Ray Charles, sightless and orphaned by age 15, led a life that sounded like a blues song. But the range and scope of his talent could never be contained within one genre, no matter its lasting joys.
A gifted performer on the piano, organ, clarinet and alto sax, Charles dabbled at first in Nat Cole-esque trio-jazz, then earned wide accolades while at Atlantic for blending in R&B and gospel influencesperhaps most memorably on his salacious rewrite of This Little Girl (originally 'light') of Mine." He was, in many ways, the father of modern soul music. But he was just getting started, as this sweeping 100-song, five-disc document attests.
It was under a subsequent contract with ABC-Paramount that Charles, already a crossover star but now poised to go supernova, famously reformulated Hoagy Carmichael's standard Georgia on my Mind," eventually earning two Grammys in 1960. This, even as he continued turning out rib-sticking rhythm tracks like Hit the Road Jack," and recorded a full session with Count Basie's orchestra for ABC-Paramount's jazz imprint, Impulse. What happened next was even more stunning: The 1962 release Modern Sounds in Country Music, featuring songs made famous by steel-guitar stalwarts like Hank Williams. The album, which was No. 1 for 14 weeks, included hit takes on Eddy Arnold's You Don't Know Me" and Don Gibson's I Can't Stop Loving You," a Grammy winner in its own right.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Newly unearthed footage of Ray Charles's mighty-grooving small band, performing in France in 1961, shows he was still a staggering talent in the straight-ahead jazz idiom.]
Charles would continue in this way through the 1960s, expanding his reach into every corner of American song. He covered music associated with mainstream pop artists like Frank Laine's That Lucky Old Sun" or Mitch Miller's My Heart Cries for You," Johnny Cash songs ("Busted," Ring of Fire"), songbook favorites like Someone to Watch Over Me" and Some Enchanting Evening," Beatles songs (both Yesterday" and Eleanor Rigby"), jazz duets (Basie, and Betty Carter), Buck Owens songs ("Crying Time," Together Again"), traditional singalongs ("You Are My Sunshine," America the Beautiful"), movie themes, jump blues, gospel favorites and throwaway novelty tunesall of it leavened with these dollops of scalding R&B.
You hear all of that on Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles, like a travelogue through our musical landscape.
1960 has long been the dividing line for some Charles fans, since he rarely played again in the nimble, smaller eight-piece formats of the earlier Atlantic years, preferring instead to work with brawny big bands, outsized orchestras and swooning choruses. But it is here, across these five discs, that you hear the full flowering of Charles' muse.
There was little he couldn't master, beginning with the most incongruent thing of all for the African-American son of a sharecropper and a handyman raised dirt poor in the Deep Southwhite country ballads like I Can't Stop Loving You." Whatever misgivings purists might have had, back in the day, disappeared once Ray opened his mouth. As Singular Genius concludes, the case is made all over again: Charles was just as musically adeptand, more importantly, as heartfeltwhen strolling down these many musical side roads as he had ever been with What I'd Say" or This Little Girl of Mine," though the latter brand of gospel-infused R&B presumably would have come far more naturally.
Not to Ray Charles. While he had been blind since age 6, it turns out he could hear everything. It's our great fortune that he found the conduit at ABC-Paramount so that we would, too.
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