The title “genius” was formally bestowed on Ray Charles with the release of his 1959 album The Genius of Ray Charles. Though he was not yet thirty at that point, Charles had already helped invent what would become known as soul — shattering the boundaries between sacred and secular music in the process — and invigorated an entire generation of jazz players. He also, somewhat reluctantly, had proved a major force in the early days of rock & roll — and all this after a childhood as a blind, impoverished African-American in the brutally segregated South.
The story of that triumph is told eloquently in the magnificent box set Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959). It’s not for everyone: If you saw Taylor Hackford’s excellent biopic Ray or bought the multiplatinum 2004 duets album Genius Loves Company and simply want to explore Charles’ career further, you should first seek out one of the excellent one- or two-disc compilations that are available (the thirty-six-track Ultimate Hits Collection will do just fine). Pure Genius is for true believers only: seven discs, 155 tracks, a nine-performance DVD and a hard-bound book, all in a lunchbox-size package made up to look like a Fifties-era portable phonograph, complete with a handle.
Believers will have their faith rewarded, however, well beyond acknowledged masterpieces like “I’ve Got a Woman,” “Drown in My Own Tears” and “What’d I Say.” For example, Charles’ instrumental-jazz collaborations with saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman (“Tin Tin Deo,” “Weird Beard”) and vibraphonist Milt Jackson (“How Long Blues,” “X-Ray Blues”) will prove revelatory for anyone who knows him only as a raw R&B belter during this period. These tracks are jaw-dropping both for their effortless ensemble discipline and visionary soloing — with Charles soaring on both piano and alto sax.
The DVD captures a sizzling performance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival (recorded after Charles left Atlantic), and the rarities disc offers a fascinating portrait of Charles at work in the studio with producer and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. But the real prize is the stunningly consistent level of outstanding work Charles created at Atlantic in the Fifties. Further breakthroughs awaited him, of course, but this set alone demonstrates genius enough for any number.