march 2012

Brother Ray: Let us count the ways we miss him… (Image available at Home Theater Backdrops)

Singular Revelations

By David McGee

Ray Charles
Concord Records

Five discs, 106 songs, the A and B sides of 53 singles; eleven chart topping songs; multiple Grammy winners, attractively packaged and succinctly but thoroughly annotated by the redoubtable Billy Vera. Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles ranks with the finest box sets ever released, not only for its thoroughness but, more important, for the portrait it offers in one place of one of the great artists in American history creating, evolving and challenging himself based solely on his belief that good music, however it was presented on disc, would meet public approval. As great as his Atlantic recordings were, what Ray Charles did after accepting a too-good-to-refuse offer from ABC-Paramount in 1960 was even more stunning. And though he cut plenty of stellar albums during his ABC years (Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, anyone? How about the wonderful Genius + Soul=Jazz?), Charles’s singles arguably best reveal the essence of the artist, given that the music business was still singles oriented and each new 45 was like a new calling card from the artist to the fans, a re-introduction if you will, a test of whether the people would follow an artist down a given path, especially if it was leading to some new destination.

Ray Charles, ‘You Don’t Know Me,’ a live version of the single included in Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles

Even someone such as yours truly, who grew up with Ray Charles’s music on the radio, cannot help but be struck by the sheer honesty of Brother Ray’s singles releases when listening to them in the mostly chronological order as presented on the quintet of discs herein. As opposed to following any pop trends of the time, these singles stand out for demanding to be judged on their own terms, as musical performances. You cannot listen and hear the slightest bit of pandering to a trend; in fact, some of these singles were so surprising at the time of their release that they were practically trends unto themselves--the latest trends in Ray Charles music, that is. Although the arrival of the Beatles and the British Invasion pushed Ray (among many others of his generation) off the pop charts, your only clue as to the arrival of such cataclysmic change comes not in an altered approach on Ray’s part, but in something such as his gritty, blues-drenched reading (complete with a shouted “but wait minute!” aside after he sings “why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say…”) of “Yesterday,” a recording on which he thoroughly remakes the original while employing an orchestral arrangement as a touchstone from the Beatles’ recording. But his arrangement--by Sid Feller, of course--breaks out of its funereal, teary mood near the end with an aggressive punch of brass before the strings return to calm things down ahead of Ray’s gospel piano sign-off. In contrast to Sir Paul’s sweet-voiced vocal, Ray’s is weather-beaten, earthy, gritty, the deepest shade of blue. Released in 1967, “Yesterday” was followed a year later by “Eleanor Rigby,” in a version as dramatic and eerie as the Beatles’, but hard-edged, pounding, percussive (Earl Palmer is on drums, Carole Kaye on bass) with Sid Feller’s dark-hued strings mixed low and ominous, like a voice crying far in the distance. Ray’s vocal isn’t crying in the distance, though--he’s out front, assertive, taking it all very personally (when he gets to the Father McKenzie section, in addition to voicing the Father’s “all the lonely people” with a slight cry in his tone, he tells us “the man looked at me and he said…’all the lonely people, where do they all belong?’”) Getting a little help from his friends, Ray is backed by the keening Greek chorus of Raeletts, whose membership now included, in addition to veteran Gwen Berry, and Alex Brown, no less than Merry Clayton and Clydie King. On the other hand, he sneaks in an acknowledgment of the changes in black popular music in something such as “I’m Satisfied,” an Ashford and Simpson tune treated with a kind Stax/Motown amalgam in its horn chart and especially in Raelett Susaye Green’s airy, pop-style vocal, even though at the end it’s still a purely Ray Charles tune.

From the Great American Songbook, as represented on Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles, Ray Charles and the Raeletts perform the Carl Sigman-Percy Faith classic, ‘ My Heart Cries For You'

Otherwise the set provides ample evidence of Ray’s love for the Great American Songbook. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” got that ball rolling in 1960 but several lesser known gems stand out for the beauty of their arrangements and Ray’s treatment--his warm, controlled reading of “My Heart Cries for You,” a lovely weeper by Carl Sigman and Percy Faith, and his more bluesy but deliberate reading of “A Tear Fell,” both recorded in the same session in 1964. Another of his 1964 singles was a double-sided live version of the Walter Donaldson-Gus Kahn chestnut, “Makin’ Whoopee,” taken at a slow, suggestive pace, Ray singing low and sensuous, investing the title phrase with a generous amount of salaciousness that the audience happens to love. However impossible it is to measure these things, Ray’s sumptuous 1969 treatment of the Gershwins’ “Someone To Watch Over Me” rivals the beauty of “George On My Mind,” in Sid Feller’s understated string arrangement and in the tender, searching quality of Ray’s singing, with an uncredited guitarist adding a beauty of a hollow-body electric solo as a closing grace note.

Ray Charles, ‘Yesterday, live (1969). the 1968 single version featured on Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles.

Percy Mayfield, “The Poet of the Blues,” the first artist Ray signed to his own Tangerine label, had of course given Ray one of his classics, “Hit the Road, Jack.” Disc One contains no less than five Mayfield tunes--including “Hit the Road, Jack,” but also two tough blues, “The Danger Zone” and the sexy “But On the Other Hand, Baby,” a co-write with Ray--and Disc Two offers two more: the frisky workout “My Baby Don’t Dig Me” and a foreboding blues worthy of Mayfield’s classic “Please Send Me Someone To Love” in “Something’s Wrong,” minus the social context but adding a touch of wry humor amidst the singer’s misery. Extolled in Billy Vera’s liner notes as “the greatest songwriter in the history of the blues,” Mayfield never received his just due in his lifetime, but Ray, his greatest interpreter, made sure he wasn’t forgotten and is the reason Vera’s claim is not altogether hyperbolic.

Ray Charles, ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ live on The Dick Cavett Show, September 18, 1972, with Raeletts Vernita Moss, Susaye Green, Mable John, Dorothy Berry and Estella Yarbrough. The 1968 single version is on Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles.

Last but certainly not least, we hear the beginning and the flowering of Ray’s lifelong embrace of country music. The two volumes of Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” were only the beginning. In fact, the country strain in Ray’s music is almost as pronounced as the R&B here. Some, such as the Marty Paich-arranged numbers (“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Born to Lose,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” the haunting “You Don’t Know Me,” et al.) are a spin on the pop-oriented countrypolitan sound; others offer tantalizing blends of blues and country, notably a moody reading of the Louvin Brothers’ intense “When I Stop Dreaming,” with strings, chorus, a soft, interior vocal by Ray and a background chorus sounding like a church choir. Other country tunes are tougher-minded, in the spirit of the originals, with that unique Ray phrasing and rhythmic thrust, as illustrated by his takes on Buck Owens’s Bakersfield Sound in “Crying Time” and “Together Again,” and in his 1965 run at Ted Daffan’s “I’m A Fool to Care” with guitarist René Hall and drummer Earl Palmer. And no one has done John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” with quite the funky lope, and growling, gospel call-and-response backing as Ray employed in his 1973 version, any more than anyone has approached his 1970 take on “Ring of Fire” as a lowdown, smoldering blues with some pungent blues guitar interjections and Ray practically performing an interior monologue between verses in adding what amounts to marginalia to the track.

From Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles, ‘Something’s Wrong,’ written by Percy Mayfield

As comprehensive as this review seems, I’m uncertain as to whether it fully describes the rich content and telling subtext of the box set in question. Take this much away from it: though Ray Charles has been reissued and anthologized in many forms, Singular Genius tells an essential story the albums alone do not reveal. It tells us everything about Ray’s belief in the power of music of any style, from any era, performed with conviction and feeling, to speak a universal language. He proved it by being successful with it in the public arena. You never knew what Ray was going to do next, but you knew it was going to be different, even daring. Let me count the ways we miss Brother Ray…

Ray Charles’s Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024