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Ray Charles
The Atlantic Years: In Mono Julian Marszalek , September 23rd, 2016 10:28

The notions of what constitutes “genius” and “influential” in terms of music have been bandied around with such casual insouciance over the decades as to render the concepts almost meaningless. Indeed, for every supposed genius out there you’ll probably find a catalyst, while those wielding influence more often than not are simply opening the floodgates for the ersatz and any number of hopeless bandwagon jumpers.

However, as displayed by this superlative collection of seven vinyl albums from 1957 – 61, covering his tenure at Atlantic Records - and fully re-mastered from the original mono master tapes - Ray Charles is, and will remain, an artist that very much deservedly ticks those much-abused boxes. This is music that’s creative, exploratory and curious to test what is possible while forging a way forward. A prodigiously gifted pianist, arranger, composer and singer, Charles was not only adept at turning his hand to jazz, R’n’B, and the blues, he also sowed the seeds for what became soul music.

But why should any of this matter now in the second decade of the 21st century? The simple answer is because this is music that endures. Here, within these vinyl grooves, is the very essence of life itself captured in musical form and preserved for posterity. Here, you’ll find melancholy (‘Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I’), ‘Drown In My Own Tears’), affirmation (‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’), sheer joy (‘What’d I’d Say’) and the rest of the full gamut of the human range. Perhaps most importantly, though, there’s an honesty contained here that you’ll only find in music that can genuinely be classed as “great” – regardless of the genre.

There are, of course, other factors to consider. These are also recordings worth checking out from a historical perspective: with so much of contemporary blues dominated by tedious fretwankers and goons, moving away from the form’s roots to provide little more than a display of technical proficiency, it's an easy genre to dismiss on the basis of cliché and stereotype. It becomes so much easier to wave away like an unwelcome fart in our contemporary light of toss such as Caribbean blues cruises – the less said about which the better. Yet here, in Charles’ hands, the blues is mutating into something else.

By fusing the blues with gospel music and replacing the sacred with secular concerns, Charles laid down the roots for soul. And while that might not seem like such a big deal now, consider the times in which it was recorded. This was the 1950s: memories of the Second World War loomed large, the Cold War was heating up and a segregated and conformist America was leaving behind the New Deal for consumerism. And within that context Charles was one of the first musicians to cross over to an audience largely deaf and blind to what was on its own doorstep thanks to its ongoing and shameful prejudices.

The rolling intro to ‘What’d I’d Say’ is one of those big bang moments, an explosion that’s still felt to this day. The way Charles transposes the call-and –response methods of the church to the dancefloor is a daring gamble whose dividends will continue to pay off as long as anyone has ears and a pulse. Elsewhere, he turns his hand to the blues (The Genius Sings The Blues), the big band sound (The Genius Of Ray Charles) and evocative instrumentals (The Genius Afterhours), all of which elicit a response because they’re so damn good at getting to the heart of the matter: universal truths distilled and packaged in the form of pop.

The sound on these mono, vinyl re-masters is breathtaking. For far too long, Charles’ output on digital formats has been thin and shrill, a pale facsimile of what was intended, With this re-issue package pressed on 180-gram vinyl, you don’t so much glimpse as immerse yourself in how electrifying it must have been to have heard these stunning recordings the first time around.

There are occasions when it's worth returning to the source, to see the purity of intention, to feel music that demands a response, and to witness on onward march. This is one of them and this collection will prove a joy for those both familiar with this music and for those yet to discover it.