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As has been stated here many times, and will continue to be emphasized as needed in the years to come, the blues had far less to do with rock’s birth than is commonly believed.

Once rock got firmly established however blues were a source to be tapped for material like any other and of those blues sides that were purged by rock artists over the years few, if any, were purloined as many times in as many ways as this one.


Where’d You’d Stay?
As we mentioned in the last few releases of Charles, recently there seemed to be an effort to expand his repertoire away from the mild cocktail blues output he’d stuck to exclusively for the most part over all of 1949.

Chances are this was a company edict that he was following, if only because there was an abundance of blues standards covered over two sessions and then nothing else in that vein was seriously attempted again the rest of his tenure on the label which lasted until 1952.

I guess that means it not only didn’t sell much but the attempts were found to be lacking aesthetically as well.

Now in interviews Ray Charles always played up his affinity for the blues but one look at his vast catalog over the years shows that he made rather limited efforts to incorporate more traditional blues songs into his persona and when he did tackle a few suitable songs along the way it was usually done in a decidedly upscale way that not just smoothed over the rough edges but sandblasted them away completely.


Even here with See See Rider he gives off the impression of naivety in the character he’s embodying by virtue of his passive vocal delivery, something which runs counter to the manner everyone else approached this, where the mindset is that of someone who is fully aware of the consequences of the actions being described.

Maybe this was intentional… maybe they were trying to frame it differently to accentuate Charles’ youth (he was still many months away from his twentieth birthday) and so they could’ve thought this would engender some sympathy for his plight.

But then again when listening to him vowing to commit coldblooded murder of the ex-girlfriend who betrayed him that decision to lean hard into his inexperience makes little sense unless they were getting ready for a court case with him on trial for his reactionary sins.

That means the best explanation is also the simplest – this was just the artist Ray Charles was at the time, someone who may have been musically conversant in many forms but who had yet to explore them in depth and in the process learn which of his attributes worked best in conveying different themes and styles.

So rather than trying a harsher sounding raw-throated testimonial which might’ve allowed this to work, he falls back on the lighter dreamier tones that has the unfortunate effect of altering the specific perspective that was always the song’s main selling point.

Pistols and Cannonballs
Since we covered the origins of the song in detail when reviewing Tiny Grimes’s recent take on See See Rider it’s probably not necessary to do a full deep dive into it again. Suffice it to say Ma Rainey’s original from 1925, because it’s told from the female point of view, has a melancholy vibe to it, something the more jazz oriented backing – with none other than young Louis Armstrong on cornet – contributes to.

Charles has no choice but to flip the narrative due to his gender but while that’s awkward no matter who does it (the C.C., or See See Rider as it’s frequently spelled out, refers to country circuit preachers who often seduced the women in the towns on their journeys and makes no logistical sense if it’s a female), Ray makes other mistakes that further hamper his own cause.

The most notable one is a case of him mishearing the line in Rainey’s in which after shooting the philandering minister who defiled her and then produced a wife to avoid any long term entanglements, she tells us she’s going to “catch the Cannonball”, which was a well-known train reference. But in Ray’s telling of this he shoots the woman with a pistol (apparently just wounding her) and then finishes her off WITH a cannonball.

I’m pretty certain that by 1950 cannon-fire was slipping down the list of common homicide methods. I suppose it’s plausible that he’d have access to a small cannon but I think there are more effective means at his disposal no matter how vengeful he was and since he doesn’t sound particularly crazed with anger it’s apt to draw a laugh rather than cause you to recoil in shock at his brutality.

More than anything though Ray just sounds sad and ineffectual, he’s whining as much as singing, and while I have no expertise in criminal psychology to be able to say whether that might make him all the more dangerous, the fact of the matter is he doesn’t sound anything like the character this script is calling on him to be.

Won’t Have No Man At All
Maybe the shortcomings of Ray Charles the singer wouldn’t have laid bare quite as much had the arrangement been a lot fuller to mask his vocal weaknesses, but to do that he’d need to have a much deeper backing band rather than simply a guitarist and bassist to supplement his own piano.

But it’s Ray’s piano which gets the most focus – and which frankly does the most good – delivering a strong introduction which is the best aspect of See See Rider, primarily because it’s a lot more forceful than the singing which follows.

Throughout the song he’s playing some decent fills, something that carries the entire weight of emphasizing the stormy mood behind the sentiments. Though he does this quite well he’s also not given much room to stretch out and really drive that mood home. His solo is actually the weakest example of his playing on the record, starting off with a halting two fisted riff which is awkward and clumsy sounding before he lets up too much and starts noodling around with his right hand which is more technically proficient but lacking any emotional urgency the song calls for.

The guitar chimes in with some accent notes that give this a little variety but had that instrument gotten a slashing solo instead it would’ve gone a long way in bringing back some of the edgy dangerous ambiance it really needs to be effective.

The real problem though is just the scarcity of instruments which can’t help but make the track feel underpowered. Drums alone would’ve off-set this had they gotten someone who utilized the bass drum and snares, and of course a tenor sax weaving a sultry tone behind the verses could’ve suggested the air of duplicity better. Additionally, had one been there to cut loose on a violent thrashing solo you wouldn’t have needed any cannonballs to do away with the cheating woman, the storming sax alone would’ve left her sprawled in the street writhing in agony.

But absent any of that what you’re left with is a cocktail blues lineup being asked to deliver more than their three meager instruments are capable of.


See?… See!
This brief experimenting with the sound and commercial aims of Ray Charles is coming to a close without much to show for it. But while he would revert back to a milder brand of music in the coming months Swingtime Records wouldn’t fully abandon this concept of having him try and appeal to the increasingly profitable rock audience and by next year he’d start aiming for them with original material and have better luck.

But for now songs like See See Rider were little more than tentative experiments that had neither the right mindset behind them nor the right musical ingredients to make much of an impression.

Even with someone as revered as Ray Charles would go on to be these early efforts at appealing to a more rock crowd aren’t seen as being unjustly ignored or some sort of lost classics deserving of modern recognition.

In fact like most trial balloons unless you happen to glance up just as they pass overhead you probably never knew they even got off the ground unless someone tells you about afterwards.

In this case, maybe that’s for the best.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Tiny Grimes (January, 1950)