Ray Charles was only on Atlantic Records for five years, kicking off his career with the label in 1957 and wrapping things up with them in 1961, but during the course of that time, he released nine albums of his own, along with two collaborative albums with Milt Jackson. You probably know the biggest of Charles’s hits from the era, but we’re taking a look back and providing you with a sampler of the entire era, with one track per LP.
“I’ve Got a Woman” (from Ray Charles, 1957): Generally the first song to be described as “soul,” it’s a tune that was constructed after Charles listened to The Southern Tones’ “It Must Be Jesus” on the radio. With the assistance of his trumpeter, Renald Richard, Charles took a jazz-inspired background, paced it with the frenzy of a truly fired-up gospel song, and penned some secular lyrics. Produced by Jerry Wexler, the track was recorded in the Atlanta studios of radio station WGST, and it proved to be Charles’s big breakthrough.
“Sweet Sixteen Bars” (from The Great Ray Charles, 1957): Written by Charles and produced by Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegün, this instrumental track is as sweet as its title implies, providing some of the best and bluesiest background music imaginable. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself swaying while you’re listening. It’s just that kind of tune.
“The Genius After Hours” (with Milt Jackson; from Soul Brothers, 1958): Taken from an album recorded by Charles with Milt Jackson, it’s a collaboration which came about after Charles happened upon Tom Dowd in the midst of mastering an album by the Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the members of which was - wait for it - the aforementioned Mr. Jackson. Charles informed Dowd, “That Milt Jackson’s got soul,” while Jackson had been telling Ertegun, “No more of this MJQ Mozart Society shit. I’m gonna play the blues with Ray.” And so he did, both on this album and on 1961’s Soul Meeting.
“Lonely Avenue” (from Yes Indeed!, 1958): A Doc Pomus classic, this song’s history is certainly not limited to Charles’s top-shelf recording. You can find versions out there by everyone from Joe Cocker to Jimi Hendrix to Los Lobos to Diana Krall.
“The Right Time” (from Ray Charles at Newport, 1958): This song had a revival in the ‘80s as a result of being lip-synched on an episode of The Cosby Show, and it was actually first made famous by a gentleman by the name of Nappy Brown, but Charles transformed the tune by upping the tempo and replacing the gospel singers with female backup vocalists. The result turned it into an R&B classic.
“What’d I Say, Pt. 1 & 2” (from What'd I Say, 1959): The greatest thing about this iconic tune is that it was effectively improvised at the end of one of Charles’s shows. Stuck with 15 minutes to spare and knowing that if they didn’t play something, the owner of the hall could tell them they didn’t fulfill their contract and stiff their fee, this - per Charles’ interview with David Letterman - was what Brother Ray did: “I said to the guys, ‘Hey, whatever I do, just follow me. And I said the same thing to the girls: I said, ‘Whatever I say, just repeat it, I don’t care what it is.’” And with that, he started playing the famous bass riff on his Wurlitzer, the band followed along, and - voila! - a song was born.
“It Had to Be You” (from The Genius of Ray Charles, 1959): From the first album to find Charles actively trying to break away from the R&B style that had made him a star, this song is a standard, of course, but what’s particularly notable about the track is that the string arrangement was done by Quincy Jones, who’d been friends with Charles since the twosome were both in their mid-teens.
“Tell the Truth” (from Ray Charles in Person, 1960): Recorded on May 28, 1959 at Morris Brown College’s Herndon Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, you can thank local radio station WAOK for the fact that the recording of this song or any other from this performance exist at all, as it was one of their DJs - Zenas “Daddy” Sears - who stood in the audience with a microphone and recorded the show.
“I Believe to My Soul” (from The Genius Sings the Blues, 1961): This tune was actually recorded during Charles’s final session for Atlantic, and one might reasonably argue that he saved the best for last: AllAboutJazz.com describes it as “three minutes of voodoo, a chillingly spectral reading including the Raelettes and with Charles on organ rather than piano.”
“Love on My Mind” (with Milt Jackson; from Soul Meeting, 1961): As mentioned earlier, this is from Charles’s collaboration with Milt Jackson, and it’s just as good as the one from the previous LP. What more do we need to say?
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from The Genius After Hours, 1961): Everything on this album was recorded during the same studio sessions that led to The Great Ray Charles, which gives you an idea of how prolific Charles could be when he was in the studio. The song itself, you may not realize, was originally written for the Broadway musical Connie’s Hot Chocolates. Fine though the musical may be, it’s clear that the song’s legacy has far overshadowed its original source material.