An uncomplicated package for the uninitiated.
Martin Longley 2010
This is not the ultimate Ray Charles collection. Its outward appearance is impressive, housed in a hardback book, and surely promising a multi-disc extravaganza. Sadly, further investigation reveals a lone disc lying within. The actual content of the book is very skimpy, with small descriptions of each track looking lonely in the middle of their largely blank pages. The accompanying photographs aren't particularly spectacular or imaginatively arrayed either. All of this aside, a heavy count of unimpeachable classics provide the heart of the subsequent listening experience. Whilst this collection is not recommended for the informed enthusiast, it's a prime introduction for the mainline listener. But a higher quality first exposure to the Charles oeuvre would be the Rhino Records Anthology, with its far superior presentation.
Here are 23 songs, counting up to 71 minutes (this deluxe version features two bonus cuts). The material is drawn from the Atlantic Records and ABC-Paramount years, principally sticking to 1950s and 60s cuts. Of course, the opening salvo features Hit the Road Jack and What'd I Say, jumping into the horn section orgy of Busted. Charles sings melodically, but always with a roughed-up edge, marrying elements of blues, soul, gospel and country phrasing. I Can't Stop Loving You is another classic of orchestral bloat. Charles often works on an exaggerated emotional stage, abetted by The Raelettes, who usually receive more than their fair share of equality in the mixing spread. These backing singers stage a fiery coup on the left-hand speaker during You Are My Sunshine.
The whole disc is an exercise in stereo separation extremity, making matters difficult for the headphone generation, but providing an exciting aural platform. There's a good balance between slowies and hard-rollers. I've Got a Woman is a prime example of the Charles R&B formula at its peak, representing the tougher side of his work. This is quite a contrast to his expansively string-drenched ballads, typified by the easy listening blow-out of You Don't Know Me. Just prior to this, Charles had been grittily pounding through Let's Get Stoned. Here We Go Again is one of the most affectingly downbeat songs in his repertoire, but the rot sets in straight afterwards, if only for two tracks. There's a schmaltzy reading of Yesterday, followed by an overwrought America the Beautiful, over the top, to say the least. Just two lesser tracks isn't bad going, though, on this uncomplicated presentation for the uninitiated.