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Best Ray Charles Songs: 20 Timeless Classics From The Genius Of Soul
© Roger Tillberg / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best Ray Charles Songs: 20 Timeless Classics From The Genius Of Soul

Sitting at the crossroads between jazz, R&B, gospel and country music, the best Ray Charles songs invented soul music as we know it.

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Ray Charles Robinson, known to the world as Ray Charles, was born in Albany, Georgia, on 23 September 1930, and learned to play piano at an age when most kids were in infant school. It’s just as well he did, as his eyesight faded to complete blindness by the time he was seven years old. Charles’ mother found him a school willing to take a poor, blind Black kid, and while there, he learned to play classical piano alongside the blues and jazz he could already deliver. As an aspiring teenage professional musician in Seattle, Los Angeles and Miami, Charles styled his work after the silky early jazz recordings of Nat King Cole, but it was with R&B that he broke through to the charts, with singles released on several small labels, edging towards the formula that would result in the best Ray Charles songs.

Charles signed to Atlantic Records in 1952, and steadily established himself as the sort of artist who was at the cutting edge, recording R&B that was more like the soul music that hadn’t been invented yet; cutting blues like it was jazz and even soul that was country. Tagged “The Genius”, Brother Ray became a giant of the pop charts, boss of the Black charts, and a lasting legend. While his chart status faded somewhat in the mid-to-late 60s and he struggled with narcotic addiction, he remained an artistic force on stage and on record, and ran his own record labels. His remarkable life was made into a Hollywood movie, Ray, in 2004, the year he passed away.

Here are just 20 of his fantastic records, mostly cut in the 50s and at the start of the 60s, which remind us of what this brilliant man gave to us all.

Listen to the best of Ray Charles’ Atlantic years here, and check out our best Ray Charles songs, below.

20: I Got A Woman (single A-side, 1954)

Released in 1954, I Got A Woman (aka I’ve Got A Woman) remains contemporary. It’s been covered by everyone from Elvis to The Beatles to Dire Straits, used as the basis for Kanye West’s Gold Digger, and is so relevant to modern ears that it was “borrowed” for a “disco edit” bootleg a few years ago. One of the building blocks of soul music, it stands as one of the best Ray Charles songs of all time, and finds the singer roaring the praises of a woman over a melody and backing that was straight out of gospel music (he took some of the melody from The Southern Tones’ It Must Be Jesus). Why was the woman he spoke of from way over town? Was this a hint of love between different races, utterly taboo in 50s America? Ray was always a pioneer…

19: Mary Ann (single A-side, 1956)

Here’s a song with undercurrents that appear not to be true. There are lots of songs about the mysterious Mary Ann – a code word for marijuana. Ray was no stranger to the pleasures and perils of narcotics, but this gem was said to be about Mary Ann Fisher, Ray’s lover, who was one of his backing vocalists, The Raelettes. Mary Ann’s mix of Latin, rhythm’n’blues and jazz gave Ray his first R&B chart No.1 in 1956.

18: Let The Good Times Roll (single A-side, 1960)

Originally a hit for Louis Jordan in the 40s, the song is so famous that it seems like a cliché – until you hear Ray’s electrifying vocals, which make him sound more alive than the rest of the world in 1960. The equally energised sax solo is courtesy of David “Fathead” Newman, who spent years as a featured player in Ray’s band as well as cutting numerous wonderful records for Atlantic in his own right.

17: Mess Around (single A-side, 1953)

Written by Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun, but with origins that date back a century, Mess Around is a rollicking, boogie-driven groover that marked Ray’s first big success for the label, reaching No.3 in the R&B chart. What, no pop hit? Absolutely not: how could a Black artist singing about “messing around” ever get airplay on the pop stations of 1953? It still thrills as one of the best Ray Charles songs, with The Genius sounding engaged and utterly alive.

16: I Can See Clearly Now (from ‘True To Life’, 1977)

A brilliant, grooving soul version of the Johnny Nash hit, from the album that marked Ray’s return to Atlantic Records in 1977, the aptly-named True To Life (Ray always kept it real). Though perhaps not to be taken literally, Charles’ convincing vocal could make you forget this wonderful artist was blind.

15: Rockhouse (Parts 1 And 2) (from ‘What’d I Say’, 1959)

Issued as a two-part single spread over both sides of record (a format James Brown would soon adopt), Rockhouse was a deceptively simple R&B piano instrumental – deceptive because the horn stabs aren’t just on the first beat of the bar; every second one is on the half note of the fourth bar, giving the tune a jagged, jazzy quality. Simultaneously cool and edgy, this was a fair-sized hit in 1958. Twenty-eight years later, vocalese quartet Manhattan Transfer released Ray’s Rockhouse, with which they paid tribute to this entry among the best Ray Charles songs.

14: Hallelujah I Love Her So (single A-side, 1956)

Ray reprises the feeling of I Got A Woman in this celebration of another female from 1956 – only this time she lives next door, not across town. Note the use of “hallelujah” – another case of gospel material feeding Ray’s needs.

13: I’m Movin’ On (from ‘The Genius Sings The Blues’, 1959)

Ray Charles is noted for being a Black artist who also recorded country music, and 1959’s I’m Moving On was an early example of this, with the singer adding a cool Latin feel to his version. The song, however, was pioneering in its own way, as it was a blues written and recorded by a country singer, Hank Snow, and it became Snow’s most-covered song. Did anybody do it better than Ray?

12: Drown In My Own Tears (single A-side, 1956)

Penned by Henry Glover, one of the first Black backroom figures to wield real power in the music industry, Down In My Own Tears was a massive R&B hit for Ray in 1956. By now it was clear that Ray was a giant of Black music: Atlantic Records’ job from this point on was to find a way to make him a pop star, too.

11: (Night Time Is) The Right Time (from ‘The Genius Sings The Blues’, 1958)

“Night time is the right time” is a sentiment that had been in the blues since the 30s in various incarnations. Nappy Brown adapted the title into this song and cut a fine version of it in 1957, and Ray saw its potential and cut his own gutsy version of it to Brown’s template. Ray’s version was recorded with a bigger band, and the searing voice of Margie Hendrix, of The Raelettes, soulfully confirmed the song’s message. Not a big pop hit – it was considered too suggestive for the white audiences of 1958 – (Night Time Is) The Right Time was a big R&B hit, and attracted covers from James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. None of them quite conjure the hot nocturnal urgency of this version, which more than earns its place among the best Ray Charles songs.

10: Hit The Road Jack (single A-side, 1961)

And don’t you come back no more no more… With its relentless descending chords and Ray’s shocked, despairing singing, Percy Mayfield’s song became something of an anthem of 1961 and a US No.1. Ray sounds like he knew what rejection was all about, and his version remains definitive, despite numerous remakes by other artists.

9: Get On The Right Track Baby (from ‘Yes Indeed!!’, 1958)

A lyrical twist renders this brassy tune more intriguing than it might have been: Ray wants his woman to come home – to do him wrong again. It takes all sorts. One of the best Ray Charles songs of the late 50s, it was released as a B-side but should have been a hit.

8: Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin’ (from ‘The Genius Of Ray Charles’, 1959)

Not the Gerry And The Pacemakers hit, but every bit as elegant. Written by Joe Greene and first recorded by Louis Jordan, Ray cut this beautifully tender version in 1959, his warm voice accompanied by his gentle, jazzy piano parts. A modest hit when it was released in 1960, Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin’ should have been far bigger.

7: A Fool For You (single A-side, 1955)

Ray cut so many brilliant records in the 50s, it’s not surprising the emotional power of a performance such as 1955’s A Fool For You has been somewhat overlooked. Easily holding its own among the best Ray Charles songs, Ray wrote it, recorded it in a bluesy style that pointed towards soul, and his fans lapped it up: without touching the pop chart, it went to No.1 on the US R&B charts. It’s not hard to hear why.

6: Give The Poor Man A Break (from ‘Love And Peace’, 1978)

Though Ray’s chart status fell as the 60s wore on, once a genius, always a genius: he was perfectly capable of making amazing records throughout his lengthy career. Ray returned to Atlantic Records in 1977, after 17 years spent elsewhere, and his second album during this spell, Love & Peace, was contemporary, witty and smart. Give The Poor Man A Break was composed by the brilliant Jimmy Lewis, a singer-songwriter who helped keep Ray in superb material for years, and Ray delighted in delivering the song’s highly pointed lyric. Fatboy Slim sampled it on his record of a similar title, but Ray’s cut can’t be beat.

5: Just For A Thrill (from ‘The Genius Of Ray Charles’, 1959)

Ray meets a full string orchestra and backing on a 1959 recording which works perfectly. His voice is the reason why: always honest, gritty and deeply human, it keeps everything honest and deeply real.

4: Yes Indeed!! (from ‘Yes Indeed!!’, 1958)

Ray and female vocal group The Cookies take us to church on this stirring 1958 version of Sy Oliver’s antique swing-era nugget. Renamed The Raelettes, The Cookies would go on to become Ray’s backing singers; when you hear this, you understand why. Somehow, this mighty record evaded the charts, yet it remains one of the best Ray Charles songs of all time.

3: Tell The Truth (ingle A-side, 1960)

Cut in 1960, Tell The Truth was a hit in London clubs where prototype mods tried the new dances to it, even though it was later released on a compilation album called Do The Twist! With Ray Charles. The fabulous female voice that carries most of the song belongs to Margie Hendrix. Her brilliance produced the best in Ray, as his closing vocal is about as wild and screaming as he ever delivered.

2: I Believe To My Soul (single B-side 1959)

Ray and his pioneering electric piano get low on this heartbreaking blues – though the lyric bears the influence of the Black church, the music points to the soul-music inferno to come. Shocking that this masterpiece was a mere B-side in 1959, but perhaps it was just too deep to become a hit single back then.

1: What’d I Say (from ‘What’d I Say’, 1959)

One of the most influential R&B songs ever, and a foundation stone of soul music, What’d I Say was adopted by dozens of British bands in the early 60s to drive a crowd mad for a thrilling finale. They had good taste, but their versions could never surpass Brother Ray’s original, recorded in 1959 and topping our list of the best Ray Charles songs with ease. What’d I Say was improvised at a show in 1958 when Ray and his band had run out of material – an unlikely event, as Ray was a human Spotify, with more tunes at his fingertips than most ears have heard. Whatever his motive, he asked his band to follow him, and the call-and-response section from his singers, The Raelettes, changed musical history. Suggestive, powerful and intense, yet carrying distinct echoes of the church, it brought proud Black sounds to a whole new audience.

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