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Most iconic artists make their eventual elevation into the pantheon of immortals clear pretty early in their careers.

They might not launch themselves into the upper atmosphere on their first few sides necessarily, but they generally give some indication that they’re booked for that flight at some point in the near future and with each successive release they get closer to orbiting with the stars.

Ray Charles is the most notable exception to this rule. Though he’s had some success – one big hit already while this release will be his second – nothing he’s done points to him having any lasting presence. Though he’s too good to be completely hit or miss, he’s also not yet good enough to be consistently… relevant.


Until I Make You Understand
We’re still more or less in a holding pattern for somebody whose eternal reputation is that of an innovator… something which makes his first four or five years so confusing for many to hear when looking back three quarters of a century later, long after the name Ray Charles has passed into legend.

It’s easy therefore to lump all of these early songs together and give them only a cursory listen, maybe just sample a few to get the basic idea of his mindset at the time before putting them back on the shelf and moving on to his Atlantic years where he helped to redefine what popular music could do and who it could represent.

Yet we’d never get to THAT Ray Charles without first experiencing THIS Ray Charles, the tentative stylist, exceedingly professional even at an early age, competent in all he does, but not distinctive enough to truly matter, even when scoring a legitimate hit with Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.

Certainly this record was not anything that would lead you to believe that Ray Charles was going be to even a moderately recognizable name in say ten years time (when he was one of the biggest stars in music) but what’s really interesting is that once he DID succeed with this more modest creative attempt he continued to progress rather than just keep recycling the same sound hoping for the same commercial result.

In other words, he may seem as though he were stuck in neutral still, but he’s tinkering around the edges at least, making incremental progress as he tries to best determine his course heading into another year.

Cadillac And Everything
With its guitar and vibraphone opening this has got a very distinct atmosphere to it from the start, sort of a dreamy cool that washes over you in a very tranquil manner.

Ray’s voice doubles down on that wistful vibe by using the higher breathy tone he constantly featured in his Swingtime era recordings. The sound itself is pleasant enough but it’s emotionally detached from the listener all the same which may fit the song’s theme, or at least Ray’s reading OF that theme, but causes it to not connect quite as well.

The basic plot of the self-penned Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand is that Ray is promising his girl anything and everything under the sun, from a car to a house, but he’s doing so in the abstract, sort of daydreaming about it all. He may not even be speaking directly to her, more like thinking about saying this to her at some point down the road.

It’s not hard to envision someone being so enraptured by a girl that he’d let his mind wander to try and find ways to ensure that she’d stick with him forever, but as a result we’re only visitors to his fantasies left to simply view them for what they are, an effort in wish fulfillment.

But Charles could’ve gone another way with the song and not changed a word of the lyrics by simply being more emphatic, like he was telling this to a disbelieving girlfriend and insisting that everything he was promising her would come true if she just trusted in him, thereby winning her over by power of his conviction.

Granted that would necessitate changing the entire arrangement giving us a much different record, but that direction also might’ve sped up his transition into the more iconic artist he’d eventually become.

But what’s here is still modestly good in a different sort of way, more transient maybe but still reasonably impressive from a technical standpoint as Ray’s channeling some Floyd Dixon and Little Willie Littlefield in his delivery, singing better than the former without being quite as distinctive as latter.

He’s got a little bluesy catch in his voice at times with a barely perceptible glimmer of soul underneath it, but is mostly reliant on creating the impression that come what may he’s going to try and remain unaffected by the outcome.

I Want You By My Side
Musically this is more interesting than it is vocally, as we get those two lead instruments that Ray would generally avoid in time. The vibes are the standout sound here, sounding like chimes being played where his piano would usually reside. That of course is meant to add to the dream-like motif, delicate and not quite real.

They add the primary melodic accents to Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand during the first section, but when Ray gets a little more assertive vocally in the second section his own piano and the guitar take over providing a more solid footing for what is to follow.

He’s playing broken rhythms on the keys which lend a slightly funky feel to the song, though it’s clearly meant to suggest uncertainty and indecision on the character’s part more than anything.

Oscar Moore’s guitar however is much more crucial to the track’s identity, switching from a ghostly tone behind Ray’s vocals to a more mesmerizing full-bodied sound later on that’s played with almost a drawling feel, like it was in no hurry to make its point.

A smoky saxophone would’ve done wonders for this song down the stretch, keeping the mood but accentuating all of the emotional nuances that were only touched upon during the proceedings, but they were used to working with a small cast, usually a trio, and so there was probably no hope for importing someone in just to embellish one track.

Regardless it’s certainly not the future of the music, nor is it even keeping pace with the present in terms of sonic construction, but it’s nice all the same, a peaceful calm amidst the storm rock was busy creating everywhere you looked.


I’ll Live There Forever
What’s so surprising about studying Ray Charles’s evolution in real time is just how methodical and slow it was. There are no giant leaps forward as of yet, nor even an ambitious failure where you could at least get some sense of what he might be capable of in different surroundings.

He was, of all things, a really conservative artist in the studio at this point and as such Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand is a holding pattern sort of song, both for Ray himself and for the landscape of 1951 in general.

By not committing to the changes on the scene, barely acknowledging them in fact, he’s avoiding falling into the trap of pursuing a trend, yet the longer it takes for him to start his own trends the greater the likelihood that he’ll be left behind when those around him get further and further away from what he’s doing.

This is still a decent record but it’s a little hard to believe it was a Top Five national hit, his first under his own name, and even harder to believe that its artist would go on to revolutionize music in more ways than one down the road.


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