Rant ‘N’ Roll: Ray Charles Is Not Dead

Contrary to the popular misconception that once Ray Charles left Atlantic Records his music turned middle-of-the-road, the singular genius that defined his ABC Records era manifested itself in a variety of ways. True, the tenor of the times dictated that your soul had to be drenched with strings and a bevy of female voices swooping down from on high (if you wanted to reach White America). This is why some of the pieces recorded by great voices such as Jackie Wilson and Dean Martin (just to name two) are virtually unlistenable today. Thankfully, there are no such production gaffes on the recently-released Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles (Concord). Sure, there’s those white voices offsetting his signature “I Can’t Stop Loving You” but they’re not obnoxiously cloying and Ray sounds so cool in contrast.

At ABC, Ray was able to indulge his country fantasies and became, in the process, one of America’s greatest country singers. He had to leave Atlantic. There was no way he could turn down the kind of deal ABC offered. At Atlantic (you can see the scene where he tells Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler he’s leaving the label in the highly recommended Ray movie), as pioneering and revolutionary as he was as a rock ‘n’ roll artist (you should already own The Birth Of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952-1959), he still made more money for the label than he did for himself. ABC offered him the kind of deal—what with total artistic control and a percentage of publishing—that the ‘50s rock icons could only dream of. Thus, he went about recording with orchestras and indulging his own damn self, thank you, to do whatever the hell he wanted. It led to what most critics call a step down from his previous artistic highs. But not me.

There’s so much greatness in Singular Genius that to wade through its 106 tracks on five CDs is to have the ability to fly up in the sky bouncing off clouds. I’m not a man of faith. This music is as close as I’ll ever get to the concept of a higher power. Thus, Ray Charles is not dead. He’s a living, breathing presence in my household. And the shock of recognition that accompanies this box as track after track just keeps getting better and better is sex and love and faith all rolled into one. The sex part comes in during his duet with Betty Carter on “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Listen closely to Ray on this one and you can feel his hard-on.

No one ever sang “Your Cheatin’ Heart” like Ray, including its author, Hank Williams. No one ever sang “You Are My Sunshine” like Ray…or “Makin’ Whoopee” (speaking of sex)…or “Ring Of Fire” (and, yeah, that includes Johnny Cash). And you want a righteous National Anthem? One that stirs the soul as well as the patriotism? Forget that awful “Star-Spangled Banner.” Use Ray’s version of “America The Beautiful.” It’ll give you goose bumps. Ray’s so good he can take a song you may have hated for years, like John Denver’s white-bread mush “Take Me Home Country Roads” and make it palatable for the first time. Sure, the hits are all here—“Hit The Road Jack,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Born To Lose,” “Ruby” and “Busted”—but it’s the forgotten gems that make this the one box set I’d most want with me on a desert island.

You want visuals? Ray Charles Live In France 1961 (Eagle Rock Entertainment) has him rockin’ out with his big band (including Hank Crawford and Fathead Newman) and The Raelettes. It’s such a kick to see the 31-year old Ray as filmed at the Antibes Jazz Festival singing “Georgia…” as Fathead blows that flute to make for a totally unique arrangement that you’ve never heard; or hear Ray on the rock ‘n’ roll song “One Mint Julep” or hear Ray threaten to use his rod to beat his woman because, “last night you were dreaming and I heard you say, `oh Johnny,’ when you know my name is Ray!”

Ray Charles is dead? Hardly. I can’t wait for his next album. Concord’s 2010 Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters begs for a second volume of “new” material. And don’t think Ray can’t tour. As recent live touring productions of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson prove, Ray can grace stages too maybe. And I’ll be in the very first row.