The history of American music passes through Ray Charles. He had his first major-label, rhythm & blues hit in 1953 and his career would go on to encompass jazz, soul, pop, and country. By the time of his death in 2004 at the age of 73, he had become a larger-than-life figure and an American musical icon.
By this juncture, no new Ray Charles material likely remains. Maybe there are some live concerts or an odd unreleased studio track hiding somewhere, but the Ray Charles catalogue is essentially complete. It now all comes down to packaging.
There have been any number compilations released over the years and Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection is the latest in this long line. It is a one-disc, 21-track gathering of much of his best material. One disc, though — no matter what or how many tracks it comprises — will only be a sampler given the overall extensiveness of this catalogue.
The Concord label has done a good job in putting this package together as most tracks are essential. There is still a number of songs that one could make a case for their not being included here, but on the other hand there is nothing I would want to eliminate. either. Perhaps I would have liked to have had “Mess Around” and I would've preferred his version of “Eleanor Rigby” to his cover of “Yesterday” (which is here), but such are minor quibbles.
The sound is clear and the enclosed booklet is informative. Still, it would have been insightful to have presented the songs in chronological order to get an idea of his musical evolution and growth.
His genius is no more apparent than in the three songs that crossed over to the pop charts, becoming Number One hits as while drawing from different traditions. “Hit The Road Jack” is R&B based and remains one of his signature songs, his smooth vocal leading to its memorable chorus. “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” originally written and recorded by country artist Don Gibson, finds Charles delivering one of the strongest vocal performances in music history, transforming it into a rhythm & blues classic. “Georgia On My Mind,” an old Hoagy Carmichael tune from 1930, receives yet another one of Ray's smoothest vocals ever set to music.
There are several outstanding performances here that are worth listening to over and over again. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked “What’d I Say” as the tenth greatest song of all time and the vocal which competes against his virtuoso piano playing is superb. “Sticks and Stones” is straight R&B and features vocal interplay with The Raelettes. “Unchain My Heart” ventures into jazz territory and has a big-band feel. “You Are My Sunshine” is the old Jimmie Davis country tune and is familiar to millions, but no one sings it like Ray Charles. “Crying Time” is another country tune that he interprets so differently that it makes the original by Buck Owens forgettable.
The album concludes with two slower songs. the first being his interpretation of “Yesterday,” which is soul music at its best. “America The Beautiful” subsequently brings the album to an inspirational, satisfying conclusion.
Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection is a good place to start if you want a taste of the man’s musical legacy. It jumps from highlight to highlight, easily living up to its title.