It’s hard to believe, but Ray Charles has been around for some 50 years. So ubiquitous that he’s positively ethereal, he’s been the stealth gene in this country’s cultural DNA, subtly infecting our collective conscious/subconscious with his revolutionary musical visions. No doubt, in a non-Ray Charles parallel universe, there would be no Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, Ronnie Milsap, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls or even gospel wunderkind Kirk Franklin. With the five-CD Genius & Soul, anthology specialists Rhino have done the near impossible-definitively cracking the cipher of perhaps the greatest musical fusionist of the 20th century.
Grandiose hyperbole?-I think not. Born in Albany, GA on September 23, 1930, Ray grew up poor in Greenville, FL (the proverbial “Hard Time, Mississippi”). Between the ages of five and fifteen, he was taught piano at a segregated(!) school for the blind in St. Augustine. His mother’s death curtailed his studies, for the next three years he made his bones throughout Florida’s TOBA (Tough On Black Asses) circuit. At the age of 18, Ray emigrated to Seattle. In Seattle, his music flourished-he wrote charts for his trio as well as for big band (he met lifelong bud Quincy Jones there). As his live rep grew, the pianist came to the attention of Jack Lauderdale, the owner of the LA-based Swingtime label. CD one begins with Charles’ recordings for the label, the self-penned “Confession Blues” (1948) and “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” (1949). Over the next four years, Ray would tour the country as bluesman Lowell Fulson’s music director-arranger until Ahmet Ertegun signed him to a solo contract with nascent R&B power Atlantic Records in 1952. His first six singles for the label reveal an artist searching for his sound, trying to overcome the influence of his idols Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, stretching the conventions of jazz, R&B to fit his inner groove. Charles’ seventh single “I’ve Got A Woman” (1954-#1 R&B) with its orchestral jazz-fueled heretical synthesis of gospel fervor and earthy secularity would not only determine the course of R&B’s future, it would give his muse the license to kill.
Oblivious to the rock ‘n’ roll revolution that was transforming American popular music, Charles spent his time at Atlantic (’52-’59) refining his mojo, becoming the rare black musician (save his idol Nat Cole) to consistently bomb both the album and R&B/pop singles charts. His innovations (coalescing majestically in “What’d I Say Parts 1&2”)-big band funk, the female lead/backing vocals of the Raeletts, electric piano-created the paradigm for the Motown-Stax-Philadelphia International sounds to come in the next two decades.
CD two chronicles Brother Ray’s late ’59 career-defining transition from Atlantic to ABC-Paramount. This new association not only freed him up financially (he secured a big advance, sweeter royalty rates and ownership of his masters), it ushered in an extended era of supernatural creativity that would forever validate his title as The Genius. During his 13 years with the label, Charles expanded his oeuvre way beyond R&B via 26 albums that yielded three #1 and 20 Top 10 R&B/pop hits. Many of his singles-“One Mint Julep,” “Hit The Road, Jack,” “Unchain My Heart,” “Busted,” “Crying Time,” “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (with Betty Carter) to name a few-are pop classics.
Beginning with 1960’s Genius Hits The Road (containing the immortal “Georgia On My Mind”)-a recording of songs with names of states-he not only invented the “concept” album, he proved himself to be a master interpreter of American song (later, he trumped the Beatles with killer versions of “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby”). That said, CD three shows how Ray shocked the world in ’62, flipping the script with the twin LPs Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music Vols. 1 & 2. For him it was simply a southern roots revisit, for the genre it was the new Book of Revelations. Charles strip-mined the blues pathos motherlode from the precious hillbilly minerals of tunes like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Your Cheating Heart” and “Born To Lose,” adding orchestral strings and a white female chorus to the mix. From that point on, C&W would follow his lead, gaining pop credibility and a new maturity.
By the end of the decade, Ray Charles had nothing left to prove. Financially independent, owner of his own recording complex, touring the world with his big band, he was in full control of his destiny. CDs four and five document our man between the years 1968 to 1993-his quasar period. During this era, he would release albums on his own Crossover label as well as on Atlantic, RCA (Porgy And Bess with Cleo Laine), Columbia and Warner Brothers. To be honest, the music from this last period is spotty, almost mortal compared to the god-like manifestations of the previous two decades. But so what-Ray Charles-Brother Ray-The Genius has earned the right to chill. Thanks to Genius & Soul, we will always know why.