Ray Charles, The Essential Collection

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
The genius, in a crooning mood.

Talk about your daunting tasks: how would you like to try distilling the essential Ray Charles into one disk? This one, while credible, is undercut by the inclusion of too many of Ray's 1949-52 Swingtime/Downbeat sides. He started there as the singer-pianist in a trio slavishly patterned on Nat King Cole's cocktail jazz, with a little more of Charles Brown's velvety vocal sheen ("This Love of Mine"), and ended it fronting a crack eight-piece R&B band ("Kissa Me Baby"). That phase &#8212 which could easily be covered in three or four sides &#8212 consumes half the 20 tracks here, while still ignoring his minor R&B hits. The watershed Atlantic years are aptly represented with Ray's churning version of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin 'On" (his first country song), his invention of soul music out of gospel and blues with the cataclysmic "I Got a Woman" (his first R&B chart-topper) and his initial Top Ten crossover with the Latin-inflected, call-and-response carnality of "What'd I Say." His longing "Georgia on My Mind" speaks for the rest of his career, when he became the definitive American songmaster; if musicians were allowed on Mount Rushmore, Brother Ray would be the first to go up there.