It was Bill Broonzy, a blues man, who complained about Ray Charles: "He's mixin' the blues with spirituals. I know that's wrong. . . He should be singing in a church." If the mark of artistic genius is the size of one's legacy, then Ray Charles can lay nothing less than the whole of soul music next to his piano stool, because, as Broonzy told it, Charles was willing to do wrong to mix the sacred and profane.
Though Charles' professional career spans 33 years, embracing almost every genre of popular music, it is the gospel-based rhythm and blues he recorded for Atlantic Records between 1953 and 1959 that remains his most influential and definitive work. It's also Charles at his rocking best. The cream of these Atlantic recordings, including some forays into "back to roots" jazz, have been compiled in a five-album set (all in original mono) entitled "A Life in Music."
His best records for Atlantic -- from the breakthrough of "I Gotta Woman" in 1955 to his 1959 landmark, an orgiastic revival in the studio called "What'd I Say" -- reveal, somewhat paradoxically, a free-spirited artist in control of every aspect of his music. Even when Charles secularized gospel songs wholesale (e.g., "Talkin' 'Bout Jesus" became "Talkin' 'Bout You"), he made them his own. Ask Eric Burdon, Stevie Winwood, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker or the countless other rock'n'rollers who aped his guttural rasp and strained to match his improvisatory, emotional delivery.
Listening to Charles' cathartic plea in "I'll Drown in My Own Tears," or the moody, depressive atmosphere he summons like a black cloud in "Lonely Avenue," or his fiery exultation in "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," gets you as close to the meaning of soul as music can get you. Charles took no word or note for granted; he gave them each his stamp. To do this as Charles does, spontaneously and with an incredible naturalness of feeling, is to trust yourself and the music inside you. And that's soul.