If you are for an early album of Ray Charles singing live as we conduct a music appreciation lesson of his work in the wake of his death this week, then "Ray Charles Live" takes us back as far as we can go. While this represents two of his first eight albums, 1958's "Ray Charles at Newport" and 1960's "Ray Charles in Person," and the album's sixteen tracks split down the middle between those works, Atlantic has played with the order a bit and it is hard to complain about the results
The first eight tracks were recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 5, 1958, and prove once again that there were few performers as powerful as Charles when he got going. The idea that he was playing R&B and singing gospel is so inadequate to the fusion of those forms that created what we know love as soul music. The standout tracks are "Night Time is the Right Time," the classic "I Got a Woman" (written by Charles and trumpeter Renald Richard), and "Talkin' 'Bout You."
The last eight come from a May 28, 1959 concert in Atlanta where the stand out track, as you would expect, is his thrilling version of "What'd I Say." It has to come last, because there is no place left to go after that one. Before that point the highlights are Charles doing his take on some big band songs, "Yes Indeed!" and "Frenesi." Having two version of "Night Time is the Right Time" is a treat (of course I always see the cast of "The Cosby Show" doing it in my mind's eye every time I hear it). But, wow, how strong this album ends, with "Tell the Truth" and a super slowed down version of "Drown In My Own Tears" before Charles sends the congregation home with "What I'd Say."
No wonder Ray Charles was a popular concert draw for almost half a century of powerful performances. With the tracks from these two early albums you get spirited performances of Charles doing most of the songs that established his reputation and which are pretty much the ones that you want to be listening to this week. When Charles signed with ABC and recorded songs like "Hit the Road, Jack" he was his most popular, but I still think there was more raw power during his early years at Atlantic. This album would just be more proof along those lines.