Ray Charles had a nice little career going for himself during the mid-to-late 1950s as a recording artist for the Atlantic label. His albums were commercially successful and his singles consistently charted on the Rhythm & Blues charts. Every once in a while he would cross over onto the mainstream pop singles charts, with his biggest hit being “What’d I Say.” As the decade came to a close he began to add strings and orchestration to his sound, which moved him in a pop direction that was acceptable to a mainstream music audience.
His increasing popularity was bad timing for the Atlantic label as his contract was coming up for renewal. Enter the ABC-Paramount label, which not only offered him a lot of cash but ownership of his material after five years, authority in the studio, and final say of what would be released in his name. It was goodbye Atlantic and hello ABC.
During the next 13 years, 1960-1973,he would become not only a superstar and American icon, but an agent of change in American music by blending his rhythm & blues sound with rock, pop, and country. His albums would sell tens of millions of copies and influence several generations of artists that would follow. Over 50 of his singles for the label would enter Billboard’s Pop Singles Chart, led by such number one hits as “Georgia On My Mind,” “Hit The Road Jack,” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
The Concord Music Group has been reissuing his individual albums. They have now turned their attention to his singles catalogue with the release of the massive five-disc, 106-track Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles. They combined his 45 RPM A and B sides with a few album tracks that were formatted for radio play, plus some live material. They have all been remastered from the original tapes, and the sound is now crystal clear.
The box set comes with a booklet that provides a history of his time with the label and annotated notes about each track. It’s nice to have everything in chronological order as it enables the listener to follow the progression of his style and sound and the different directions his music traveled down through the years. The discs even come in a replica of the old ABC-Paramount 45 RPM singles sleeve, which is a nice touch.
The obscure combine with the well-known as the music of Ray Charles takes you on a musical journey through the 1960s and early 1970s.
He produced some of the best known songs of the era. In addition to his aforementioned number one hits, songs such as “Unchain My Heart,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Crying Time,” and “One Mint Julep” proved that his body of work was not just limited to a few big hits.
It was his ability to take songs from other styles and traditions and fuse them into his own unique mix that made his music special. His forays into country music expanded it in new directions and exposed it to a different audience. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” the number one “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “Crying Time,” “When I Stop Dreaming,” and “Together Again” are representative of his hybrid style.
It was many of his obscurities and forgotten songs that present some of the best surprises in the set. His reinterpretation of Eddie Cantor’s 1929 hit “Makin’ Whoopee,” the Pomus/Shuman composition “No One,” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “A Tear Fell,” plus the likes of “No One To Cry To,” “Smack Dab In The Middle,” “I Wake Up Cryin’” and “Cincinnati Kid” were proof that his catalogue ran deep. He even covered two Beatles songs, “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” and made them unique.
As the 1970s progressed, his time with ABC was coming to an end. He was covering such songs as “What Have They Done To My Song Ma” and “Take Me Home Country Roads.” Still, he was able to produce one last great performance for the label with an emotional “America The Beautiful.”
While he would go on to produce wonderful and relevant music for the rest of his life, it was his time with ABC that defined his career. His singles are a fine representation of his most prolific period. Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles Box Set is an essential listen not only for the career of Ray Charles but of American music as well.