Music writers toss around the term genius so often the word is almost meaningless. Madonna's a genius. Kurt Cobain was a genius. Trent Reznor's a genius. Yeah, right. Fact is, musical geniuses don't come around so often. The 20th century has produced only a handful of inarguable geniuses, such as Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinsky and Brian Wilson. There are a few other obvious choices, but most of the musicians called geniuses are the product of overzealous writers, marketing hype and hyperbole.
Ray Charles is on the short list of musical geniuses. He's the cat who started out as a Nat "King" Cole clone and before long found his own voice and style. In the process, he developed a new genre of music called soul. Charles was really the first to successfully merge gospel, blues, jazz and R&B during the '50s. The disparate elements on those recordings blend together with such amazing grace, the music still sounds revolutionary today.
It was Ray Charles who had the guts to record a country and western record with a little blues and gospel thrown in. Charles scored a No. 1 crossover hit with "I Can't Stop Loving You," and the album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western, was a top seller.
Then there's his voice. The voice that has influenced every soul singer who has followed. For that matter, rock and roll singers also owe a heavy debt to Charles. Where would Joe Cocker's career be if he didn't have Ray Charles to emulate? Charles's versions of "Georgia on My Mind" and "America the Beautiful" are definitive. Anyone who attempts to sing those songs is really just imitating Brother Ray. As the cliché goes: Ray Charles can sing the phone book and still give you chills. He can take the most mundane things and make them sound artful. That's talent. That's genius.
Charles is also an underrated composer. He wrote many classics, including big charts "I Got a Woman" and "What'd I Say." At the same time, his phenomenal hits "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Georgia on My Mind" and "Hit the Road Jack" were written by other songwriters. That may be because Charles's biggest strength is as an interpreter.
Despite his legendary albums, despite having racked up more than 30 hit singles and despite having collected 12 Grammys, the song many people most associate with Ray Charles is "You Got the Right One, Baby." Yes, the Diet Pepsi jingle. But he's more than that. So for those looking to enhance their record collections and learn a little bit more about soul, here are ten albums, in no particular order, that bolster Ray's legacy and give a taste of his many musical sides.
1) Genius Plus Soul: 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino). Putting this on the list is cheating, but so what. Any true music fan wants this 104-song five-CD set. From his earliest recordings in the '40s to songs made in the '90s, Charles is captured maturing into one of the finest pop stars of any era. His artistic peak in the '50s and '60s is well documented, and only the better songs from the '70s through the '90s are included. Not a lot of jazz material here, but enough great hits to make this a must in any respectable music library.
2) The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic R&B Recordings 1952-1959 (Rhino). Yeah, it's another boxed set, but it's an important one, as it tracks Charles's musical evolution with many songs not included on the 50th anniversary set. On this collection, Charles moves from basic R&B and nasty blues-filled jazz to a more polished and refined sound without sacrificing any authenticity in the process.
3) Ray Charles Live (Atlantic). An anthology of two great live albums, both recorded in the late '50s, Live shows Charles in top form. Here he swings serious jazz and rocks out some serious R&B. Call it two live sides of Charles. Both will blow you away.
4) Genius + Soul = Jazz (ABC). There's much more jazz than soul here as Charles is joined by the Count Basie Orchestra (sans the Count) for some of the hottest big-band material of the early '60s. Charles gets down and dirty on the organ, and the Basie band swings with tremendous power. The pop and R&B influences are cool, but it's the solid jazz playing that stands out.
5) Ray Charles and Betty Carter (ABC). Legend has it Charles brought jazz singer Betty Carter in for this record because he wanted to help her career. I think he just wanted to sing with one of jazz's most unique vocalists. There's great chemistry from the opening bars, and when they hit "Baby It's Cold Outside," you can feel the sublime sexual tension (any modern-day singer could learn volumes here on how to be sensual without being bawdy). Currently out of print, the vinyl versions sometimes fetch more than $100 at record fairs. Pick up this record, and you'll understand why. (Yes, the CD versions are much cheaper.)
6) The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic). Arrangements by Quincy Jones, musicians from not only Charles's band, but the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras, and such songs as "Let the Good Times Roll," "Come Rain, Come Shine," "Just for a Thrill" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying." That pretty much sums it all up. Charles knocks you on your butt one moment and has you crying the next. This is Brother Ray at the peak of his powers, which were obviously heaven-sent.
7) The Great Ray Charles/The Genius After Hours (Rhino). Recorded in the late '50s when Charles was in the middle of defining soul music, this bebop date showed he was also a fine jazz pianist who could jam with the likes of Oscar Pettiford. So out of character is this album for Charles, if you play it for your friends and challenge them to guess the pianist, you could win a lot of money.
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8) Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (ABC). In his autobiography, Brother Ray, Charles fondly recalls listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio while growing up in Georgia. Charles added his own bluesy twists to country standards, and the formula worked flawlessly. Country fans loved the authenticity. Soul fans dug Ray's unique twists. Everyone loved his passion.
9) Ultimate Hits (Rhino). Just what the name implies. If you're a casual Charles fan who's not sure where to start, pick this up. The two-CD set has all of Charles's biggest hits and some of his lesser-known ones. The songs are great, and it's a good primer on Charles's pop/soul/R&B styles.
10) Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting (Atlantic/Rhino). These two records, now on one CD, were recorded in '58 and '62, and had paired Charles with Milt Jackson, the most influential jazz vibraphonist of the past 50 years. Forget about ego clashes; these two made great jazz like, well, soul brothers. Fine musicians making fine jazz. What more could you ask for?
Ray Charles performs with the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, on Friday, September 3, and Saturday, September 4, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, September 5, at 7:30 p.m. Call (713)224-7575.