Ray Charles ‘Original Album Series’ 5CD box set (Atlantic/Rhino) 5/5

Grouped together in slimline fascimile sleeves, Rhino have handily assembled five of the classic Ray Charles albums into one set. Chronologically this covers the period roughly from 1956 through 1962 when Charles was re-writing the music history books and crossing boundaries with ease. The first of these, ‘The Great Ray Charles’, captures the leader in jazzy mood (and an excellent pianist he was too) over a series of standards of which Horace Silver’s ‘Doodlin’ impresses and new original compositions such as ‘Sweet sixteen bars’ with David ‘Fathead’ Newman wailing on tenor saxophone are just as good. This captures merely one aspect of Charles’ repertoire to perfection. A year later the live recording, ‘Ray Charles at Newport’ surfaced and this introduced us to the call and repsonse vocals of Charles with the Raelettes. Both are outstanding on ‘The right time’ with New Orleans style piano and impassioned vocals from Marjorie Hendricks and on the seminal 
‘I got a woman’. The classic cover photo from Lee Friedlander says it all really and the music would provide the blueprint for singers from Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland to Stevie Wonder. Going further in time by one year, ‘The Genius of Ray Charles’ from 1959 is a big band outing with Charles in his prime on, ‘Let the good times roll’ and ‘Deed I do’, accompanied by an all-star cast of jazz musicians and it was this fuller orchestration that Ray Charles would use throughout the 1960s and into the next decade. Charles entered the new decade in 1961 with another winner of an album, ‘The Genius sings the Blues’, with electric piano, Raelettes and orchestra all on board on a judicious selection of orginals and blues standards with ‘Early in the morning’, ‘Hard times’ and ‘The right time’ just some of the highlights. One of his very best albums without question. Finally ‘The Genius after hours’ which, although indicating a 1961 date, is actually from the same earlier session as ‘The great Ray Charles’, but is no less enthralling for all that. Classics from the great American songbook abound with ‘Ain’t misbehavin’ and ‘The man I love’ stand out here. A pity that the album, ‘Hallelujah, I love you so’ was not included to complete the set of Atlantic recordings. For jazzistas, possibly the only sides missing that would have been worthy of inclusion are ‘Soul Brothers’ and ‘Soul Metting’, both collaborations with vibist Milt Jackson and available elsewhere as a 2CD set and the country-soul sides are also generally available collectively and separately. While there is still a major gap in the Ray Charles discography with the recordings on his own Tangerine label missing on CD, this box set neatly groups together some of the essential sides and at a significantly fairer price than some of the previous weightier tomes. For anyone wishing to start off a Ray Charles collection that covers soul, blues and jazz, this is the first port of call. No extras, or additional sleeve notes.

Tim Stenhouse