Credit: Heinrich Klaffs

Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Ray Charles

“I never wanted to be famous. I only wanted to be great.” — Ray Charles

As the calls for rock ‘n’ roll’s funeral seem evermore deafening, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever musicians and artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational figures. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of Ray Charles.

As we aim to offer up a little insight into the icons of the 20th century, we’re distilling their back catalogues into just six of their most defining songs. The tracks that offer up the first steps in getting to know the music and the person behind the legend, when regarding the late, great Ray Charles, there sure is a lot of legend to cram in.

It may feel a little odd to lump Ray Charles in with the genre of rock ‘n’ roll but the foundations which the singer and songwriter laid are what modern rock was founded upon. He inspired Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry to name only two of the genre’s forefathers. A mercurial talent, Charles was able to jump between styles and genres without a moment’s notice. He was truly gifted.

Charles confirmed his spot as a legend rather quickly in his career, providing a vocal which felt both beautiful and honest. Charles was able to toe the line between presenting the world as the hopeful, glowing utopia it could be and the grime under your nails reality it was. Nobody did it better than he.

Below, we’re taking a look at six songs which amply define the singer and should offer any true beginner a fine jumping off point to start their education properly. Here are Ray Charles’ six definitive songs.

Six definitive songs of Ray Charles:

‘I Got A Woman’ (1957)

Undoubtedly one of Charles’ most famous song, helped in no small part by Kanye West using a sample of the song for his mega-watt bop, ‘Gold Digger’, Charles’ effort ‘I Got A Woman’ is certainly one of the greatest of all time.

In fact, we’d go as far as to say that this piece of R&B defines everything that is great about Charles. In just under three minutes on his self-titled debut LP, Charles provides a potent vision of the future. That vision is blessed with bounce, honesty and an unwavering commitment to the art of the blues. A different points in his career, Charles would give this song different versions but we think the best is the punchy number on his LP.

‘What’d I Say’ (1959)

If there is one intro to get you hyped for what’s to come, then Ray Charles song ‘What’d I Say’ is certainly it. It bubbles away before lurching out with Charles’ stretched vocal and singing: “Hey mama, don’t you treat me wrong/Come and love your daddy all night long”. It’s a sign of things to come and just how powerful Charles was with his piano and his performance.

The recording on the song’s eponymous album is truly magnetic, designed to capture the intensity of Charles’ live shows, it is palpable with the effervescent energy that Charles imbued all his work with. It became the singer’s first top 10 hit and proved his mettle for all to see.

‘Hit The Road Jack’ (1961)

If you haven’t heard this song before then we’re genuinely worried about your hearing and wider musical education. This song has been played at almost every British school disco since it was released, and there’s a good reason too—the song is positively bouncing at every single note.

The song went to number one for two weeks, grabbed itself a Grammy and defined Charles as one of the most fearless performers of his generation. It also showed his uncanny ability to turn his love affairs into huge pop hits. On the track, he sings opposite Margie Hendrix, a singer from his backing group The Raelettes, with whom he shared a love affair and a child, just to compound the point.

‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ (1962)

Though we’ve avoided including too many on this very short list, Ray Charles was able to cover a song unlike anybody else. Not only did he provide some of the only Beatles covers John Lennon actually liked, but he was able to transform any song into something that sounded like it came straight from his head and heart.

‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ was originally a country hit for Don Gibson in 1957 but was later included on Charles’ huge record Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. On it, Charles manages to create the perfect juxtaposition between the huge sound of the orchestration behind him and the poignant sadness of the lyrics and Charles’ delivery.

‘Unchain My Heart’ (1962)

There’s a big claim to suggest that Charles was the king of lounge music. Now seen as a slight insult, lounge music certainly had its place in the sixties. Charles has often shown his mettle in this arena with his songs ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘One Mint Julep’ both showcasing his talent for providing songs to lose your head to.

However, ‘Unchain My Heart’ is, without doubt, his finest piece of work in this space. Written by Bobby Sharp about a man simply addicted to the love of his woman is given an extra gravitas when considering Sharp wrote the song while struggling with drug addiction and Charles sang it when dealing with his own. The song’s content may be a little difficult to bear but the talent it shows is undeniably beguiling.

‘Shake A Tailfeather’ (1980)

Not a Charles original but what the singer and songwriter did with this classic R’n’B song arguably makes the track what it is today: a classic. Recorded as part of the cult classic film The Blues Brothers, Charles can be credited with adding a reem of legendary 1960s dances to the song. It turns a silly song into a foot-shuffling masterpiece.

After all, aside from the ability to make personal love songs feel universal, aside from the soul he put into every performance, and aside from the ability to empathise with his material—Ray Charles was all about the love and passion of music. We don’t think you can get more passion than people of all ages shaking their tailfeather to a bit of Ray.

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