The best of Ray Charles: Five albums by the soul pioneer

Ray Charles was a pioneer of soul music who’s widely considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time.

Ray Charles Robinson was born on Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. His father, a mechanic, and his mother, a sharecropper, moved the family to Greenville, Fla., when he was an infant. Charles developed glaucoma and gradually began to lose his sight; he was blind by the age of 7. His mother sent him to a state-sponsored school where he learned to read, write and arrange music in Braille. He also learned to play piano, organ, sax, clarinet and trumpet.

Charles’s mother died when he was 15, and for a year he toured the Chitlin’ Circuit in the South. He moved to Seattle at the age of 16 and met a young Quincy Jones, who would become a friend and collaborator for the rest of his life. Charles’s early playing style closely resembled the work of his two major influences: Charles Brown and Nat King Cole. But he would eventually develop his own distinctive sound.

By 1953, Charles landed a deal with Atlantic Records and had his first R&B hit single with Mess Around. A year later, his now classic song I Got a Woman reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. The song reflected an advancement of his musical style; he was no longer a Nat King Cole imitator. His fusion of gospel and R&B helped to create a new musical genre known as soul.

Charles’s biggest success was perhaps his ability to cross over into pop music, reaching No. 6 on the pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart with his hit What’d I Say. The year 1960 brought Charles his first Grammy Award for Georgia on My Mind, followed by another for Hit the Road Jack.

His releases in the 1960s and ’70s were hit or miss, but he remained one of the most respected stars in music. In 1986, he became one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2003, Charles had to cancel a tour for the first time in 53 years as he underwent hip replacement surgery. While that operation was successful, Charles soon learned he was suffering from liver disease. He died on June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills.

During his lifetime, Charles recorded more than 60 albums and performed more than 10,000 concerts. Although it is nearly impossible to pick a short list of essential Ray Charles records, here are five albums everyone should know.

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Ray Charles (1957)

This is the very first full-length Ray Charles album (which was re-released as Hallelujah I Love Her So in 1962). This compilation of early singles bridged the gap between the sacred and the secular. With ace Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler at the helm, these sessions had yielded top-10 R&B hits Mess Around, Drown in My Own Tears and the iconic I Got a Woman.  Listeners at the time had no idea that Charles was laying the foundations for a new kind of music: soul music. Charles took inspiration from the church, fused it with the blues, and sent it straight to the airwaves and jukebox.

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962)

Charles loved country music, having grown up listening to it on the radio in Florida. When he announced he wanted to record an album of country songs, his new label ABC-Paramount thought he had lost his mind. But while Charles perhaps did alienate some fans, he gained more than he could have imagined. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music made him an American icon. The album swings like crazy and eventually catapulted Charles to superstardom, even despite segregationist policies working against him. The album is regarded as one of the most important recordings in modern music and a landmark in American culture. It spawned four chart-topping singles: Born to Lose, Careless Love, You Don’t Know Me and I Can’t Stop Loving You.

The Ray Charles Story Volume 3 (1963)

If you were to walk into a record store and only buy one Ray Charles album, this would be the one to get. Compiling his Atlantic singles, it is the best of the best of Ray Charles. His voice in I Want a Little Girl could shake the shot glasses off a Bourbon Street bar.

Live in Concert (1965)

When Charles performed at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Sept. 20, 1964, he had no idea it was being recorded. His manager Joe Adams came up with the idea. The result was so good that ABC Records bought Adams a Cadillac to show their appreciation. This recording captures Charles at his pinnacle, performing with the soul and sensuality that would inspire singers for decades to come.

Wish You Were Here Tonight (1983)

After a couple of years off from recording, Charles assessed which direction he should take next and bet on country once again. He spent a lot of time in Nashville and on TV westerns, and recorded Wish You Were Here Tonight with uncredited session musicians between 1981 and 1983. This is an album for those looking for deeper cuts in the Ray Charles catalogue. Here, he fuses country with deep soul as only he could.