Ray Charles was born into a poor family on September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia, though he was raised in Florida. Completely blind by the age of seven, Charles attended the Saint Augustine School of the Blind and Deaf where he began to study piano, saxophone, and clarinet. When he was only fifteen his mother died (followed two years later by his father) and Charles began working as a traveling musician throughout Florida, and later Washington state.

His life was quite difficult though. Ray was born at the very beginning of the Great Depression — a depression that affected every civilized country in the world. Ray was born in 1930 in Albany, Georgia, and at that time another Georgia native by the name of Hoagy Carmichael was already making his mark on the world. In 1930, the year of Ray’s birth, Hoagy recorded a song entitled “Stardust” that became an all-time classic and remains so to this day.

It’s ironic that these two Georgia natives would someday cross paths again, as they did 30 years later when Ray Charles was asked by the State of Georgia to perform (in the Georgia Legislative Chambers) the song they had selected as their state song. That song was Ray’s version of “Georgia,” written by Hoagy Carmichael. Hoagy, who unfortunately was too ill to attend the event, was listening via telephone/satellite tie-up.

Ray’s mother and father, Aretha and Bailey, were “no-nonsense” parents. Even after Ray lost his sight, his mother continued to give him chores at home, in the rural area which they lived in, such as chopping wood for the wood burning stove in the kitchen in order to prepare their meals. Chores such as these often brought complaints from the neighbors, which were met with stern words from Mrs. Robinson.

She told them her son was blind, not stupid, and he must continue to learn to do things, not only for himself, but for others as well. Unfortunately, Ray lost the guidance of his mother and the counseling of his father at a very young age. At 15 years old, Ray Charles was an orphan, but he still managed to make his way in this world under very trying conditions; living in the South and being of African-American heritage, plus being blind and an orphan.

His biggest hit on the Hot 100 is “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which spent five weeks at No. 1 in 1962. It also ranks as Charles’ top single on this exclusive recap of his biggest Hot 100 hits. His other two Hot 100 songs, “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind” ranked at # 2 and 4 on the recap, respectively.

Let’s see his top six albums:

6. The Genius Hits The Road

As a transitional record, The Genius Hits the Road built upon the success of the landmark album The Genius of Ray Charles (hence the modified title) and was a Top 10 hit, charting for 50 weeks. Having left Atlantic Records when offered a lucrative financial opportunity and creative freedom, Brother Ray immediately paid dividends at his new home, ABC/Dunhill.

His relationship with that in-house producer (Sid Feller) turned out to be the start of a longtime partnership, and one of the songs cut on the second day just blew Ray Charles’ career wide open. The inspiration for “Georgia on My Mind” was a girl, not from the southern state, but thankfully the theme of songs were loosely enforced by destinations.

Stuart Gorrell wrote the lyrics about Hoagy Carmichael’s sister, and Ray’s version of their collaborative effort proved to be an absolute masterpiece. “Georgia” brought Ray Charles his first number one on the Pop charts, and it is still among the most revered pop songs of all time almost 50 years later. (Ironically, Georgia would adopt it as their official state song in 1979.)

5. Live In Concert

A couple of bouncing instrumental tracks open the album, “Swing a Little Bounce” and “One Mint Julep”, and midway through the second, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether Ray is actually going to, y’know, sing on this record. But then he rips it into a six-minute version of “I’ve Got a Woman”, and all is forgiven.

Soulful and syrupy, with just enough grit to make it go down a little rough, Charles’s voice manages to be simultaneously sweet and licentious, tender and wry. It’s at this point that the show really fires up. “Georgia On My Mind” follows, its seven and a half minutes punctuated by chirping flute and the outbursts of the audience. For many other performers, these two songs would be the culmination of the concert, not the beginning.

But Charles’s repertoire runs deep, and he treats his audience to a string of superb tunes, superbly performed: “You Don’t Know Me”, “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”, “Baby, Don’t You Cry” and an extended, six-minute rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee”.

4. The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Recordings

Soul music is a blend of the holy and the filthy: gospel and blues rubbing up against each other. And Ray Charles was just about the first person to perfect that mix. Charles was knocking around Seattle when Atlantic bought out his contract in 1952. For the next seven years, he turned out brilliant singles such as “What’d I Say” and “I Got a Woman,” which was a takeoff on a gospel tune, “It Must Be Jesus”.

He was inventing the sound of ecstasy, three minutes at a time. This box collects every R&B side he cut for Atlantic, though his swinging take on “My Bonnie” will have you thinking it covers his Atlantic jazz output as well.

3. The Genius Sings The Blues

The whole affair kicks off with Charles’ take on Louis Jordan’s “Early in the Mornin’”, with other covers including Sam Sweet’s “The Midnight Hour”, Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones’s “Feelin’ Sad”, Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”, and “(Night Time Is) The Right Time”, a song which, despite having been originally recorded by Roosevelt Sykes way back in 1937, quickly became one of Charles’s signature songs.

The original material has its merits as well, including such tracks as “Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I)”, “Ray’s Blues” and the companion piece “Mr. Charles’ Blues”, “I Believe to My Soul”, “Nobody Cares”, “Some Day Baby”, and “I Wonder Who”.

The material literally spans the entire length of Charles’s career with Atlantic, with “The Midnight Hour” having been recorded during his first session for the label and “I Believe to My Soul” having been recorded during his final session, but it’s all strong stuff.

2. Genius Loves Company

Like Johnny Cash, Ray Charles was a tough old man who kept making music right up to the end, probably because everybody was too scared to tell him to knock it off. When he died in June, he was readying Genius Loves Company, his version of Frank Sinatra‘s Duets, featuring pop stars such as James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John and Norah Jones.

The tone is reverential and warm, as the Genius sings “It Was a Very Good Year” with Willie Nelson, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with Johnny Mathis and “Fever” with Natalie Cole. B.B. King, the one guest who can approach Charles as a peer, pushes him to play a little blues piano. But the best moment is the live “Crazy Love”: Van Morrison and Charles sing together in real time, two grizzled cats trying to top each other, competitive yet completely in tune.

1. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Country music has its fair share of purists—those who believe the genre should be hermetically sealed, lest its essence be tainted by elements of other styles. And for almost a half-decade, those folks have been forced to contend with the artistic triumph of Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.

In 1962, flush with confidence after the success of his explorations of blues and gospel, the “Genius of Soul” recast 12 country favorites in big-band and orchestrated settings with a visionary’s easy grace. This new reissue pairs the original Modern Sounds album with its follow-up, which was recorded only seven months later and replicated the original’s approach and its success.

The two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music represent an implicit argument against borders both musical and social, but this is no antiquated museum piece—Ray gets to the heart of each of these 24 songs in a way that remains thoroughly modern.

Thank you for reading this article. The next one will be about Eric Clapton.

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