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We all knew this day was coming, the moment where Ray Charles goes from being a curious talent on the periphery of rock to… well, still just a curious talent on the periphery of rock…

Umm, excuse me, isn’t there a supposed to be a “but” somewhere around here?

Oh right, sorry ‘bout that.

…BUT on a label better equipped to nudge him into our sightlines.

I wish we could report to you that this is where everything starts to coalesce for Charles, where he takes those first confident steps towards being called a genius by one and all, as that always makes for a good story.

However, while things are definitely tightened up a bit now that he’s with a more forward thinking record company, musically speaking he’s still content to remain on the aforementioned periphery of rock for awhile longer, patiently lurking around the edges and probing its defenses while wondering if he should take the plunge or remain officially uncommitted.


Ready To Go
The legend of Ray Charles by now has long since obscured the more routine path he undertook on his way to earning that status and so first we have to dispel with those persistent half-truths and misconceptions that continue to form the core of his story.

His early years have been portrayed as him merely wandering around in the wilderness in search of a style to call his own, while his arrival at Atlantic Records today has been widely heralded as the moment where the light bulb suddenly went off and he changed his entire approach overnight, sparked a new rock subgenre in the process and became an enduring star before the ink was even dry on his contract.

Though his stint with Atlantic will mark the most creative run of his six decade career and the start of a much more consistent commercial return, it did not mean he was now on a rather direct road from the outer territory of rock ‘n’ roll to the center of the community, as Roll With My Baby makes perfectly clear. Like it or not, there was still a lot of ground to cover before everything truly clicked.

In many ways this record is a mere continuation of what he’d already done – and done fairly well – at Swing Time the last few years, delivering songs of mellow contemplation in a laid back setting. The style was so ingrained in his DNA at this point that few involved seemed to take into account that THIS song seems written with a much more vibrant delivery in mind, proving that his new label hadn’t envisioned anything revolutionary out of him when they acquired his services.

Does that mean they all screwed this one up, wrecking a potentially great song by conforming to past ideals in order to stick with his comfort zone? Or does his stubborn refusal to bend to the will of others allow Ray Charles to show, as he’d do time and time again over the years, that trying to slap a tag on him to make his records easier to sell was bound to be a futile effort?

Actually, maybe it shows both at the same time.


Can’t Buy Me No Whiskey, Guess I’ll Have To Settle For Wine
Although he was still a much more prolific composer at this stage of his career than he’d be later when he virtually gave up writing his own material, Ray Charles had nothing to do with composing his initial sides once he landed on Atlantic Records. Instead both sides of his debut were penned by Sam Sweet, whose name doesn’t ring much of a bell outside the Sweet household even with this rather surprising answer to a trivia question on his résumé.

Of the two submissions, Roll With My Baby certainly seems like the stronger candidate for success as well as being something Atlantic Records specialized in stylistically… provided it was played and sung differently than Ray Charles does here.

It’s not that he sings this badly at all, he actually sounds pretty good and one could even argue he’s acting so chill because he’s well aware of his reputation as a ladies man within the context of the song and no longer has to work up a sweat just to prove it. But while the record doesn’t suffer from his choices in that it’s not an enjoyable listen, it certainly doesn’t live up to your expectations if you saw the title and knew what the topic entailed beforehand. In fact, it’s actually a rather curious direction to take for a song of this nature.

Some labels (generally not this one, but others like King Records, or as we recently saw Duke/Peacock) would from time to time have different artists on their roster do the same songs, largely to double down on their publishing receipts. Atlantic chose not to do so here, probably because this was only a regional hit and thus soon forgotten, but it’s interesting to contemplate others at Atlantic taking a swing at this, particularly in a few years time.

Imagine Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters cutting this next fall, increasing the tempo, adding Sam Taylor’s booting sax and throwing in some hand claps for an added beat. Same exact lyrics, but a much different response, as then it’d emphasize the singer’s sexual excitement and anticipation in rousing fashion. Or maybe in another rendition you’d have Ruth Brown cooing on the verses and exploding on the choruses to deliver a performance that played up both sides of the coin in a more explicit manner.

By contrast to those options Ray plays it so cool that there’s no doubt he’s singing Roll With My Baby AFTER he’d rolled with her and the deed was already done. Rather than lay in bed smoking a cigarette, as was apparently the accepted protocol back then in such circumstances, he’s casually recounting how it all went down to someone over the phone while his baby was out of earshot in the shower or already in a cab on her way back home.

Even when he’s recalling her come-on to him – “Hold me sweet papa, squeeze me every now and then” – he’s got only a faint wistful smile at the corner of his mouth and that self-satisfied attitude dominates the mood and shapes the record’s arrangement.

The breathy vocals are matched only by the crisp drumming as everything else – trumpet, bass and Charles’ own piano – take a back seat, at least until the rather jazzy solo he lays down which breaks the drowsy emotionally detached mood.

Only when he finally admits he loves her after the break does he show any sign of genuine excitement and then, perhaps freed from holding it in, the horn does the same as they wrap up a somewhat nice record, but hardly a groundbreaking one, new label or not.


Sweet That Way
When a song is crafted well, tightly arranged and played with restrained precision while sung with the kind of effortless nonchalance that Ray Charles shows here, it makes it rather hard to criticize the results… unless you first put it into context.

Looking, as we do, at the record strictly through the rock prism and trying to determine which scenario it’d be suitable for, Roll With My Baby doesn’t seem to have an easy fit anywhere.

Could it be used to establish a sense of eager anticipation as you head out on the town at night, hoping for some action? Probably not.

Does it set an edgy vibe suited for a guy on the prowl, spotting the girl he wants to take home as he moves in for the kill? No, not exactly.

How about as the background music for a party in full swing? Nah, definitely not.

Then it must be to serve as the music for a slow dance to get those bodies pressed firmly against one another, right? Well, that’s remotely possible I guess, but it’s hardly ideal for that purpose either.

You might try it as the mood music for your late night seduction, but since it’s commenting ON that very thing in such a detached way it’d be too self-conscious to have playing while you were actually trying to get her into bed.

It’s certainly not a falling in love or breaking up song either.

So what is it?

Well, considering his new surroundings and the hopes everyone had for him, it’s something of a false start in a way. A confirmation of what we already know rather than a sneak preview of what he might become.

Even so, it’s not a bad way to unwind as you turn off the lights and settle in for the night, though come morning the record is bound to be just a vague and distant memory.


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