Review: Ray Charles - Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles

The Genius switches labels and delivers more than a decade of classic tracks.
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Ray Charles ABC Complete SinglesBy the end of the 1950s, Ray Charles, already a star in black America, began to make inroads into the white teen record buying market with hits such as "I Got A Woman" and "What'd I Say." Charles' contract with Atlantic Records was about to expire and the label fully expected to keep their rising star. However, a new label, ABC-Paramount, was looking to stake their claim in the white teen market and came to court Charles.

Their offer was too good to refuse. Charles was able to produce his own records, he received a healthy royalty rate and, most importantly, he would own his own masters after five years — an unprecedented move for any record label, but one that showed how badly they wanted Charles. Charles agreed to the deal and found great success at the label, releasing a number of singles and some of his best-loved work. Those singles are all collected on Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles.

The most striking thing about Singular Genius is the ease at which Charles shifts from genre to genre, sounding equally at home doing R&B, jazz/big band, pop, rock 'n' roll and even country. The term genius gets thrown around a lot, but Charles really was one.

The collection opens with the sultry "My Baby (I Love Her Yes I Do)" with Charles duetting with the Raeletts and featuring his crack horn section including David "Fathead" Newman on tenor saxophone. This Charles original blends the blues and gospel in an irresistible mix. Another Charles original, the "What’d I Say" derivative "Sticks and Stones" is an exciting track with great call-and-response vocals between Charles and the Raeletts.

It was the Hoagy Carmichael classic, "Georgia On My Mind," that Charles turned into a career-defining moment though, elevating the song with his emotional, longing vocals. It later became the state song for Georgia and deservedly so. This is pop music at its finest.

The hits kept coming, from the bluesy "Hit The Road, Jack," with its great descending bass line to "Unchain My Heart," a song made popular again many years later by fellow soulful singer, Joe Cocker. Charles conquered the country world with his cover of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You." The song features a lush arrangement contrasted against Charles' powerful lead vocal. The song was later recorded by Elvis Presley, and was one of several Charles songs he'd perform during his career.

Charles adds an R&B feel to his version of Hank Williams' classic "Your Cheatin' Heart," and his vocals on "That Lucky Old Sun" make the listener feel lucky for getting to hear them. "Ol Man Time," a swinging track with big band influences that would normally seem out of place juxtaposed against a song with an R&B feel, follows up the track chronologically but Charles makes it work.

Singular Genius reminds the listeners of the 45 era with its two-part singles — songs too long to fit on one side of the record. A live version of Charles' signature "I Got A Woman" is one such number, with Charles and his band turning in a killer performance, while Charles' soulful take on the standard, "Without A Song," is another example.

Charles showed his sense of humor by following up a drug bust with two Ashford and Simpson compositions — the slow R&B of "Let's Go Get Stoned" and the rocking "I Don't Need No Doctor" — the latter of which was later covered by Humble Pie and even W.A.S.P. Charles' hit-making streak continued into the 1970s with "America The Beautiful," his moving vocal making for yet another signature song in a career filled with them.

Singular Genius covers the years 1960-1972 and uses the mono single mixes. The A- and B-sides of 53 singles are included with 21 songs making their digital debut and 30 having never been available on CD before. Of these songs, 11 went to number 1 on their respective charts. The liner notes were written by Billy Vera and contain a number of rare photos. The mastering is top notch throughout.

Seldom have we seen an artist as diverse as Ray Charles. It is often daunting to build a collection of an artist with a career as rich and varied as Charles, but Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles is a very nice overview and a great place to start.