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The earliest sightings of Ray Charles in rock’s story were often awkward fits.

Of course this is a recurrent theme even after he fully broke through, as stylistically pigeonholing him was never going to be easy and as he would’ve been the first to tell you that was by intent.

So though we’ve charted his long, drawn-out courtship with the genre for which he’d make his greatest impact in, if not for his name recognition and his ensuing career in the field, a lot of those singles might’ve found themselves among the first to be jettisoned if we were looking to tighten up the requirements for inclusion.

This record though, while still not a seamless fit itself, would be a little harder to justify leaving out as he inches ever closer to his musical destiny.


The Boys Are All Wondering Why You’re So Hot
The story of Ray Charles is big enough without needed any ancillary figures to make it more impressive. But since no one man’s story is completely devoid of other characters along the way, the reputation of those other people in their own right is invariably going to play a role in how Ray’s story gets viewed.

As such the prevailing wisdom is that while Ray Charles was clearly a talented singer, pianist and songwriter in his days on Down Beat and Swingtime which resulted in a handful of hits, he was still stylistically adrift until he landed at Atlantic Records in the winter of 1952 and it was that label which put him on the right track.

It’s a nice story, but like a lot of stories about famous artists it’s got plenty of holes in it.

Though there’s absolutely no doubt that Charles hit his creative peak at Atlantic and their goals for him, along with their infrastructure, is what provided him with the means necessary to advance his career in both a commercial and artistic sense, we see looking at Kissa Me Baby he was headed that way already, even before Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson bought his contract from Swingtime for $2,500. Even the usually square Billboard magazine noted as much in their review of this effort.


The record is indeed a much rougher prototype of his later soulful rocking sides with Atlantic, not nearly as focused and with a band that was not altogether appropriate for the sound he needed to capture, but it still provides us with the opportunity to hear Charles singing a sexually charged lyrics with an uptempo rhythm… the defining characteristics of rock ‘n’ roll.

Historically, because of what soon followed, this is viewed as a mild curiosity at best and maybe in terms of the total package it does fall short of being part of his defining legacy as an artist.

But it also shows that the idea that he was a completely untapped resource when it came to rock ‘n’ roll prior to landing with Atlantic Records is not true at all, for this – crude and unpolished though it may be – has all of the building blocks he’d soon use to construct a towering monument with over the next seven years.


Love And Keep Me Satisfied
Voices change in time. Forget about the natural tonal shift when males hit puberty, but there’s also a coarsening of the voice as you move further into adulthood.

Sometimes, as with Fats Domino who had his tonsils removed in 1954, there’s an obvious reason for it, but for others it could just be a late hormonal change or an intentional technical decision to emphasize a different singing style.

Ray Charles in 1952 was undergoing that change in how he sang. Usually it’s pointed to his decision to abandon the light cocktail blues style he’d been specializing in on Swingtime and embrace a throatier gospel growl on Atlantic, but we see that this myth too doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Not only would he continue to sing in a higher reedier register early on at Atlantic, but on Kissa Me Baby, a song that is about as far away from cocktail blues as possible, he’s still leaning towards that high thin voice even as he’s added a good deal of grit to his delivery.

That, in turn, is what knocks this down a peg or two, for despite his energy and enthusiasm, the vocal sounds strained, almost painful at times as you can practically see his vocal chords being shredded by the technique. He’s using the throat more than his chest and aside from putting him at risk for getting polyps, it’s not the most pleasing of sounds to listen to either.

Rather than convey power, as you tend to want to do when shouting, he’s coming across as in pain, which admittedly is not completely unreasonable if you choose to interpret the song as desperate pleading rather than a forceful command.

It’s just that it’d work better AS a forceful command to a coy female who’s been flirting with you without allowing for any intimacy.

But while we can criticize his technical shortcomings here, we can’t fault the effort to create something more exciting than his usual fare. That urgency – barely contained horniness to be honest – is refreshing coming from someone who has held back at almost every turn from expressing unbridled emotion in his songs.

What this also shows is that he’s clearly been inspired by the deliveries of rockers as well as the directness of the songs that have made up rock’s greatest hits to date. This is an all-out blitz on the senses vocally, not holding back anything in its attempt to convince the girl to give it up, but more importantly to convince the rock audience to give up some nickels for his efforts.

While the back and forth exchange with another vocalist from the band in the chorus is a little clunky, there are moments when you hear the clearest signs yet of the revolutionary artist Ray Charles would soon become.


They Don’t Know Just What You’ve Got
Unfortunately though, you also hear clearer signs of the Ray Charles who – after he knocked everybody out for years on end with tight small combo efforts – will frustrate and annoy those fans once he goes to ABC Records and proceeds to hire every out of work big band musician standing in the employment line to give him brass-heavy tracks that robbed so much of his work of the soulfulness of his vocals.

So what we get here is a case of an instrumental track overflowing with out of place musicians. Where Ray’s piano and the drums are providing enough of a kick on their own while he’s screaming his lungs out on the verses, once the chorus comes along the blaring horns jump out of the shadows and take over, creating a racket that doesn’t match the guttural thoughts he’s expressing.

This was always Ray’s Achilles heel as a bandleader. He liked the sound of those horns – as well as strings down the line – so much, that he seemed unconcerned if their presence overwhelmed – or invalidated – the emotional pull of the song itself.

On Kissa Me Baby I’m sure he’d argue that they were representative of his eager giddy excitement, but if that’s the image he’s going for it only makes the character he’s portraying seem that much more inexperienced, overwhelmed by his own arousal to the point of losing the very girl he craves because he’s showing he’s not able to control himself. Maybe that’s his intent, but it makes for a less enjoyable experience than it needs to be for an outsider observer.

But while these are unquestioned faults of the record, the positives are still something to be encouraged about, as this shows that Ray Charles does in fact have another gear to get into musically, as well as a more freewheeling persona he can explore in the future.

Although this record may not have tipped anyone off as to the extent of his transformation around the bend – and to be fair, it’d take a lot longer than you remember when he gets to Atlantic – but if you had heard this at the time (a #8 national hit, so you probably did), the eventual arrival of a racier, revved up Ray Charles down the road wouldn’t catch you completely off guard.


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