It's all a matter of perspective. To some Ray Charles was a Gospel influenced R&B wildcat. To others he was the guy whose life story gave actor Jamie Foxx the role of his career. Then there were those who thought Charles was the singer Starbucks made famous. There's truth to all those descriptions but Charles was so much more.
Charles was a man who could do it all. And did. Whether it was R&B, Country, Gospel, Jazz or Rock 'n' Roll, Charles handled it masterfully. Blind since the age of 6 and orphaned at age 15, Charles learned piano and began recording for small labels. Initially, he was a crooner in the Nat King Cole vein but it neither suited him nor was he very successful. He turned hard toward R&B and made far better use of his talents. In '54, he released "I Got A Woman" which became a top R&B hit and was covered two years later by Elvis Presley for his first album.
At the ripe old age of 27 Charles was signed by Atlantic Records, which had made a name for itself as the home of R&B. Charles was also tagged "The Genius" as in "The Genius of Ray Charles," a title of one of his albums. The joyous "Hallelujah, I Love Here So" was a hit but the song that had an even greater impact was the Rocker "What I'd Say." The '59 release was not only a U.S. smash, it made a dent in the English market. In fact, The Beatles, cutting their teeth in tough Hamburg, Germany clubs playing eight to ten hours a day performed a version of "What I'd Say" that lasted anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. Charles' impact on his contemporaries and the next generation was immense.
From there Charles ventured into Country much to the surprise of both fans and critics. He won over both and returned to Country throughout his career (even teaming up with Willie Nelson and other Country stars). Charles left Atlantic in the early '60s and signed with ABC Records, pretty much continuing his career unabated. However, with the exception of the biting early '60s classic "Hit The Road Jack" sung with his backing vocal group, the Rayettes, Charles moved away from Rock 'n' Roll. He did have a hit covering The Beatles' "Yesterday" but that's hardly a Rock song. Later in his career, heroin nearly took his life but he was able to beat addiction. Though it isn't Rock, Charles has to be recognized for recording the definitive version on "Georgia On My Mind."
Charles died on June 10th, '04, in Los Angeles, at the age of 73. The cause of death was from complications relating to liver disease. He was praised for his musical dexterity but was best remembered as a R&B and Country legend. None the less, he was seen as a performer whose time had long passed.
It might have stayed that way were it not for a couple powerful projects that came to fruition posthumously. First, a long delayed biographical film Ray was released to rave reviews with Foxx seemingly capturing Charles' essence rather than pulling a superficial impersonation. Then there was the highly successful duets CD "Genius Loves Company." With contributions from B.B. King, Van Morrison, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson (again), the album sold 3 million copies. Especially interesting was that a quarter of those sales were generated through Starbucks, the ubiquitous coffee retailer. Though Starbucks had sold CDs in its outlets for years, the success of "Genius Loves Company" put them on the music map.
"Anthology" is the best place to start. The album contains Charles' '50s R&B hits (which don't sound all that different from early Rock 'n' Roll), his late '50s Rock hits and beyond. It presents Ray Charles' incredible career in a concise and entertaining package. There are box sets that drill deeper into Charles eclectic career. Any Ray Charles album has good to great performances so it depends largely on the listener's taste for the particular genre (pop, Country, Gospel, Jazz, etc.). Might want to watch out for late-60s and early 70's albums. Most every musician that wasn't coming of age during that period was having a difficult, if not embarrassing, time trying to keep up. Despite his talent, Charles was no different.
While "Genius Loves Company" is hardly a Rock album it is very good and hardly a bad way to go out. It's best remembered as an easy-listening send-off for one of music's most talented innovators.