Ray Charles: Globe Photos
June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Here are five essential Ray Charles songs

Like that other poet of America, Walt Whitman, Ray Charles contained multitudes. Throughout his career, the musical legend — who died Thursday at age 73 — encompassed R&B, soul, gospel, blues, rock, country, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley, assimilating them all and sending them back out into the world marked indelibly with his own stamp. If his innovations sound less than startling now, it’s because we were born into the musical landscape he created and can’t remember a time when popular music rigidly segregated the secular and the spiritual. Still, if you go back and listen to Charles’ most pioneering music, especially the songs he recorded from 1955 to 1966, you’ll be startled at how fresh, vital, and unpredictable he sounds. Before he became an institution, safe enough to sell Diet Pepsi to the masses, he was a prolific hitmaker who recorded countless instant classics. Here are the five most likely to be remembered.

”I Got a Woman” (1955) This is where soul music begins. In retrospect, it seems so simple, the marriage of sacred and profane, of Saturday night and Sunday morning, but when Charles first perfected his blend of gospel shouts and blues moans on this track (plus an arrangement, marked by a smooth saxophone break, that owed more to jazz than to gospel or blues), the volatile mix earned him denunciations from both sides of the aisle. ”Gospel and the blues are really, if you break it down, almost the same thing,” he said years later. ”It’s just a question of whether you’re talkin’ about a woman or God.” Either way, on this track, he’s approaching some kind of ecstasy.

”What’d I Say” (1959) Charles hit an early career peak with this epic workout, six and a half minutes of sweat that took his early innovations as far as they could go. There’s the famous and much-imitated electric piano intro, long enough that it could have been a hit on its own, followed by several innuendo-laden choruses, and finally a call-and-response exchange of grunts and moans between Charles and his Raeletts that leaves little to the imagination. It’s no wonder that the faithful felt that Charles was perverting the gospel elements of his sound, but for everyone else, this was the ultimate dance-party song.

”Hit the Road Jack” (1960) Charles’ gifts as an arranger grew evident as he racked up hit records and Grammys throughout the 1960s. Here, the interplay of the Raeletts (who get the chorus), the pleading Charles, and the horn section (punctuating lines like ”I guess if you say so” with an extra kick in the pants) show sophistication and wit. Along with hits of the period like ”Busted,” the song reminds you that, among other things, Charles was a rare storyteller who could convey both pathos and humor in under three minutes.

”Georgia on My Mind” (1960) This song marked a turning point for Charles from the soul blend he had created and mastered into the lushly orchestrated country ballads (like ”I Can’t Stop Loving You” and ”You Don’t Know Me”) that were the highlights of his 1960s output and culminate in his landmark ”Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” album. Here, Charles took a wistful old Hoagy Carmichael tune and turned it into an aching epic of homesickness, ultimately convincing his fellow Georgians (Charles was born in Albany, Ga.) to make this the official state song. Like many songs, once Charles sang it, it was indelibly his.

”America the Beautiful” (1972) Charles turned this square, familiar tune into a soul anthem and a fervent prayer. In it, you can hear all the joy and pain of Charles’ own journey, from a childhood marked by poverty, blindness, and the loss of his parents and little brother, through an adulthood marked by racism, drug addiction, and legal woes, to his ultimate achievement of the American Dream. Charles would be asked to sing this song at state functions, sporting events, and wherever else he went.

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