Since the passing of Ray Charles in 2004, his extensive catalog of music has undergone a reissue campaign that has included remastered classic albums, new compilations, expanded live albums, and the unearthing of new recordings. The latest – and certainly one of the best – is the five disc Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles box set. This collection of 106 songs contains every single, both A and B sides, released by Charles on ABC-Paramount. It’s an incredible volume of material, spanning 1960 to 1973.
This set has a little bit of everything that made Charles a great interpreter of other people’s material. There are a number of original tunes sprinkled throughout the set, but after the ‘50s Charles wasn’t really known for songwriting. Instead he focused on covering standards from both the Great American Songbook as well as classic R&B artists, and even performed country and western standards, contemporary pop tunes, and material presented to him by professional songwriters. It’s all here – and much of it for the first time in a digital format, as quite a few of the B-sides in particular are rare.
Charles had a lot of hits during this period. The biggest of them are immediately recognizable to anyone with a general knowledge of popular music of that era. They’re all here, including “Georgia On My Mind,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Busted,” and “Take These Chains From My Heart.” But the lesser hits and obscure tracks actually make for the most interesting listening. Live cuts of “I’ve Got a Woman” and “Makin’ Whoopee” provide a taste of Charles in concert. A pair of Beatles covers, “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” offer significantly different arrangements (especially with the latter) that allow Charles to mine the emotional depths of the songs.
Not many artists have an artistic peak that lasts as long as Charles. Amazingly, this box set doesn’t tell the whole story. Charles’ groundbreaking soul workouts from the ‘50s are just as essential. His mid-to-late ‘70s albums were often uneven, but dotted with sheer brilliance (check out his Grammy Award-winning take on Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” for one example). While none of this is included on Singular Genius, what is here definitely doesn’t get weaker as it progresses over five discs. It’s all from his prime. In fact, well into disc five we are treated to his definitive cover of Melanie Safka’s “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” “American the Beautiful,” and a jaw-dropping version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
The discs themselves are housed in cardboard sleeves, loose enough to ensure easy removal of the discs. An illustrated 47-page booklet contains new liner notes by Billy Vera, as well as recording dates and personnel for each song. I only wish they had included chart information for every single. The discs and booklet are housed in a sturdy, compact box held shut by a magnet in the box flap. Even casual fans are likely to have a number of the better known songs, while serious Charles fans will already have quite a bit of it (probably on multiple releases). But for the wealth of material previously unavailable in digital form, the uniformly excellent remastering, and the attractive packaging, Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles is an indispensable collection.