Pioneer of soul. Genius composer. One of rhythm and blues’ most important figures. These statements all describe the great pianist and vocalist Ray Charles perfectly. First known for his incredible jazz skills, he soon found himself blending together all sorts of genres, from country to gospel, eventually making his own sound that would give rise to what we call “Soul” today.
Born in Albany, Georgia, he expressed an interest in music from his earliest days. He slowly began losing his vision, becoming legally blind by his 10th birthday. His devoted mother, Aretha, enrolled him in the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, where his love of music blossomed.
Along with the countless awards he’s won and the masterful catalog of music he amassed, Ray Charles is recognized as one of music’s most important and influential figures ever. With unique stories behind each song he recorded, we dive into the best Ray Charles songs below.
10. Mess Around
Former Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun originally wrote ragtime-jazz number ‘Mess Around,’ but when Ray Charles recorded it, the single became one of his biggest early hits of the ’50s. There’s so much history to unpack with this fun, upbeat, good-time tune. Piano licks in the song originated all the way down in New Orleans, with the birth of the invigorating Boogie-woogie movement of the ’30s and ’40s. Ertegun had his finger on the pulse of the nation when he wrote it, incorporating some of the country’s most popular genres at the time, including blues, the earlier mentioned ragtime, and initial hints of R&B. ‘Mess Around’ really gives listeners a beautifully revealing first glance into some of Charles’ signature foundational elements.
For this cover of ‘Fever,’ Ray Charles pairs up with vocalist Natalie Cole, who was the daughter of famed jazz musician Nat King Cole. The sexy tune makes a perfect duet number for Charles and Cole. While Peggy Lee’s seductive take is the most popular, it was originally recorded by an early voice in the R&B genre, Little Willie John, in the 1950s. Charles offers up a particularly jazzy take on the hit single. It appears on his one of his later albums from 2004, Genius Loves Company, which features collaborations with some of music’s most timeless names, including James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt.
8. Come Rain or Come Shine
Ray Charles was a master at reimagining jazz standards. With the dreamy, languid ‘Come Rain or Come Shine,’ flowy trombone and Ray’s gentle piano work support his assurances to his lover that he’ll always be there for her no matter what. A lovey-dovey number with a classic romantic story, it was originally written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer in the ’40s for the Broadway play St. Louis Woman. Singer Margaret Whiting recorded a popular version that helped establish the song in popular music circles like the ones Charles dominated. This gave way to his recording and a slew of others, including Etta James, Billie Holiday, and B.B. King.
7. Here We Go Again
When Ray released ‘Here We Go Again,’ the country-tinged track went on to become a huge mainstream success for him. It stayed at the top of the charts for months, and became one of his go-to songs due to its commercial appeal. Penned by songwriters Don Lanier and Red Steagall, it might be surprising the jazz-centric pianist decided to cover a country ballad. But Charles loved to blend genres, and the love-stricken tune has plenty of gospel notes in it to bridge the divide between rhythm and blues and twangier styles. Charles’ compilation album released posthumously, Genius Loves Company, featured a duet of this song with Norah Jones. Their rendition put the song back in the spotlight once more, and it became the most successful song off the 2004 record, scoring several Grammys at the 2005 awards show.
6. What’d I Say, Pt. 1 & 2
A literal showstopper, ‘What’d I Say’ is recognized as one of the first official “soul” songs ever recorded. Charles was a pioneer of the soul genre, even earning the nickname “The Priest of Soul,” along with his much-deserved “The Genius” classification as well. The song’s story begins late one night in 1958 when he and his band still had time left on the clock at a show, but they had already played their encore. Needing to fill time, Ray sat back down at the piano and began playing off the cuff. The band followed and 6 minutes later they exited the stage a final time to the sounds of a roaring crowd. Because of the response, Ray decided to record it, and he closed every show from there on out with it as well. It is known as one of rock and R&B’s most important and influential compositions.
5. I Can’t Stop Loving You
The greatest artists are unconventional at heart, and Ray Charles was no exception to this reality. Though he was viewed as both an R&B visionary and jazz genius, he loved to explore genres of all kinds. And while some questioned why he occasionally waded into the muddy waters of country music, he never stopped to answer. He simply showed them why with brilliant songs like ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You.’ The country tune was written by Don Gibson, and before Charles, country star Kitty Wells recorded a chart-topping rendition. For Ray’s version, he effortlessly tackled the rhythmic ballad and added in gorgeous backup harmonies by The Randy Van Horne Singers. Not only did the tune climb to number one in both America and the UK, but he made history again when Rolling Stone declared it one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
4. Hallelujah, I Love Her So
The joys of love are celebrated throughout this big band Ray Charles track ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So.’ With a gospel flare and jazz foundation, the pianist wrote the cheerful song in 1956, with listeners driving it high up on the R&B charts. Ray loved exploring artistic stylings and challenging himself as a composer, but this tune finds him digging deep into his roots and delivering a masterclass in early R&B sounds. This is a must for any “Best Of” Ray Charles playlist. Like many other tunes of his, fellow musicians took notice, and soon heavyweights from Stevie Wonder to The Beatles were recording their own covers.
3. Georgia on My Mind
Written by New Yorkers Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930, the original ‘Georgia’ was about a woman. When Charles recorded it though, he completely reenvisioned the track, titling it ‘Georgia On My Mind’ and dedicating it to his home state. His interpretation is an American classic, and he rounded up an armful of awards for it. The first track that comes to mind for many at the mention of Ray Charles, it became so ingrained in southern culture that the state of Georgia eventually declared it their official song. Ray had always been a fan of it, and it was actually his driver who suggested he record it because the musician was always humming it while being chauffered to events. He laid down the track with ease in the studio, cutting it in just four takes.
2. I’ve Got a Woman
“She gives me money when I’m in need.” An early hit for Charles in 1955, this was another one of his tunes that represented his trailblazing abilities with soul music. The fun, jazzy track celebrating a very giving significant other was a bit controversial at the time of its release. It’s actually a completely reworked interpretation of a gospel song, or “spiritual.” Instead of the song’s original lyrics pertaining to religion, Ray overhauled the vocal lines to represent his lover. Despite the controversy, or perhaps in part because of it, the song became wildly popular. Decades later, rapper Kanye West sampled the song’s catchy chorus for his hit ‘Gold Digger.’
1. Hit the Road Jack
His most commercially successful single, ‘Hit the Road Jack’ is a timeless classic, with tons of movies, brands, and sports teams using the tune as theme music. The moody, bluesy number was written by Percy Mayfield, who penned many songs for Charles. Mayfield had a promising performance career ahead of him but was permanently disfigured in an automobile accident. He spent most of his career after that behind the scenes working as a highly successful songwriter. One of the song’s centerpieces is the spirited choral vocal accompaniment sung by girl group The Raelettes. As the song made its way through pop culture, it became one of Ray’s hallmark recordings. This Grammy award-winning, number one hit rightfully tops our list for the best Ray Charles songs.