It’s hard to say anything about Ray Charles that hasn’t been said by countless others, countless times, and in countless venues. For that matter, there’s no shortage of stories related to his life and music, whether online, in books and magazines, or in film.
So I’ll say this: you can not understand popular music without knowing a little bit about Ray Charles. And, for that matter, there’s never a bad time to listen to his music. In a career that spanned more than a half century, he has very few things that don’t deserve more than a listen.
These are five Ray Charles songs that are among my favorites. (My thinking here is to create a list that might serve as a nice introduction to Ray, rather than to his breadth, and so my bias is toward his pre-1960s work. After that, I think he becomes something of an eclectic cover man, reinterpreting country, gospel, and even pop tunes from his distinctive R & B style.)
5. “Come Back Baby” (1954)
This is the B-side to the #2 song on this list. Produced by Jerry Wexler, this music in this song always sounded to me like it dragged behind Ray Charles’ vocals. I suspect that was the point.
4. “The Danger Zone” (1961)
Ray Charles wasn’t a very political singer. Maybe that’s why I like this song so much. Beyond the lyrics, it is a master work of soul.
3. “(Night Time Is) The Right Time” (1958)
This is one of the rhythm and blues songs that evolves over time as a number of blues artists contribute to the tune and/or the lyrics for their own performance. Roosevelt Skyes may be the first recorded version of it (in 1937) but it bears only a bit of similarity to this version by Ray Charles. Charles wasn’t the first to record the song in this version either (Nappy Brown did so a year earlier) but its’ safe to say it put it to bed. (Fellow Gen Xers are likely to now it from this Cosby Show episode.)
2. “I’ve Got A Woman” (1954)
You can build a class around this song. It’s a gospel song (“It Must Be Jesus” by the Southern Tones) which Ray Charles secularized in lyric and sound. He makes it sexy in every single little way. When he does that, he turns it into his first biggest hit (it went to #1 in 1955) and he creates one of the most influential songs in popular music.
1. “What’d I Say” (1959)
Ray Charles improvised this song at a concert in 1958. He recorded it in 1959. The Wurlitzer piano intro, the vocals, the horns, the rhythm section, the background vocals… goodness but this is a piece of work! (It was released as a part 1 and part 2 single; here are both together.)