Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ray Charles

  • Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music [Rhino, 1962]
  • Sweet & Sour Tears [Rhino, 1964]
  • Doing His Thing [Tangerine, 1969] A
  • Love Country Style [ABC, 1970] B
  • Volcanic Action of My Soul [ABC, 1971] A-
  • A 25th Anniversary in Show Business Salute to Ray Charles [ABC, 1971] A+
  • A Message From the People [ABC/Tangerine, 1972] B+
  • Through the Eyes of Love [ABC/Tangerine, 1972] B
  • Come Live With Me [Crossover, 1974] B
  • Renaissance [Crossover, 1975] B
  • True to Life [Atlantic, 1977] A-
  • Love and Peace [Atlantic, 1978] B-
  • The Early Years [King, 1978]
  • Ain't It So [Atlantic, 1979] B+
  • Brother Ray Is at It Again! [Atlantic, 1980] B+
  • Wish You Were Here Tonight [Columbia, 1983] B
  • The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952-1959 [Atlantic, 1991]
  • My World [Warner Bros., 1993] Dud
  • The Birth of a Legend 1949-1952 [Ebony, 1994]
  • Blues + Jazz [Rhino, 1994]
  • Berlin, 1962 [Pablo, 1996] *
  • Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection [Rhino, 1997] A
  • Ray Charles and Betty Carter/Dedicated to You [Rhino, 1998] **
  • Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986 [Rhino, 1998]
  • Genius Loves Company [Concord/Hear Music, 2004] A-
  • Friendship [Columbia/Legacy, 2005]
  • Genius & Friends [Rhino/Atlantic, 2005] Dud
  • Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters [Concord, 2010] **

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music [Rhino, 1962]
So much more than proof we no longer need that an African-American can sing country music, this CD did nothing less than redefine American pop. Sonically bolder (and schlockier) than, for instance, Owen Bradley's proto-countrypolitan Patsy Cline productions, its massed strings, horns, and choruses broke down the walls between classic Tin Pan Alley and declasse Nashville. In the world it created, not only could a black person sing the American songbook Ella Fitzgerald owned by then, but a country black person could take it over. Soon Charles's downhome diction, cotton-field grit, cornpone humor, and overstated shows of emotion were standard operating procedure in American music black and white. [Rolling Stone]

Sweet & Sour Tears [Rhino, 1964]
Tops among Rhino's ABC reissues is this concept album about crying overseen by Charles's longtime string arrange Sid Feller, who also gave the world the Jackie Gleason makeout albums of the '50s. Clearly, Feller was made for the theme, augmented on this CD by otherwise unavailable bonus cuts that fit right in: "Teardrops in My Heart," "Drown in My Own Tears," even "Tired of My Tears." No need to worry about that last one, folks--he's only kidding. [Rolling Stone]

Doing His Thing [Tangerine, 1969]
It's so easy to forget what a genius he still is. No balladeering here, no Beatle-mongering, nothing but hard-bopping Ray Charles soul. Yeah. A

Love Country Style [ABC, 1970]
As satisfying as Charles's first c&w records were conceptually and vocally, I was always a little turned off by his countrypolitan taste for strings and choruses, and they're still with us--more muted, but also more prosaically arranged, except on the godawful "Good Morning Dear." Still, the first side is pure Charles country--eccentric and sexy, which real country rarely is, and funny as only Charles can be. I wonder what Johnny Cash will make of the almost inaudible lowdown whisper that closes "Ring of Fire." Love it, probably. B

Volcanic Action of My Soul [ABC, 1971]
"Something," "The Long and Winding Road," "Wichita Lineman," "Down in the Valley," and "The Three Bells" on one LP? Would even Jim Reeves have the guff? Yeah, he might, which in his case is unfortunate. 'Cause Jim Reeves wouldn't syncopate that chapel bell. Or chuckle in abject lechery and infatuation on some ASCAP oldie. A-

A 25th Anniversary in Show Business Salute to Ray Charles [ABC, 1971]
In a remarkable show of benevolent corporate cooperation, this devotes one eighteen-song disc to his work with Atlantic, when Charles was inventing soul music, and another to his work with ABC, when he was demonstrating its apparently limitless flexibility. This is the only artist in history who's moved back and forth between jazz and rock and pop without the slightest sense of strain. I find that rock--the soul style he developed, not the Beatles covers--puts useful restraints on his taste, the limitless flexibility of which hasn't always served him well. But I'll sample anything he wants to serve up. A+

A Message From the People [ABC/Tangerine, 1972]
Beginning with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," an anthem sung by black schoolchildren, and climaxing with "America the Beautiful," ditto but with less reason, Charles says his piece. Like the ecologist he is, he extracts all remaining truth from "Abraham, Martin and John," and though he may be naive he adds a menace to "Heaven Help Us All" that Stevie Wonder wasn't genius enough to convey and turns Melanie's "What Have They Done to My Song, Ma" into the outcry of black musicians everywhere--which is probably why it rocks (and swings) like nothing he's done in years. B+

Through the Eyes of Love [ABC/Tangerine, 1972]
He begins by transforming a tearjerker called "My First Night Alone Without You" into tragedy and climaxes by transforming a tearjerker called "Rainy Night in Georgia" into farce. In between he geniuses around. B

Come Live With Me [Crossover, 1974]
The best songs here, one by Ray and one by Jimmy Lewis, warn the ladies about the perils of liberation, while the worst (not counting the McKuen-Brel) are by tyros named Ann Gregory and Sadye Shepard, both of whom work for his publishing company. Feminists please advise. B

Renaissance [Crossover, 1975]
So you thought Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" and Randy Newman's "Sail Away" were definitive, eh? Well, they are, but try these anyway. And then tell me why Little Milton's version of "We're Gonna Make It" cuts Ray's. And how the hell he found a Charles Aznavour song more mawkish than the worst McKuen-Brel. And whether he commissioned the translation himself. B

True to Life [Atlantic, 1977]
Charles hasn't sung with such consistent care in years. Not that he's given up his jocund audacity--two of the best cuts here are a miraculous recasting of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and a Bobby Charles song first recorded by, fancy that, Joe Cocker. But even on the throwaways he seems to remember the difference between goofing and goofing off. The first side is as listenable as any Charles I know, and I've learned to enjoy myself through the schmaltz of "Be My Love" and get to the easy stuff on side two. Now if only he'd let those Beatle ballads be. A-

Love and Peace [Atlantic, 1978]
What a letdown. With covers that range from silly (is that Jack "Riding Thumb," after he hits the road?) to obvious ("We Had It All" is quintessentially Charles country adequately rendered), and with a filler from his publishing subsidiary at a redundant nadir, the same old horn charts and obligatory big productions really begin to grate. Ray doesn't hit his stride until the last five words--one word, really--of the final cut, which is about poor people and addressed to the president: "Can you dig it? Amen." B-

The Early Years [King, 1978]
Probably the best one-disc selection of Ray Charles's infinitely recycled pre-Atlantic output--no one knows for sure because no one has heard them all, most certainly including Charles and his handlers, who most certainly resented and resent the marketing bonanza offered by these casual and quite often forgettable blues-lite tunes, some cut in Seattle before he as 20--which their proprietors apparently rent out to anybody who comes up with a few grand at the right moment. [Rolling Stone]

Ain't It So [Atlantic, 1979]
Pro forma Charles here--jazzed-up Berlin and Mercer-Allen, schlocked-up "Just Because," uninspired Manilow and McDill, original Jimmy Lewis, "Drift Away" (eat your heart out, Dobie), and "Some Enchanted Evening" (eat your hear out, Ezio). In other words, a pretty damn good record. B+

Brother Ray Is at It Again! [Atlantic, 1980]
Accurate title, Ray! And an up-and-at-it first side! "Ophelia" is a great Robbie Robertson cover, too! Somebody buy this man a copy of The Band! B+

Wish You Were Here Tonight [Columbia, 1983]
Two decades ago, on Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Charles transfigured pop, prefigured soul, and defined modern country & western music. This return to a symbolic Nashville (recorded in his own L.A. studio, natch, though unlike 1970's Love Country Style it leans more heavily on banjo-mandolin-steel than on Sid Feller's strings) celebrates his latest contract with yet another rehash of his jokey, deeply felt shtick. Not that it can't be great shtick. But he's always better off grabbing other people's classics than trying to create new ones from scratch, and I bet he's got publishing on three or four of the songs you never heard of. B

The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952-1959 [Atlantic, 1991]
Although Charles's fabled blues-gospel synthesis is on display from "I Got a Woman" to "I Believe to My Soul," "birth of soul" gets the emphasis wrong. Seldom conventionally catchy, never teen-oriented, this collection epitomizes a world-historic catchall of a genre that Charles could only describe as "genuine down-to-earth Negro music"--namely, rhythm and blues. Crack bands, first Atlantic's and then his own, underpin his rich, gravelly vocals with hard-hitting grooves of deceptive rhythmic and harmonic complexity. Halfway in, a female backup group soon to be known as the Raeletts starts shoring his male voice up and egging it on, an innovation that became a cliche so fast people think it was always there. [Rolling Stone]

My World [Warner Bros., 1993] Dud

The Birth of a Legend 1949-1952 [Ebony, 1994]
If you crave Ray Charles's early sides, the blues scholar in you will only achieve full satisfaction with this neat, complete double-CD. The piano pleases, the singing develops, and the songwriting tops out with the jocose "Kissa Me Baby." Soon he'll flower. But Nat King Cole and Charles Brown worked the same lounge-trio vein with far more flair. [Rolling Stone]

Blues + Jazz [Rhino, 1994]
Jazz chops helped define Charles's singular pop identity, and he both articulated and stimulated an appetite for "soul jazz." He was a tastier soloist than such vamp merchants as Les McCann. But a pantheon jazzman he was not, and only vibraphone connoisseurs will savor all of his renowned Milt Jackson collaborations (available in toto on Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting). Highlighting combo interactions far from the big-band bombast of its dreadful opposite number, Genius + Soul = Jazz/My Kind of Jazz, the artfully configured jazz disc here includes sessions led by Charles's longtime saxophonist Fathead Newman, who did more with his jazz concept than its inventor. Charles even plays alto sax on a few cuts--damn well, for a few cuts. Redundant or not, the blues disc goes down just as smooth, epitomizing a perfect mix of downhome and citified the way the jazz one does a perfect mix of unintellectual and uncorny. Throw up your hands and buy a bunch of songs twice (or thrice). [Rolling Stone]

Berlin, 1962 [Pablo, 1996]
first live recording with his big band, which gets in the way ("Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Bye Bye Love") *

Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection [Rhino, 1997]
Although I admit that if he was still alive I still wouldn't have gotten through this five-disc behemoth, on my shelves since 1997, the selected schlock at the end is as powerful as the seminal G-word at the beginning, and the size of the thing suits him. Of course it overlaps unconscionably with the classic Birth of Soul box, which does the same with the pretty damn good Blues + Jazz double. That's the way Ray planned it. Buy this in remembrance of him. A

Ray Charles and Betty Carter/Dedicated to You [Rhino, 1998]
12 Ella & Louis bids with Betty, 12 songs to women whose names he's long since forgotten ("Baby, It's Cold Outside," "Takes Two To Tango"). **

Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986 [Rhino, 1998]
The two Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music albums--volume one magnificent, volume two patchier--occupy disc one of this four-CD set. The remainder comprises desirables from the Atlantic Hank Snow cover "I'm Movin' On" to the Columbia George Jones collab "We Didn't See a Thing"; dubious follow-up country LPs; left-field covers and songwriter paybacks that better suit their original albums when they connect at all; and uneven (not to mention, for shame given the title boast, incomplete) product from Charles's Nashville foray on Columbia in the '80s. But inevitably, the box also features magnificent obscurities: bluesified "Ring of Fire," George Jones-worthy "A Girl I Used to Know," hee-hawing "3/4 Time," now available for your own cherry-picking pleasure. [Rolling Stone]

Genius Loves Company [Concord/Hear Music, 2004]
Accepting help is a great virtue in the dying, and Charles goes out like a lion by surrendering control. The duet partners mean less than the producers--Concord's John Burk augmented by Billy Joel hand Phil Ramone. Their good taste can't stifle Charles, but it can protect him from his own weaknesses, which ever since he got into publishing have included songwriters who owe him points. Instead Charles picks songs for posterity, and even James Taylor's "Sweet Potato Pie" sounds like a standard. But it's crucial that Taylor eases the master's vocal burden, as do Van Morrison, Gladys Knight, and Bonnie Raitt--and Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Natalie Cole, who's a good half of why this "Fever" is up near Peggy Lee's and Little Willie John's. Elton John and Michael McDonald, on the other hand, end up where Charles often did in his fifties, so set on proving their physical prowess that meaning gets away from them. And Willie Nelson reminds us that past a certain age even the shrewdest singer can't cut it on the wrong day. This is why it's good Charles owned the studio. He got do-overs, and he took them. A-

Friendship [Columbia/Legacy, 2005]
This duet album is where Ricky Skaggs and Hank Williams Jr. attain glories beyond the reach of Janie Fricke and the Oak Ridge Boys but almost everybody at least believes there's an occasion to rise to. [Blender: 3]

Genius & Friends [Rhino/Atlantic, 2005] Dud

Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters [Concord, 2010]
Genius is rare even when it misfires, as with Ray it oft did, but the taste to make it glow a little is always for sale ("Why Me, Lord?" "It Hurts to Be in Love") **

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: His abortive South African tour in 1981 defined the public outcry of both American and South African blacks, and he's been on the U.N. register ever since, which isn't as much of a loss as you'd think or maybe hope. For a long time now, the Genius has sounded best singing other people's songs or, better still, guesting on other people's records. He's a headstrong man who does as he pleases, so I'm sure it's just coincidence that his only strong album of the decade preceded the boycott: 1980's Brother Ray Is at It Again.. Since signing to Columbia in 1983, he's pursued the country market. That's just coincidence, too, right? So was entertaining at the 1984 Republican convention. And getting that Kennedy medallion from Reagan in 1986.

See Also