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Music Review: Ray Charles – Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles Box Set

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There was a period of time in the late seventies when Ray Charles was “on the shelf,” so to speak. Just about every major artist goes through a period when they are out of favor for a while, it’s just the nature of the beast. Ask Johnny Cash, Springsteen, or U2 for that matter. While preparing to review the new Ray Charles box set, Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles, I had a look at what Dave Marsh had to say about Charles in 1978. In essence, his opinion was that Ray had committed virtual artistic suicide by leaving Atlantic Records for ABC-Paramount in 1959.

Wow. Maybe the guy was suffering from some form of rock-crit inferiority complex or something, because nothing could be further from the truth. The set contains 106 tracks, laid out over the course of five CDs, and presents a pretty convincing case that Ray’s time with ABC-Paramount Records was one of the strongest and most productive associations of his career.

Almost immediately, Ray recorded (one of) his signature songs with “Georgia On My Mind” at ABC. In fact, “Georgia” reached number one in the U.S. in November of 1960, just a year after he signed with the label. Granted, “Georgia” is far more middle of the road than the rollicking R&B numbers such as “What’d I Say,” or “Mess Around” he laid down at Atlantic. But Ray never abandoned that material either. See “Hit The Road, Jack” (1961) for starters.

There was so much more to what Ray Charles accomplished on ABC though than just the hits (although there were plenty of those). This is where both volumes of his landmark Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music were recorded, for one thing. Maybe more significantly, in that era of massive civil rights unrest, Ray Charles was treated as a major artist by the label. He was one of the first (black or otherwise) musicians to be given artistic control by his record label. Even The Beatles had to fight hard for that right.

Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles is brilliant in its simplicity. It contains every 45 RPM single (both A and B sides) released by the label from 1960 – 1972. What a way to follow a man’s career. Arguments can be made that there were interesting LP-only tracks that are omitted, but who cares? That is not the point of this set. The point is that this collection holds 106 absolutely prime Ray Charles songs, and that is good enough for me.

Just listen to the way he trades off with his background singers during “Don’t Set Me Free” (1963), for instance. Charles was a master of his particular style, and it is little wonder that Frank Sinatra once called him “The only true genius in show business.”

The stylistic variations Ray pursued over the years are another revelation. As anyone who has seen the film Ray (2004) knows, gospel music was a deep influence. It was there in his voice, regardless of the context. His facility for country music is well known, as are his R&B chops. What I found fascinating though were some of the later singles. Ray Charles is Ray Charles, no matter what. But listening to “If You Were Mine” (1970) or “Feel So Bad” (1971) brings to mind classic Stax-Volt of the era, showing that Ray always had his ear to the ground.

As his career progressed, Ray wrote less and less of his own songs. It was one thing to take Percy Mayfield’s “Hit The Road, Jack” and turn it into a monster hit. It was quite another to take on songs like Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,“ or The Beatles’ “Yesterday,“ and make them your own.

Ray Charles was clearly one of the musical giants of the last 50 years, and his legend is secure. Singular Genius is a celebration of the man’s immense talent, and also offers a unique way of looking at a specific 12-year period in his long career. To put it as simply as possible, this box contains 106 excellent songs – with no filler. It should definitely be at or near the top of any music lover’s holiday list.

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