortality. But Charles’ genius was both artistic and commercial, and his growth and triumphs as a musician were paralleled by success on the charts. Concord’s 5-disc set gathers the mono A- and B-sides of all 53 singles that Charles released on the ABC label, starting with 1960’s “My Baby (I Love Her Yes I Do)” and concluding with 1973’s “I Can Make It Thru the Days (But Oh Those Lonely Nights).” Along the route the set stops at eleven chart-topping hits, numerous lower-charting A-sides and a wealth of terrific B’s. Thirty of these tracks are making their first appearance on CD, and twenty-one their digital debut.
By the time Charles joined ABC-Paramount, he’d already begun to translate his success on the R&B charts into broader crossover acclaim with the Atlantic singles “What’d I Say” and “I’m Movin’ On.” His recordings for ABC included both indelible albums (e.g., Genius + Soul = Jazz and Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music), and an incredible string of charting singles that included “Georgia on My Mind” (his first Pop #1), “Hit the Road Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Busted” and “Crying Time.” Charles repeatedly showed himself to be a master of blues, soul, jazz, gospel, pop and his own brand of country, and a musician (both as a pianist and vocalist) whose brilliance was amplified just as fully by a small combo as it was by an orchestra.
Charles had first expanded his musical boundaries with Atlantic on 1959’s The Genius of Ray Charles, augmenting his R&B band with additional players and strings; ABC capitalized on this by providing the opportunity to record with big bands and orchestras. The through line that links the two eras is the soul Charles poured into each vocal, the personal experience he wrote into his lyrics, and the imagination with which he created definitive interpretations of others’ songs. Charles’ piano playing – particularly on the electric – was as iconic as his voice, and as a bandleader he surrounded himself with exceptional instrumentalists, including tenor saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, who developed their own notoriety and followings.
It wasn’t until Charles’ third single for ABC, 1960’s career-defining cover of “Georgia on My Mind,” that he topped the pop chart and fully exploited his crossover success. It was a feat he’d repeat with 1961’s “Hit the Road Jack,” 1962’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and with other titles on the R&B chart. Charles’ sessions often turned out enough high-grade material to stock both sides of his singles. 1962’s landmark cover of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” for example, was backed by an even higher-charting take on Governor Jimmie Davis’ “You Are My Sunshine.” But the biggest hits aren’t this set’s most intriguing material – it’s the lower-charting singles and B-sides, overshadowed by Charles’ commercial success, that are the biggest surprise.
Lesser-known highlights include Phil Guilbeau’s trumpet work on Percy Mayfield’s sly blues “But on the Other Hand, Baby,” Gerald Wilson’s moody arrangements of “Careless Love” and “Something’s Wrong,” a sizzling two-part live remake of Charles’ 1955 hit “I Got a Woman,” the Wrecking Crew’s Carole Kaye laying down a funky bass line on “The Train,” Charles’ cooking original version of Ashford & Simpson’s “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” Jimmy Holiday’s southern-tinged blue soul “Something Inside Me,” Billy Preston’s gospel organ on “Here We Go Again,” the bittersweet waltz-time “Somebody Ought to Write a Book About It,” the gospel testimony of “Understanding,” the Stax-styled “Let Me Love You,” and the run of Buck Owens tunes (“Love’s Gonna Live Here Again,” “Crying Time” and “Together Again”) Charles covered in 1965-6.
In the Fall of 1965, Charles began recording in his own RPM International studio, and many of the singles from this era sound pinched (Billy Vera’s liner notes say they’re “drier”), as though they were mixed and EQ’d narrowly for AM radio. As the timeline rolls into 1966 and 1967, the compressed dynamic range and mono mixes become anachronistic. As Charles’ fame grew, he became more dependent on interpreting the songs of staff writers and others. The musical invention of the early ‘60s settled into a comfortable groove, but Charles’ blend of soul, blues, jazz, country and pop never failed to offer something unique. Treats in the latter half of the collection include a superbly wrought cover of Sam Cooke’s “Laughin’ and Cryin’,” a subtle double-tracked vocal on the soul B-side “If You Were Mine,” a soulful reworking of “America the Beautiful,” and a sharp take on “Ring of Fire” that was Charles’ last B-side for ABC.
The five discs are housed in individual cardboard folders, with interior reproductions of a label or picture sleeve. The folders are packed in a heavy-duty box with a linen-textured finish and magnetic clasp. The 48-page booklet includes archival photos, detailed musician credits and release data, and new liner notes by Billy Vera. All 106 tracks are mastered in mono. This is a superb way to get acquainted with the range of Ray Charles’ recordings of the 1960s and early 1970s, combining his best-loved hits with superb B-sides and lower-charting singles that remain obscure to many listeners. It’s not a substitute for hearing his groundbreaking albums of the era, but an equally worthy profile of the Genius of Soul.