IN THE FALL of 1954, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records traveled to Atlanta to hear Ray Charles's latest batch of songs. They expected more of what he'd been serving up for the past six years -- expert imitations of Nat King Cole, Charles Brown and Louis Jordan -- but they heard something unprecedented. Charles had taken the gospel lyric, "I've got a Savior way over Jordan; He's saved my soul, oh yeah," and changed it to "I got a woman way across town; she's good to me, oh yeah."

"I Got a Woman" marked a long-delayed reunion of the blues and gospel strains in African- American music. The result was the birth of soul.

"The Birth of Soul" is also the title of a new box set that collects 53 songs by Charles, subtitled "The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952-1959," on three CDs or cassettes. The first disc is devoted to his 1952-53 work, including the rollicking boogie number, "Mess Around"; the R&B hit imitation of Louis Jordan, "It Should Have Been Me"; and the New Orleans R&B hit "Don't You Know." These are fascinating recordings -- examples of a man who could excel at any style -- but the music that sounds like no one but Ray Charles opens the second CD with "I Got a Woman."

The song became a No. 1 R&B hit, and the follow-up, "A Fool for You," did the same; Charles was soon acclaimed as "The Genius" and, most ironically, "The Bishop." Dorothy Love Coates's hymn "Hallelujah, I Love Him So" became Charles's "Hallelujah, I Love Her So"; the Pilgrim Travelers' "I've Got a New Home" became "Lonely Avenue" and Clara Ward's "This Little Light of Mine" became "This Little Girl of Mine."

Charles wasn't just relying on the gimmick of turning hymns into R&B hits, however; he was infusing them with his distinctive musical imagination. It's no coincidence that his breakthrough arrived when Wexler and Ertegun let him sing his own compositions with his own arrangements played by his own road band. Those arrangements transformed the function of a horn section from harmonies to rhythm, and the choppy horn parts added muscle to the choppy syncopation of Charles's own piano parts. The female voices of the Raeletts became his personal choir, echoing his hypnotic shouts in a higher octave in the classic call-and- response pattern of gospel.

And, of course, there was his voice. Charles had this seemingly impossible ability to give his vocals a scratchy, roughened blues quality even as he delivered the full, sumptuous tone of a trained pop singer. More important, his throat never seemed tightened even as he hit the ecstatic climaxes of "Yes Indeed" and "The Right Time"; as a result, his emotional high points always seemed natural. In 1959, he turned a simple but irresistible piano riff and suggestive call-and-response vocals into his first pop hit, "What'd I Say."

"The Birth of Soul" doesn't collect all of Charles's Atlantic recordings; it omits the excellent jazz and pop material he did for the label. Nonetheless, it's a textbook example of how to do a reissue correctly: The songs are arranged chronologically and the 32-page booklet includes detailed session information and a long essay by Robert Palmer balancing biographical information and critical insight.

RAY CHARLES -- "The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952-1959" (Atlantic.) To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call 202/334-9000 and press 8111.