Ray Charles

Ray Charles

Released in 1957, Ray Charles is technically the singer’s debut album—even though it arrived a full four years after Charles’ boogie-woogie hit “Mess Around” introduced him to millions of listeners. The fact that his music career took off just as LPs were becoming popular obscures how long Charles had already been working—both as a recording artist and, before that, as a fixture on the South’s Chitlin’ Circuit. Ray Charles collects 14 tracks from the singer’s early years—many of them hits, and all of them essential. Because the songs here span a few years, Ray Charles traces the ways the singer was refining his gospel-meets-jazz R&B sound. “I Got A Woman,” the 1954 single that became Charles’ first R&B No. 1 hit—and the tune that, decades later, would anchor Kanye West and Jamie Foxx’s “Gold Digger”—is notably looser than “Mess Around,” with Charles expanding the familiar blues template into an easy groove, as well as an ecstatic vocal showcase. “Come Back” and “A Fool For You,” meanwhile, established Charles as a superlative interpreter of ballads: On the stage, his tempos would stretch and lag into almost avant-garde territory, while his croons were punctuated with expressive growls and precise vibrato—and marked by improvisatory, expansive phrasing that brought Sunday morning into Saturday night. Elsewhere on Ray Charles, the urbane spoken word of “Greenbacks” showcased the singer’s humorous side, while “Mary Ann”—with its easy rhythmic shifts and lush, big-band sound—proved his ability to traverse jazz and pop worlds. And the bright piano licks of “Hallelujah I Love Her So”—which Charles penned himself—hinted at his pop star future. Given the road-tested nature of these tracks, it’s no surprise that Ray Charles remains a compelling front-to-back listen, chock full of songs that would remain signatures well into the singer’s decades-long career.

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