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Ray Charles 

Ray Charles: The Essential Collection

It takes a while for this collection to get off the ground, but once Brother Ray figures out his own style, it takes off like a rocket. Charles has said that in the early stages of his career, he was emulating Nat King Cole. He demonstrates that on the first six cuts, of interest only to fans of Cole impersonators. But as the timeline slides into the '50s, Charles begins to heat up the joint. "Kiss Me Baby" makes you want to get up and throw things around the room; "Heartbreaker" is a precursor to "Sweet Little Sixteen," with a tribal backbeat worthy of Bo Diddley. The live cuts of "I'm Movin On" and "Talking About You" shows Ray and the Raelettes at full throttle with the Ray Charles orchestra doing things behind him that no orchestra should be able to do while Ray howls like a funky banshee.

The sexual tension keeps on building, as Charles works his primal screaming skills on "Tell Me How Do You Feel," sounding like he's chained up somewhere deep underground with a crazed carnival organist and a chorus of sex kittens high on reverb. "You Be My Baby" sounds like something that Little Richard would have banged out. Ray does it slower and funkier--the thing is oozing so much lust it's a wonder it ever got airplay. "I Got A Woman" is Ray in full-throated howl at the top of his form. Even though it's been played to death, the frenetic pace and the energy that still emanates from it keeps it fresh.

"What'd I Say" has also been overexposed, but the opening thuds still suck you in, and you're caught up in the groundswell as the thing keeps building until you find yourself beating on every pot and pan in the kitchen, grunting and howling along. This is the extended version, so you'd better hold something in reserve or better yet hold on to something for the big finish.

The album officially closes with Charles' signature tune, "Georgia On My Mind." Nobody should try to follow it, even Ray himself. So why the assemblers of this collection made the "bonus tracks" cheesy cuts from his Cole wannabe era is mystifying, and anticlimactic. "I'm Going Down to the River" is the closer, and though Charles has plenty of volume, there's not the soul and heat that "Georgia" generates. Take the eight cuts in the middle and burn copies for your next throw down, and throw the others down behind the couch until you're in a suicidal mood. Important? Yes, somewhat. Essential? I don't think so.

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