With Charles's migration to Atlantic in the Fifties, his voice became his own. From "Come Back Baby" on you can hear his range expanding number by number -- the bluesy ballads like "A Fool for You," the scat songs like "Greenbacks," the upbeat soul of "What'd I Say." While discs one to three are stocked primarily with early jazz and blues work, the anthology's final two discs venture into the territory of country, gospel, pop, and American standards. Disc four opens with two Beatles covers ("Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday"), while disc five includes reworkings of Stevie Wonder ("Living in the City"), Paul Simon ("Still Crazy After All These Years") and George Gershwin ("How Long Has This Been Going On").

What rescues these final two discs from sounding derivative or gimmicky is Charles's unrivaled ability to reinvent the songs he covers. Of special note are a rousing duet with Aretha Franklin, "Spirit in the Dark," Charles's moving update of "America the Beautiful," and his restrained duet with Willie Nelson, "Seven Spanish Angels."

Rhino's anthology, released this past September, is a first-class package all-around, from the glossy black CD covers to the spiffy accompanying booklet. In addition to a lengthy essay, the book provides detailed information about every included track (102 in all) and a full discography that includes every LP and single every released by Charles. It's almost as much fun to thumb through this handsomely presented arcana as it is to hear the music itself. Certainly it's a far cry from the simple album cover of Modern Sounds that I used to sit and stare at as a kid.

In 1970 my father got a job in Idaho. I remember spending days snowbound in the house, but I don't remember pulling my mom's Ray Charles album out of the RCA console's built-in record cabinet any more. My taste had worsened considerably.

I didn't start off too badly on my own; the first album I ever bought with my allowance money was Elton John's Honky Chateau. But then I got into John Denver. Then Kiss. I considered joining the Kiss Army at one point.

By the time I left home for college in 1981, I had become positively ill -- hanging out in my dorm room listening to Foreigner, Boston, and Styx. A friend of mine (to whom I will always be grateful) sat me down one night and forced me to listen to about six hours of the Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan. I was cured of my malady.

Then it was 1986. I was on my way to New Orleans (where I ended up staying for three years), and I stopped at an older cousin's apartment in Jackson, Mississippi, for the night. When she left for work the next morning, I promised I'd hang around long enough to buy her lunch for letting me crash at her place. This meant I had four hours to kill.

She had an old turntable and a stack of records. I thumbed through them, looking for Elvis Costello or Prince or the Violent Femmes. No such luck. I found nothing I liked, or thought I liked, but my thumb kept stopping every time I came to her five or six Ray Charles records, and one in particular -- Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. I figured what the hell. I remembered the album cover, at least -- some dim association from when I was a kid. I thought I'd give it a spin.

I was mesmerized. It wasn't just the songs, it was the memories. The parquet floor. The sunlight streaming through the windows. The old RCA. I lay down on the floor with my head between the speakers and I listened to the whole thing, holding the cover in the air above me.

Then I listened to the other albums, and I found wonderful songs I'd never heard before, or never really listened to. I played "Georgia on My Mind" half a dozen times, "What'd I Say" at least as many. Then there were the haunting, gospel-tinged strains of "Drown in My Own Tears." I kept placing the needle right at the ending, wondering how he'd ever thought to close on such strange, perfect notes.

"Night Time Is the Right Time," "A Fool for You," "Lonely Avenue," "America the Beautiful," for chrissakes! The man sang the hell out of that dull chestnut. When he shouted out "My God, He done shed His grace on thee," I didn't know whether to cry or pledge allegiance to the flag. You could take that Hendrix "Star-Spangled Banner" piece of crap right on out of the time capsule, I decided, and put in Ray's "America the Beautiful" instead. Yeah, Jimi Hendrix could light his guitar on fire, and he could play it with his teeth, but holy shit, Ray Charles could sing.

Eleven years later, on a sunny November afternoon, I come home from work to find "Hit the Road Jack" blasting from the CD player. I see my wife in the back room changing the baby's diaper, so I know she's not responsible. Then someone starts banging on the old piano our landlord left for us. I walk around the corner and find my five-year-old son. He's got on a pair of sunglasses and he's pounding the keys. He knows Ray Charles is blind -- I explained to him what that meant -- but he intends no disrespect. He's just imitating my own imitation.

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