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SWING BEAT 212; NOVEMBER, 1949
 
 

 

This record quite possiblyin all likelihood… almost certainly… doesn’t really belong here.

So feel free to just skip to the next review if you want.

But for those who want to stick around the reason it’s here is because it offers us our first plausible opportunity to meet Ray Charles, which is something we needed to do sooner or later and due to his stature it’s kind of a big deal. But as to why his introduction at this particular time isn’t the easiest of fits is because as most people know Ray always was a prickly sort when it came to defining who or what he was.

He would claim in time that he was never a rock ‘n’ roll artist at all, making his inclusion here spurious in the mind of the man himself, were he still around to protest. But then again he wasn’t exactly a willing to be counted as a member of any specific musical genre over the years. He would cut jazz albums but never claim he was a jazzman either. He rose to fame by, in his words, “mixing blues with spirituals” but notably he never recorded anything purely in the blues idiom OR in gospel for that matter either. His most famous album was Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music and yet he never would be called a country act.

So what the hell was he?

Well, the answer is simple: He was a restlessly eclectic American musician of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, which is another way of saying he was all of those things and none of those things at the same time.

Yet here today, for this review anyway, he’s a rock ‘n’ roller, if only for the sake of giving us an early starting point for examining a career which lasted more than a half century during which he invariably became tangled up hip-deep in rock whether he liked it or not.
 

 
A Soul To Care
Where do we start with somebody who was such an iconic figure the world over and is still so well known years after his death?

Is it even necessary to tell you he was born Ray Charles Robinson in Georgia, but raised in Florida and that he barely knew his father and was raised by a no-nonsense loving mother? Surely you’ve heard that his younger brother drowned in a washtub playing with Ray when the elder boy was just five years old. Do you really need me to recount how he gradually lost his sight to glaucoma and was sent to a school for the blind 160 miles away from his hometown just as he turned seven? Or that his mother died suddenly when he was away at school at fourteen and a few months later, aware that his childhood had ended with her death, quit school and headed to Jacksonville, a fifteen year old on his own in the world?

If you know American music you know all that, but those are simply the biographical facts, the basic where and whens of his childhood journey. His musical journey was already well underway by his mid-teens, as he’d learned to write and arrange for every instrument in a band by the time he was 14, could play piano and clarinet, soon alto sax as well, and he was conversant in every style of music imaginable, from Chopin to boogie woogie.

Once out in the world it’s not surprising that he scuffled a bit at first, gradually building a name for himself around Florida, even joining a country band for awhile and thinking nothing of it, nor did they, because he could play. Among musicians that’s always the determining factor, the thing that gets you a pass into any venue, any musical motif you want to try and enter.

Along the way he’d learned to imitate Nat “King” Cole to the letter and doing so paid well, so he did it. But when he grew restless he asked a friend and bandmate, guitarist Gosady McGee, to get a map and find whatever big city in the continental United States that was as far away from Florida as could be.

That was Seattle. So Ray took a bus, alone, across the country to see if he could cut it as a professional musician. He was 17 and he was still blind and he was still black in a land that made no accommodations for either.
 

The Gone’est Place In Town
As unlikely as his pin the tail on the donkey method of relocating may have been for finding a new musical home worth his while Seattle in March 1948 was a perfect place for him to be. It wasn’t a recording center like Los Angeles or New York so it wasn’t overflowing with name musicians all vying for the same gigs, but it was still full of aspiring and talented up and comers like Quincy Jones whom he soon befriended and tutored in composition. It wasn’t long before R.C. Robinson, as he was still known, quickly drew attention.

How quick? Try this on for size – he arrived in the city at five o’clock in the morning after a five day bus trip, checks into a hotel and is so exhausted that he sleeps around the clock. When he finally comes to he calls downstairs to ask where he can eat only to find out it’s early the NEXT morning, around 4 AM, and nothing is opened but a club down the street. He heads down and talks his way in to the music auditions they’re holding.

The name of the club? The Rocking Chair.

Mmm, now it’s starting to come together, isn’t it? It’s a Wednesday morning when he’s hired just twenty four hours after arriving in a town that he was awake in for all of about an hour up to that point and now, having not met a soul outside of that room, he’s expected to put a band together by Friday to play his first gig.

Of course he did too, modeling the group after Cole’s band which was as popular as any in the black community, and soon after his old friend Gosady McGee joined him from Florida and together with a bassist named Milt Garred they formed what was first known as the McSon Trio (the “Mc” for McGee, the “Son” for Robinson), but which by 1949 was changed – either by choice or by some promoter or someone pressing the record labels having misheard the name – to phonetically similar The Maxin Trio.

It was also at The Rocking Chair where he was signed to his first recording contract in late 1948 by a guy who liked to hang out at the club to dig the music and to gamble upstairs. His name was Jack Lauderdale and he’d recently started the Downbeat Record label. Ray was elated. The trio had been making the rounds, even getting a regular gig on local television when there was hardly any televisions in people’s homes on the West Coast yet. But a record was something else altogether. It was a sign you’d made it.

Ray actually was fined $600 for that session because they broke the still in effect recording ban to cut a song that he’d written a few years earlier when he was just 16 called Confession Blues. He wasn’t happy about the musician’s union penalty for violating the ban, but was mollified when the record hit #2 nationally. Yeah, Ray Charles, as he was now calling himself to avoid confusion with the greatest boxer to ever lace up gloves, Sugar Ray Robinson, could cut the mustard from Day One.

But Confession Blues wasn’t the sound of Ray Charles we’d come to know, it was the sound of Charles Brown, of Nat Cole, of cocktail blues, smooth and mellow. It was a sound that was very popular, very classy and which he played very well and was happy to do so. He enjoyed that type of music but imitating somebody else, no matter how well he did it, and no matter that he got a big hit out of it, wasn’t going to make people forget Brown or Cole, if anything it’d only get them to remember those cats more, as in, ”You know what, this dude sounds a lot like…”, and that’s no way to make a name for yourself.

But it’d take awhile – a good LONG while – for him to find his own voice and so, versatile musician that he was, Ray Charles dabbled in a little bit of everything. One of those in the “everything” category was a song he wrote soon after his arrival about his first musical home in the Great Northwest, Rocking Chair Blues.

Though it didn’t match its predecessor’s success it gave notice that he wasn’t completely tied to any one sound, but whether this sound actually belongs in rock ‘n’ roll is hardly a sure thing.

 

 
 

If You’re Feelin’ Low Down
Before anyone gets their panties in a bundle over its classification here, let’s restate that it is indeed a bit of a stretch to include, something we fully and freely admit, yet there are still things about it that fit the broader parameters of rock at this point fairly well. Call it a hybrid record that makes it on the technicality that it’s Ray Charles that’s writing the song, leading the band and is front and center on the record and that his later qualifications get him something of a pass. We’ve given passes to more questionable figures than he before so why keep Ray out of the roll call until the next decade rolls around?

Regardless of what genre it fits most neatly into Rocking Chair Blues is a record straining at the seams to find an identity to call its own. Charles’s piano starts it off with an assertive attitude, hammering away on the keys as the guitar chips in with accent notes that give the intro a sense of impending action. But once Ray starts to sing it dials that feeling down considerably, as he delivers his vocals in a light breathy tone, his right hand now being featured on the keys rather than his heavy left hand that kicked it off.

The pace is a step quicker than slow but hardly jaunty at this point. He’s singing the praises of the spot that gave him his first gig where held court on and off for months upon his arrival. Because it’s drawn from real life the lyrics are particularly vivid as he tosses off the rather interesting sobriquets of its regulars which conjures up a very clear image of this joint. I have to assume the names themselves were dreamed up pseudonyms, or else I’d really like to meet these cats parents, but it hardly matters because they’re the kind of names that you EXPECT to see at the hippest place in town.

There’s Dubonnet Judy, Gin Fizz Flo
Cocktail Shorty and ol’ Julep Joe

If their colorful monikers are any indication the patrons did some drinking at this club, which I suppose is appropriate because Ray’s tone is straight out of the cocktail blues playbook, only more so. Actually it’s more out of a different kind of playbook, one shrouded in reefer smoke as I’m sure they called it then. It’s SO mellow you half expect him to nod off in the middle of a verse.

But if he was about to let his eyelids drop then McGee on guitar yanks them open again as if they were window blinds on a roller. For as soft and dreamy as Ray’s part had been, the over-amped bridge sounds as if it was packed with dynamite.

 

 

Bound To Get A Souvenir
Here’s where the song states its case to be included prominently in rock’s early story, Ray Charles or no Ray Charles.

Though the electric guitar was still taking a back seat to the saxophone in rock arrangements – the way WAY back at times – the eventual shift in rock ‘n’ roll’s most dominant lead instrument that would occur a decade down the road was just starting to take shape… tentatively maybe, but with increasing confidence thanks to the likes of aggressive players like Goree Carter, Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis, Tiny Grimes and now Gosady McGee.

Though he wouldn’t stick around long, and Ray would actually record with Oscar Moore, brother of Johnny Moore and former guitarist with Nat Cole when he went to Los Angeles for his next session – and next hit (and first under Ray’s own name) – McGee definitely adds something notable to rock’s growing sound palette with his work on Rocking Chair Blues a song he somehow got label credit for writing. Was this just a printer’s error? A kind gesture from Ray? A reflection on the collaboration or perhaps due to Charles’s trouble with the union? We don’t know but it may be that he earned it by having the most invigorating part.

Your first notice as to his prowess comes in the all too brief responses to Ray’s vocals, where McGee is playing fierce slashing notes which cut through the haze set by Charles’s laid back voice. They’re only two instances, coming back to back, but they snap you out of the dreamy lull you were in and push you to the edge of your seat. You wait for more and certainly have every right to be let down when he doesn’t reprise that sudden explosion, but he’s not completely taking a back seat from here on in and his playing seems to light a fire under Ray who steps up his pace on the keyboard during the break.

Their interplay is deft, the sound of two buddies who knew each other’s every move thanks to a long history together on both coasts, but ironically you wind up hoping for a little more from the one who slipped into obscurity not long after this rather than wishing to hear more out of the guy who went on to immortality.

But that’s the nature of the song, of the arrangement and of the rock fan’s growing urge to have their needs satiated. For the cocktail blues aficionado the reverse would almost certainly be true, where McGee’s sharp retorts may even be seen as an unwelcome, if not rude, intrusion on the sleepier mood set by Ray and the mesmerizing bass of Garred.

That the two approaches peacefully co-exist is a testament to Ray’s already deft arranging skills, but also to the modest aims of an early effort when they all were just getting their feet under them, proving they can all play but not quite ready to demand to be heard in the process.
 


 

Just Grab Your Hat
There was nothing about a record like this that would have it fully embraced by the rock crowd even if they were intrigued by one of its components, yet there was also nothing about it that would make it a perfect fit in the more modest setting of cocktail blues either.

However Rocking Chair Blues was a good side dish all things considered, even if you weren’t sure which menu it belonged on. Whichever you decided on though you had to concede that it wasn’t going to be a main course, only an appetizer.

If anybody from any segment of the music world could tell from listening to this sold but modest effort that Ray Charles would go on to even half of what he did, well you know they were lying. It’s professional in every way which I suppose shows how organized he was from the start, but there are lots of professional bands who don’t even score a hit, let alone change music forever. There was no reason here to suspect the same wouldn’t be said about The Maxin Trio.

But every story has to start someplace, and while Charles and his little band already had a nice sized hit under their belts when this came out they were still just feeling their oats and for this record that meant tweaking the expected formula just enough to make those of us in another style glance at the label and check out the participants.

In this case it probably wouldn’t have been the last name of the band members in small print on the label that would’ve caught our attention, but then again that’s the beauty of going back to the earliest days of someone’s career… when we know what’s to follow even if they themselves still had absolutely no idea that one day they’d change the world.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Ray Charles for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)