It's practically impossible to underestimate Ray Charles' importance in the history of R&B, and given his popularity, influence, and career longevity, it should come as no surprise that the man's body of work has been heavily anthologized over the years, especially since his passing in 2004. However, while most of the posthumous Ray Charles collections that have appeared have focused on his more polished (and most popular) later work, Sinner's Prayers 1951-54 offers a look at his earliest recordings, kicking off with five sides recorded for the Down Beat and Swing Time labels in 1951 and then presenting 22 tracks from his first two years with Atlantic Records. This material sounds rough and ready by Charles' standards, and this was before the word "genius" was frequently bandied about while discussing his music, though that's not to say that Ray didn't already have a great band, a superior voice, and a wealth of smarts in terms of how to approach his material. One can hear Charles' ambitions expand over the course of this set, starting out with the straightforward blues workouts of "Hey Now" and "Misery in My Heart" and gaining noticeable polish and class with his first cut for Atlantic, "The Sun's Gonna Shine Again." Most of the material here finds Ray and his band swinging hard, with plenty of room for his rhythmic piano work, his passionate vocals, and dramatic horn work from his band. "Roll with My Baby" also shows just how much Charles learned from Nat King Cole, while "It Should Have Been Me" and "Greenbacks" demonstrate his early skill with explicitly humorous material. And there are a handful of solo piano numbers that give Charles the opportunity to show his subtle strength at the keyboard, as well as plenty of tunes he wrote, a talent he didn't pursue with the same passion as the years went on. If you're looking for a collection of Ray Charles' biggest and best hits, Sinner's Prayers 1951-54 isn't it (though there are a few hits on deck), but anyone interested in the formative years of a legend of American music would do well to pick this up, and it's just as fun as it is enlightening.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming