Ray Charles didn’t earn the nickname ‘The Genius” for nothing. In the ’50s, he pioneered soul music, blending R&B with blues, jazz, and gospel to come up with a whole new genre. In the early ’60s, he became one of the first musicians to achieve crossover success when he decided to start mixing R&B with pop and country. His fortunes took a turn in the mid-60s when his drug addiction reached its peak, but by then, he was already a legend. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Ray Charles songs of all time.
10. America the Beautiful
Kicking off our list of the 10 best Ray Charles songs of all time is America the Beautiful, a song that Time Out rightly describes as the “loveliest of all American anthems, sung by one of the loveliest of all Americans.” Ray Charles experienced some of the ugliest aspects of American society, but it didn’t stop him from performing one of the most beautiful odes to America ever written.
9. Take These Chains from My Heart
Take These Chains from My Heart was already a classic even before Ray Charles got his hands on it, but his treatment of the Hank Williams hit takes it to all new heights of glory. How a song so oozing with despair can sound so utterly uplifting is a question only Charles can answer – regardless, it’s a song that should be considered essential listening. Released in 1963, it soared to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 5 on the UK Singles Chart.
8. I’ve Got A Woman
I’ve Got A Woman reached a new audience when Kanye West sampled it on Gold Digger, but if you haven’t yet heard the original in all its glory, you’re missing out. Charles wrote the track with his trumpeter, Renald Richard, after being inspired by the Southern Tones’ song It Must Be Jesus. Combining jazzy beats with gospel rhythms, it became his first hit, climbing all the way to No. 1 on the R&B chart in January 1955. It was originally included on the album Hallelujah I Love Her So, but it’s worth checking out the version on the live album Ray Charles At Newport too.
7. Hit the Road Jack
As soulhead.com writes, Hit the Road Jack, which was originally written and recorded by R&B legend Percy Mayfield, is another cover that Charles took to unprecedented heights. With a catchy beat, a powerful vocal from Charles, and some exceptionally lovely support from the all-girl group The Raeletts, it quickly became one of Charles’ signature tunes, even earning him a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording.
6. Georgia On My Mind
As GQ Magazine points out, Georgia On My Mind is so beloved in its namesake region, it’s been adopted as the official song of the state. Written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, it was first recorded by Frankie Trumbauer, who scored a top 10 hit with it in 1931. But while Trumbauer’s version was popular, Charles’ sweeping, nostalgia-laced performance blew it out of the water. Released in 1960, it soared to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, quickly establishing itself as the definitive version of the song and becoming one of Charles’ most popular hits.
5. Shake A Tail Feather
If you haven’t already seen “The Blues Brothers,” watch it now. While you do, keep an eye out for Ray Charles singing Shake A Tail Feather – if you manage not to shake your own tail feather while it’s playing, you’ll be the only one who ever has. A hugely fun, wonderfully danceable piece of rock and roll, it distills everything there is to love about Ray Charles into one, glorious performance. The song was actually a hit for the Five Du-Tones first, reaching No.28 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles chart in 1963, but like everything else he touched, Charles made it his own.
4. Ain’t But The One
Ray Charles was never averse to sharing the mic, especially if the person he happened to be sharing it with was Aretha Franklin (and really, who can blame him?) In 2007, Atlantic released Rare & Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul, a collection of previously unheard recordings from Franklin. One of its highlights is Ain’t But The One, a glorious, full-on gospel duet with Charles in which both singers give the performance of their lives without any attempt to overshadow the other.
3. I Can’t Stop Loving You
In 1957, Dong Gibson took I Can’t Stop Loving You to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Since then, over 700 other artists have recorded the song. Some of those versions have been excellent, but very few match the brilliance of Ray Charles’. Charles dialed up the desperation of the original, added a backing choir, and injected enough grandeur into the sadness to turn a good song into an astonishing one. Released as a single from Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, it climbed all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962.
2. Unchain My Heart
Unchain My Heart was written by Bobby Sharp about a man who wants to set himself free of his addiction to a woman. Ostensibly anyway, although considering he wrote the song during the height of his drug addiction, he may have been thinking of something else with his pleas to “set me free.” So perhaps, was Charles, who recorded the song in 1961 at the peak of his own drug problems. Regardless, it’s a wonderful song, transcending its bleak subject matter with its bossa nova groove and frantic pace. Released in November 1961, it reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the R&B singles chart.
1. What’d I Say
In late ’58 or early ’59 (reports differ), Ray Charles stood on stage in a small town near Pittsburgh and composed What’d I Say on the spot. He’d run out of songs mid-way through the second set, but determined to give the crowd value for money, told the female vocal group the Raelettes “Whatever I say, just repeat after me,” instructed the band to follow his lead, and proceeded to prove exactly why he was called “The Genius.” What’d I Say isn’t a complicated song, but it is an astonishing one, not least for that utterly mesmerizing, instantly recognizable “ummmmh, unnnnh” bridge. Named by Rolling Stone as the 10th greatest song of all time, it’s still as sweet today as it ever was.
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