Ray Charles ‘The Atlantic Years in Mono’ 7LP (Rhino) 5/5

ray-charlesThese sides practically dating between 1952 and 1959 defined Ray Charles’ illustrious career, and, while even this mighty tome is not the complete picture of his Atlantic tenure since the live recordings such as ‘Newport 1958’ are missing and fully deserve a special re-issue of their own on vinyl (even more so if additional numbers can be located in the archives), nonetheless this stunning box set is in a league of its own and a clear five-star recording, such is the outstanding quality of the compositions and the execution of the music by Charles and his band. What is surprising about viewing these individual albums collectively is that they cover a seven-year period in Ray Charles lengthy career in other words an album per year, yet they are still definitive examples of his art. They include the following albums in chronological order: Ray Charles (1957), The Great Ray Charles (1957), Yes, Indeed! (1958), What’d I Say (1959), The Genius Of Ray Charles (1959), The Genius After Hours (1961), and The Genius Sings The Blues (1961).
It would be churlish to even attempt a track by track analysis, but Charles somehow managed to almost single-handedly move rhythm and blues and jazz music into the modern era with his hybrid style that electrified a younger audience in search of something beyond the conventions of the ‘How much is that doggy in the window?’ approach to popular music. That Charles achieved this by taking the emotional intensity of the gospel vernacular and added secular lyrics may have earned him the damnation of the preacher (though one suspects the music was so catchy that the odd preacher or two might be caught illicitly listening to these sounds before carefully hiding the blasphemous content of the vinyl tucked away under a settee, or concealed in a closet), but earned the eternal respect of listeners, writers and Atlantic records alike, the latter of whom who would, at a later stage, transform the approach and fortunes of one Aretha Franklin from MOR singer to soul diva par excellence. How does the vinyl sound in mono format? As ever with such questions, the answer is necessarily subjective and dependent on the quality of hifi equipment one possesses. To this listener hearing the music through the prism of a Marantz amplifier, the sound was clean and crystal clear and compares most favourably with any previous CD version. As for the cover art, the original albums are faithfully reproduced and that means that the Lee Friedlander photos conjure up the 1950s jazz and rhythm and blues scene to perfection and evoke the era with Charles in his prime and looking every bit the start hit maker.

The only minor drawback of this re-issue, in comparison to say the ‘Complete Atlantic Recordings’ in the CD box set format, is that the latter was infinitely superior in its inner sleeve coverage with the contribute of several longer articles from authoritative jazz writers including Leonard Feather to illuminate the recording sessions and to provide a wider historical perspective on matters, whereas the present package simply reprints in A3 format the album covers (is this really needed when the replica original covers are already included with the vinyl?) and contains relatively brief notes from Charles’ biographer David Ritz. Otherwise the equation Genius = Jazz + Blues can emphatically be applied to the music recorded on Atlantic records by Ray Charles. These are the building blocks of twentieth century music that can proudly stand alongside ‘Kind of Blue’ and ‘A Love Supreme’.

Tim Stenhouse