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In rock history there are famous turning points in the careers of artists – and labels for that matter – which point to this “eureka moment” where everything suddenly fell into place.

When it comes to Ray Charles that light bulb supposedly went off when he signed with Atlantic Records where he promptly abandoned his attempts at crooning like Nat Cole and was made to see the benefits of singing with his soul which is what turned him into a revolutionary star of the highest magnitude.

There may be a kernel of truth buried within that oft-told tale, but like most stories that have been endlessly regurgitated it’s mostly bullshit for as this final side with Swing Time Records will attest, he was already headed down that road before ever landing on Atlantic’s doorstep.


Please Send A Little Bit Down To Me
The best artists are often the ones most resistant to being pigeonholed stylistically.

Creativity doesn’t like being confined in small boxes, forced to endlessly repeat themselves for the commercial demands of the masses.

But in order for the masses to actually care about them and buy their records, those artists DO need to have their finger on the pulse of the audience at a certain point just to be noticed and thus far Ray Charles had only done so sporadically. This meant that unless he found a way to consistently meet the demands of the fastest growing and most fervent market in the Black Community, IE. rock ‘n’ roll, he was bound to be cast aside and forgotten.

If that were to happen it wouldn’t matter how artistically satisfied he felt while warbling melancholy ballads, or how admired he was for having the skills to put together and lead a band capable of playing behind any artist from any field, he’d be struggling to earn enough bread to eat more than bread and water as long as he stuck to the sounds from the recent past.

It had been a long three years since his biggest hit, the downbeat Confession Blues, had briefly made him seem poised to challenge Charles Brown as the king of cocktail blues, but that style was not robust enough to really support more than one star and since Brown was still in his prime so Ray had floundered in his attempts to keep up, scoring just once more in that realm with Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand in 1951.

Yet at the same time he was seeing how other styles, such as an uptempo blues he was playing on the road with Lowell Fulson, and rock ‘n’ roll which he got to witness first hand while touring with Joe Morris, Laurie Tate, The Orioles and Big Joe Turner among others, went over with larger more vibrant audiences.

As a result he started inching more in this direction with the minor hit Kissa Me Baby last spring that gave some indication of what he was capable of with the right motivation.

But it’s with Hey Now where he really comes into his own, coarsening his voice to deliver a more emphatic vocal in a manner far removed from everything he’s done in the past.

While the song itself is little more than string of familiar lyrical cliches and the horns are still clinging stubbornly to yesterday’s aesthetics, Ray himself finally sounds like the Ray Charles we’ll come to now and love over the next decade.

And all of this took place before he ever stepped foot in Atlantic’s studios.


Hurts My Tongue To Talk Now
If you’re coming at this from a Twenty-First Century perspective you likely won’t be the least bit surprised to hear the guttural shout that opens the record since that’s the voice we most associate with Ray Charles.

But if you were hearing this in the summer of 1952 – assuming you’d actually been aware of the releases of Charles prior to this – you’d be in for quite the shock, because he sounds transformed, almost as if he’d had an infusion of soulful passion to replace the mellow laid back outlook he’d been featuring to date.

So here in the present it’s going to help to remind yourself today that nobody at the time had any idea of what was still to come when Atlantic would beef up the horns, double down on the rhythm and Ray would add a female responsory vocal group to echo his leads in call and response fashion.

Without those features to carry the rest of the load Hey Now may seem to fall just a little bit short when compared to his best output from 1954-1959 when he all but “invented” soul – trademark still pending. But in 1952 this was definitely a welcome change from the restrained vocal mannerisms he’d been known for, even with the relative shortcomings in the arrangement that hold this back from true greatness.

We can get those complaints out of the way first and say that while the banked horns are not quite bad enough to be a mood killer because they play with the right exuberant enthusiasm, the horns themselves are not suited for the job at hand. Like trying to enter race horses into a synchronized swimming competition, they’re in over their heads and will drown without some assistance.

Luckily that assistance comes via Charles himself, whose funky piano may not get enough time to shine here, but definitely adds just enough of the proper attitude to keep this headed in the right direction and his choppy licks go a long way towards keeping this from going off the rails musically.

But it’s not any instrument that you’ll remember, good or bad, not when Ray himself is finally unleashing his most potent instrument, the one which originates in his larynx, shouting out lines that may have been lifted practically intact from a hundred other tunes, but which in his hands sound as fresh as can be because he’s selling them with the true conviction of someone who has at long last seen the light.

There’s no artifice here, his passion comes across in each and every word, especially those semi-spoken interludes where he bends and twists the written lines until they seem as though they must’ve been ad-libbed, giving this the feel of something spontaneous and heartfelt rather than calculating for effect.

He’s wailing in a way that seems so natural, so instinctual, that it’s easy to see just why Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson were so eager to get him on board at Atlantic and channel this approach into material that was more structurally sound than this makeshift composition.

By this point neither he nor Swing Time were potent enough names where this record had much chance to be widely heard, but it clearly had impact on the way in which Atlantic Records would handle him going forward and for that, if nothing else, this is a hugely important step in one of music’s most storied careers.


Won’t You Hear My Plea?
Most transformations take place over time. While growing up you try on lots of different personas until you find the one that suits you. Similarly as an artist you need to see what fits your skills – and what is viable in the current musical landscape – before settling on your direction.

The foundation of these journeys are seen in the incremental progress you make along the way… the small victories that bring you the confidence to take it a step further the next time around.

Ray Charles would be encouraged to pursue that creative path at Atlantic starting next month, but as evidenced by Hey Now he came to them already knowing the road he had to travel.

Maybe that road would wind up being a dead end for all they knew, but what was now increasingly certain was that he’d only have the chance to truly break out if he transformed himself into something unique.

He’d taken baby steps along the way, but here was where he made his first really big jump forward by adopting a new voice to tackle a new frontier. Whatever followed, whether it failed miserably or succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, would ultimately be what defined him as an artist.

This was the turning point in his story and since today we know full well the grand scope of that story which lay over the horizon for Ray Charles, you have to say he made the right choice.


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