RAY CHARLES Hallelujah I Love Her So (Atlantic Masters)

Although the booklet notes – penned by the improbably named Guy Remark – don’t mention the fact, “Hallelujah I Love Her So” is actually a retitled reissue of Ray Charles’ eponymous 1957 debut album. By then, Ray had been an Atlantic recording artist for five years, so it’s hardly surprising that this album is in possession of a swaggering confidence rarely delivered first time around.

Definitely a work of two halves, it’s frontloaded with low down blues and misery ballads. “Drown In My Own Tears” ladles out the sorrow on an epic scale, and Charles wallows knee deep in the blues on Lowell Fulson’s “Sinner’s Prayer”. Cuckolded, he howls and moans from the depths of his wounded soul on “A Fool For You”. In the midst of it all there’s some deliciously liquid, eloquent electric guitar playing by uncredited hands during “Funny (But I Still Love You)”.

The flipside gets the party started right with the title track’s witty arrangement and irresistibly slinky melody. Everybody works up a ferocious sweat doing the “Mess Around”, not least Ray, who peels off a pearlescent piano solo in between issuing instructions like a carney barker. The Latino gospel of “This Little Girl Of Mine” sounds genuinely innovative even today, nearly 50 years after the fact, although “Greenbacks”, in which the foolhardy Ray is undone by a woman’s avaricious greed, hasn’t worn the decades quite so lightly. The closing “I Got A Woman” is also mildly disappointing after hearing the extended take housed within “Ray Charles Live”. Nevertheless, if some of the other Ray Charles albums discussed here tend to specialise in their individual ways, “Hallelujah I Love Her So” runs the gamut of the young man’s talents. And the cover image, the singer a perspiration-soaked motion blur under bright lights, is an iconic classic.

RAY CHARLES The Genius Sings The Blues (Atlantic Masters)

Although originally released in 1961, the fact that Charles left Atlantic for ABC in 1959 leads me to suspect “The Genius Sings The Blues” is a post-departure thematically compiled cash-in rather than a coherently assembled album per se. Nevertheless, it holds up to its rather immodest if factually accurate title.

The off-kilter rambunctiousness of “Early In The Mornin’” immediately entrances, all rattlesnake percussion, call and response vocals and disciplined brass, Ray’s testifying and electric piano cutting through the soup like a flash flood; it’s a noise like few others. “Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I)” is hard-bitten, blueswailing autobiography, the kind of song Van the Man would eat his hat to cover, if only he could ever pay enough dues to be granted the right. One of the more instantly familiar moments, “The Right Time” is sweaty, swaying sensuality, spiked by some impossibly gutsy female backing vocals. “Feelin’ Sad”, “Ray’s Blues” and “Nobody Cares” find the singer positively wallowing in hurt, loosening the odd fusillade of “Hallelujah!” more in punctuation than praise. Reputedly Charles’ first venture into country music, a cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” features a steel guitar that wails like a railroad whistle, and “Some Day Baby” is the unadulterated raw essence of the artist, just voice and piano.

The highlight of “The Genius Sings The Blues”, though, and previously known to me only through Van Morrison’s kinetic live cover on “It’s Too Late To Stop Now”, is ”I Believe To My Soul”, a song that gets stranger the more I study it. There’s that long, languid introduction that takes up almost a third of its duration, and the melody has that crazy paving, crabwalking anti-progression to it, as if taking two steps back for every one forward. Weird as it still sounds today, imagine the baffled incomprehension that must have greeted it 45 years ago; it’s a smouldering, slow-burning stunner.

This Atlantic Masters CD reissue of “The Genius Sings The Blues” is smartly digipaked, although Ray has to endure the typographical indignity of being referred to as Ray Cahrles on the spine.

RAY CHARLES The Genius Of Ray Charles (Atlantic)

This immodestly (again!) titled 1959 album is split right down the middle. The first side is full of blazing, brassy fare, played with verve and enthusiasm by a big band of Duke Ellington and Count Basie sidemen, and orchestrated in part by Quincy Jones. At times the arrangements threaten to overwhelm both the recording equipment (frequently toppling into gritty distortion, this has the least impressive sonics of all the Ray Charles reissues considered here) and the listener. I find the likes of “It Had To Be You”, where the showstopping glitz is reined in, more to my taste, although the band still threaten to slip the leash whenever they’re given space. It takes a special kind of confidence, bordering on cheek, to carry off lines like “With all your faults I love you still”: Ray, of course, does so with aplomb.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” finds a whole lotta swinging going on, the ensemble attacking the complex charts with breathtaking gusto. Even so, the more restrained “When Your Lover Has Gone” offers welcome relief after all that bludgeoning blare. “Deed I Do” has just the right mix of fingerpopping exuberance and control, a mark that the braying arrangements of some of the other tunes occasionally overshoot.

On the flip Charles is accompanied by what the booklet notes lazily refer to as “a large orchestra of woodwinds and strings”. A far more relaxed experience, the tinkle and flow of Ray’s piano work, for example on “Just For A Thrill”, is readily apparent. With no need to scream against the band, “You Won’t Let Me Go” reveals a voice soaked with regret. There’s an assurance to these performances that I’d gladly take over that overheated first side; in places they ascend to the heights of Jimmy Scott’s “Falling In Love Is Wonderful”, an album in which Charles played a key creative role.

RAY CHARLES Ray Charles Live (Atlantic)

“Ray Charles Live” is a 1973 repackaging of the live albums “Ray Charles At Newport” and “Ray Charles In Person”, respectively documenting a 1958 Newport Jazz Festival appearance and a 1959 Atlanta stadium show whose bill also included B. B. King, Ruth Brown, Jimmy Reed and The Drifters. Unfortunately, the opportunity to present a coherent in concert experience has been ducked. There are obtrusive fades between almost all of the tracks, and the set sequencing – altered from the original releases - further stymies the flow.

Perhaps to be expected for a jazz festival set, but a bit of a shock for a Ray neophyte, the album opens with a parade of instrumentals. “Hot Rod” is frenetic big band jazz – in both performances Charles is accompanied by a sextet and his backing singers, The Raylettes. The introduction to “In A Little Spanish Town”, sniffily dismissed in the booklet notes as inconsequential and dated, is disarmingly reminiscent of Ry Cooder’s recent “Don’t Call Me Red”; the performance is strafed with exultant hollers from the stage.

“The Right Time” might be more like what you were, or I was, expecting: slow burning, gently rocking, it’s sent into orbit with the iron-lunged assistance of Raylette Marjorie Hendricks, who tears into her solo spot with an assurance that borders on the brutal. Ray works the weeping song “A Fool For You” to a tumultuous conclusion, and teases the limited possibilities of “I Got A Woman”’s lyric out over six improvisatory minutes. He plays similar elastic tricks with “Talkin’ ‘Bout You”, his fierce testifying turning a jazz festival into a gospel meeting.

A freewheeling canter through Milt Jackson’s “The Spirit-Feel” briefly alights on a phrase from “Sleigh Ride”, and “Drown In My Own Tears” is presented in a finely modulated performance that closes with repeated, jabbing “yeah!”s that morph into a call and response session between Ray and the audience. “What’d I Say” finds the man at his zenith, unspooling irrepressibly funky, smoky electric piano lines, his voice practically purring at times.

Potent but patchy, “Ray Charles Live” captures the man’s range but its uneven nature makes it an album for specialists only.

RAY CHARLES & MILT JACKSON Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting (Atlantic Jazz)

This clumsily packaged double CD appears to contain all the material from the two albums Ray Charles and Milt Jackson released together, “Soul Brothers” and “Soul Meeting”. Unfortunately it’s difficult to confirm that completely, as the original sequencing has been comprehensively scattered and shattered, and bonus tracks inserted apparently at random. Even the booklet is messed up, interweaving the sleeve notes from the two original albums.

Irrespective of where this music came from, what it sounds like is a bunch of hugely talented musicians (which, apart from the headliners, includes Oscar Pettiford, Billy Mitchell, Skeeter Best, Connie Kay, Kenny Burrell, Percy Heath and Art Taylor) playing solely for their own enjoyment. These are long, relaxed pieces that sometimes tumble over the nine minute mark, a world apart from the compacted bursts of energy with which Charles made his name (some of which are revisited in less frantic fashion here). The late-night lock-in atmosphere is furthered by offhand titles such as “The Genius After Hours” and “Bag’s Guitar Blues”. For all the impeccable taste on display, the results are rather monotonous, almost the jazz equivalent of some of Frank Zappa’s solo work, where you can be dazzled by the dexterity without actually enjoying the music all that much.

The unaccompanied percussive introduction to “Cosmic Ray” is certainly startling, and Milt Jackson’s bright, liquid vibes playing is a delight throughout. Ray even slides a few notes from “Frosty The Snowman” into his solo. “Charlesville” economically reuses some of “Cosmic Ray”’s piano licks in a markedly different context, Charles’ rapid-fire work shaking off the accumulated cobwebs of cool – hear his distant, ecstatic cries of “Yeah!” and “Mmmm!”. The recording is terrific, belying the 1957 and 1958 session dates, Connie Kay’s bass drum thump being particularly arresting. “Hallelujah I Love Her So” possibly presents the album at its best, spirited and focussed compared to the amiable ambling found elsewhere, at last something with a little melodic vigour to it. Heck, it even mischievously includes the tapping that, on a vocal version, would accompany the line “I hear her…on my door”.

Otherwise, though, between the puzzling presentation and the specialised nature of the contents, “Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting” is for the committed fan only.

RAY CHARLES Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music (Concord) 

This 1962 album is regarded by many as the zenith of Ray Charles’ artistic achievement. It’s not what I’d recognise as country and western music, nor is it exactly Charles’ trademark rhythm and blues; it’s more like a big band making a joyous noise out of some supreme, if atypical, material. It’s certainly rambunctious: opener “Bye Bye Love” tears out of the speakers with a ferocious vivacity absent from the version by those milksop Everly Brothers. The track-by-track sleeve annotations describe it as “a swingin’, rockin’ version”, which is surely underselling it. The sentiment of “You Don’t Know Me” might be similar but the execution is very different; Marty Paich’s arrangement and Ray’s piano make it ache. The lavish orchestrations of “Born To Lose” and “Worried Mind” are more akin to something from a Sinatra-Riddle session than something you might expect to find draped around a “mere” country song, except of course nothing here is merely a country song, not even the country songs.  “It Makes No Difference Now” is one of the album’s many unexpected gems, having a perky sass that belies its gloomy text. “You Win Again” draws from the country well, and though Van Morrison on one of his best days can top this version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, for all the other days there’s Ray’s. Finally, to wipe away all the hurt, “Hey, Good Lookin’” doles out all the fun a two dollar bill allows.

“Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music” sounds inimitably like a definitive Ray Charles album in ways that his Atlantic records struggle to for me. Its influence is demonstrated by the way Van Morrison, never backward in celebrating his sources, has covered three of its tunes. It’s a shame that Concord’s current vinyl reissue merely sounds good enough, rather than being as great as this music deserves.