Ray Charles’ previous album on this list, The Genius of Ray Charles, was really just a warmup. This is Ray at his peak. Every track is passionate, soulful, and moving, even the fast and upbeat ones. This record is pure innovation at its finest. It’s just bounding with creativity, and each of the twelve tracks on display here are Ray Charles at the absolute pinnacle of his artistic abilities. He takes classic country songs that you would never think would be compatible with his R&B/Big Band style and makes them work beautifully, making the old standards feel new and exciting while retaining the emotion of the original. It’s a perfect fusion of the old and the new, and it holds up marvelously even today.
It was certainly a radical creative decision. His current audience would be averse to the country, and the country crowd would be averse to the jazz/R&B. It seemed, to the record executives at least, to be career suicide. But somehow, against all odds, he pulled it off. It wasn’t chance either. Ray Charles’ genius as a musician turned the album that would never be a success into a cultural phenomenon, winning over the critics, the public, and even his own fans in one fell swoop. Listening to it, his mastery of the artform is impossible to deny. Each and every lyric is sung with emotion and passion so strong you can feel it in your chest, and the arrangements that back his vocals are masterful, perfectly complimenting the lyrics with soul-melting harmony. Most of the album is slow balladry, but the one or two fast big band tunes are exciting as anything on The Genius of Ray Charles. No matter what kind of song it is, Ray just seems to know exactly what to do to make it perfect.
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The album’s first track, “Bye Bye Love,” doesn’t pull any punches. It’s explosive, energetic, and so catchy it should be considered a cognitohazard. That said, at the same time it’s bizarrely sad. The lyrics, like the majority of the album, are a pretty depressing tale of lost love, and despite being completely at odds with the tone of the music, it weirdly works. The backup singers will stick in your head for days, and the percussion drives the song along excellently.The next track, “You Don’t Know Me,” is my personal favorite song off the album. Here, Ray trades out the brass band for a string section, and goes full on depressing string ballad with lyrics about unrequited love and isolation. The chords and harmonies are haunting, and Ray’s vocals are just painfully sad and mournful. He sure does know exactly what to do to pull at your heartstrings in a moment, and he doesn’t hold back. The rest of the album keeps up the standard set by the first two tracks, and even though most of the lyrics deal with the same topic, it still feels fresh throughout. He may not have written the lyrics, but the way he performs them with every inch of his soul, he might as well have. The final track, “Hey Good Lookin’,” ends the album on a more uplifting note, dropping the doom and gloom and leaving the record on a happy, upbeat big band tune that’s a welcome shift from the rest of the record, and does a great job of helping your mood recover before it closes.
This album is indispensable. Not only did it help bridge barriers in a time of severe racial tension, but it also broke down the barrier between genres for future style experimenters, all while simply giving the world an excellent album to enjoy. It’s without a doubt Ray Charles’ greatest achievement, and anyone interested in his music should give this record a listen.
Favorite Tracks: “You Don’t Know Me,” “Bye Bye Love,” “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” “Hey Good Lookin'”
Next Up: Green Onions by Booker T. and The M.G.s (1962)