“The Genius”. Atlantic Records called him that, and though music is a field of enterprise where folk of modest talent are routinely described as audio Einsteins, it seems real when it comes to Ray Charles. He sold R&B to white America, helped make rock’n’roll possible, gave inspiration to all the 60s British musicians who mattered, proved that Black Americans could sing country music as well as anybody, ran record labels, played great jazz and funk music, gave a break to numerous musicians, went from a poor blind boy to a big man who consorted with Presidents… and was there at the birth of soul music. Thanks to the release, in 1957, of Ray Charles’ self-titled debut album, he may even have been the baby’s daddy. Genius? Who’s gonna argue with one of the most influential Black musicians of all time?
The backstory: Working hard on the road of discovery
None of this stuff came about by accident, though it was probably not planned. Charles worked hard. After a musical education that included learning classical piano, he became a musician who travelled to wherever his job took him in the 40s and early 50s, playing piano and arranging music for jazz and blues groups from Tampa to Seattle and all points between. He had a couple of minor hits in the early 50s, and in 1952 Atlantic bought out his contract from the financially wobbly Swing Time label.
Until 1953, Charles hadn’t really had a particular style. It was difficult for him to decide what to settle on, because he could play anything. Yet Charles’ lack of focus was exactly what made it possible for him to pursue his unique career path and play a vital part in the nascent soul and rock’n’roll scenes: those genres are fusions. Rock’n’roll is a mix of rhythm’n’blues and country. Soul is a union of rhythm’n’blues and gospel. Ray Charles enjoyed them all. He was the living embodiment of musical fission, out of which would come the two most important popular music genres of the second half of the 20th century. Until Atlantic snapped him up, he didn’t have a record label that could help him shape his direction and support him on his road of discovery.
The album: Heaps of hits performed in a style which had no name
Released in that year, Mess Around was a breakthrough record for Charles, the first of heaps of hits performed in his new rocking, bluesy style which had no name as yet. The even more modern-sounding I Got A Woman (1954) followed, then Drown In My Own Tears and Mary Ann (both 1956). By now, though Charles’ music was rocking, it rocked in a different way. He was increasingly making the gospel music he grew up with seep into his sound. Ain’t That Love’s tambourine and handclaps came straight out of the Pentecostal tradition, but Ray wasn’t singing about heavenly passion – he had something more tangible in mind. Sinner’s Prayer makes the connection more explicit. This Little Girl Of Mine sounds like a love lyric, but owes heaps to the gospel song This Little Light Of Mine. How about Hallelujah I Love Her So? “Hallelujah”? That word belonged in spiritual rejoicing, not R&B songs about women. Charles was not just pushing the envelope. He was stuffing steamy love letters in it and licking its flap lasciviously.
Charles scored 15 R&B chart singles between Mess Around and the release of his self-titled debut album (originally released in June 1957 as Ray Charles, and later reissued in 1962 as Hallelujah I Love Her So). It might seem odd that Atlantic took four years to compile the record, but R&B was, at the time, a singles music. There was barely a market for R&B albums, and it was only the advent of rock’n’roll, a style of music that did release albums, that suggested it might be viable to do likewise for Charles. The best Ray Charles songs up to that point had attracted increasing interest among white record-buyers in a largely segregated US, and Charles was starting to appear in the pop charts by 1957. His music was sufficiently rock’n’rollin’ for, say, Jerry Lee Lewis fans. Who wouldn’t move to I’ve Got A Woman?
The legacy: This is where soul music began
Ray Charles’ self-titled debut album didn’t make the pop chart, and there was no R&B album sales listing back then. But it sold a lot through Black record outlets and specialist jazz stores. And it kept selling. Its influence was massive: the joy Charles communicated on Hallelujah I Love Her So supplies the attitude to Pharrell Williams’ Happy. The rattling piano that opens Mess Around is not so different from The O’Jays’ Philadelphia soul gem Looky Looky. The big snare drum on Sinner’s Prayer marks a precursor of Motown. The horns on Come Back Baby could be a blueprint for the Memphis sound: swap Charles for Otis Redding and it ain’t so different. There are still clubs that fill floors with I Got A Woman, and there are remixes of it with the bassline jacked up for modern sound systems. The point, however, is not that Charles did these things, or whether or not he held sway over later trends. It’s that he did them first. This is where soul music began.
But maybe that isn’t the point, either. What really matters is that a blind Black American man released an album in 1957 that still communicates everything he intended it to, all these years later. His music still rocks. He still wails. He still moves your soul with his soul. Hallelujah to that, Ray Charles.
Buy Ray Charles’ self-titled debut album on clear vinyl at the Dig! store.
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