Though perhaps not as soulful as the later additions to his discography, Ray Charles’ debut album is undoubtedly one of the albums that pioneered the genre.
The record’s first singles were released some time before the album was, when acts like Nat King Cole and Charles Brown were dominating the charts. Eventually the market’s screams for something fresh and youthful to take music forward were answered. The answer was Ray Charles.
The record brought with it a completely fresh sound to music listeners at the time and, with the benefit of hindsight, there can be no doubt that this album was invaluable in starting the fire that would later carve the trail towards soul music.
Packed full with hits that ring true to this day, tracks like ‘Mess Around’, ‘I got a Woman’ and ‘Hallelujah I love her so’ (the latter of which would later give its name to a rerelease of the album) are clear standouts on the album. They had already proven themselves as hits in the years running up to the album’s release (1953, 1955 and 1956 respectively) and they waste no time in establishing themselves in the context of a 12 inch album. The gospel inspired vocal and R&B rhythm that runs through this album set the tone for Charles’ later work and ensured controversy amongst the public, some of whom viewed it as wrong for gospel to be interpreted in such a way and went as far as to label the songs as ‘Devil Music’.
Devil music or not, the album was loved by the vast majority of listeners at the time. When listening in the modern day, I’m able to view the album from a more objective perspective than would have been possible at the time, given that the gospel influence of the record divided listeners in the US and the music was therefore the subject of debate. Now the debate is over, however, the LP can be appreciated and judged only on the musical quality within it.
Lyrically the album holds up well even now, Charles sings of common pop themes; love, partying and heartache. All of which were and are fertile ground for pop music and the quick, snappy lyrics of the more upbeat tracks (especially on ‘Mess Around’ and ‘I Got a Woman’) drive the album forward, keeping you hooked as you listen. ,The way Charles’ voice captivates the listener is pure magic. The song that does this best is ‘I Got a Woman’; a song that always demands the volume be turned up the instant the first note is sounded and stays up for the duration.
It’s not only the upbeat singles from the album that have this ability though; Charles also dives into more heartfelt lyrics and it is tracks like ‘Drown in my own Tears’ and ‘A fool for you’ that foreshadow the genre that Charles was to create. They are so undeniably soul. You don’t just listen to these songs, you feel them. Charles’ deep vocal is a key component of his sound and the heartfelt lyrics seem to pair up with his voice like a jigsaw. Despite not writing these two songs, he performs them well enough and with enough soul to make them his, and for me they are standouts amongst a group of standouts.
The record is instrumentally strong as well; it does what it says on the tin in terms of its composition and achieves a new feat in fusing a number of genres together to create a new strand of popular music. Although fundamentally simplistic (the album only has the most basic composition in terms of its core instrumentation) the impact of the music on this record cannot be overstated. The singles on this record fundamentally changed popular music forever and inspired generations worth of music. To me, this record is an example of how simplicity can yield perfection, all it takes is a genius. A genius like Ray Charles.