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If not for the singer in question who is making his debut on the label where he’d stake his claim as one of the immortals of 20th Century Music, you might think this could be a side we could skip.

Stylistically it’s not quite a square peg in a round hole, but it’s still a tight fit to get this easily under the rock ‘n’ roll headlines.

Yet Ray Charles on Atlantic Records is such a vital piece of the puzzle, and those puzzle pieces don’t always fit comfortably even when he’s at his very best due to his idiosyncratic nature, that we’d be foolish to overlook half of the record which began that association.

Oh yeah, and the fact that it does what it does – whatever you call it – pretty well doesn’t hurt its case either.


Haven’t Had No Lovin’ Since You Know When
One of the things you see on these pages – hopefully anyway, as that’s one way we make money, by conning you into clicking them to be taken to Amazon and buy something they’re selling – are the albums which contain the song in question.

The songs Ray Charles had recorded for the labels which he just departed from – Down Beat, Swing Beat and Swing Time (one in the same, under different names) – were easy to find on cheap modern collections because there were so few hits during that early period that all reissuers who licensed from them compiled as many of the songs as possible in an effort to be thorough and get you to buy it for that reason alone… the completist mentality.

But now that he’s on Atlantic there’s such an abundance of classics to come that smaller sets are bound to leave out a good many songs, including some really nice ones like this, simply because they weren’t hits and were slight outliers stylistically to what most people tend to be looking for with those purchases.

Yet back in the CD era the first big boxed set devoted to Ray Charles’s time on Atlantic called The Birth Of Soul and let you know it was no mere surface skimming collection as it dubbed itself The Complete Rhythm And Blues Recordings, which meant that by nature it was digging deep and as such this song was obviously included.

Assembled chronologically by recording session, when The Midnight Hour makes its appearance early on, as Disc One, Track Three, the downbeat song (no pun intended) abruptly plunges you into darkness in a way that a novice who knows only the more intensely expressive hits would find surprising, if not utterly alarming. Whatever your feelings as to him tackling a song like this, one thing is certain, this is a Ray Charles we won’t get to hear much more from during his tenure with the label… somber, reflective, desolate, haunted.

Yet even at this still formative stage of his career, a well respected young veteran musician with a few hits but still not yet approaching stardom, Charles’s inward delivery here possesses such magnetic pull that while the music around him contributes mightily to the feel of the record, he manages to dominate the mood SO much that the musicians almost fade into the ether until we get the sense that Ray’s been completely cut off from the outside world and we’re now guilty of eavesdropping on him in his tormented isolation.

Yeah, now that it’s put that way I guess we made the wrong decision after all… this is one we definitely could’ve skipped over.

Oh well, since we’ve come this far we might as well keep going…


No Money And I’ve Lost My Friends
Well, if nothing else they sure as hell got the time of day right, we know that much right away.

Actually, while midnight seems a little early to be turning in if you’ve got anything on the ball, the image of the clock striking twelve and one day turning over into the next in the dark of night remains a pretty powerful one, conjuring up the kind of after hours torment for those who perpetually endure those nights alone.

Ironically on this same exact label thirteen years from now another singer will have a similarly titled song, merely adding the word “In” which differentiates it even before you put it on the turntable, but one listen to them side by side and you’d never mistake one for the other.

For Wilson Pickett midnight is when everything “comes tumbling down” in a GOOD way, whereas for Ray Charles whatever lies about his social prospects that he’s been able to convince himself of during the daytime come tumbling down because now there’s nothing around to distract himself from his loneliness. In life the more you’re secluded, the less you can delude yourself and in the dark it becomes all but impossible to do so.

In The Midnight Hour (see what I did there?) Ray’s down and out emotionally. He may not be on the brink of suicide or anything, but his last shred of optimism and hope have been snuffed out and he’s got to come to grips with where he stands in this world… unloved, unwanted and unable to escape his despair.

Everything here contributes mightily to that forlorn image… the stark piano playing intermittent contemplative notes… the alternately moaning and crying horns… the light drumming careful not to intrude on his private thoughts… this is the last record you’d plug a nickel into a jukebox to hear when the sun was shining and people were milling around, but if you’ve gone a day or two without interacting with another soul it’s a song that envelops you like mist.

While he’s yet to find “his voice”, as they always seem to put it, we’re not unaccustomed to THIS voice out of Ray, a little more nasal in the delivery, slow and measured, but here it sounds even more blue. He’s not emotionally aching, as we’d get from him in later more soulful ballads, but rather he’s emotionally numb. As such it’s practically intrusive of us to listen to his confessional as he’s singing – whimpering is more like it – about being left by a girl.

Though that voice is unsteady as he’s laying out details for us, we’re intentionally not given more than a sketch outline of his predicament because frankly we don’t need details to understand his pain. Anyone who has ever – even temporarily – given up hope of finding the right person knows exactly his state of mind here. As such the record is merely a mood piece and that mood is bleak, so anything else offered up to fill in the blanks would almost be superfluous.

Well, anything but his piano that is, which contributes an intentionally sluggish solo that manages to tint some of those darker colors his voice painted by using a few different hues courtesy of the higher pitch, yet he’s drawing from the same blues, purples and blacks to keep it locked into that grim outlook.

By the time he signs his name to the canvas, you’re transfixed by the image and yet content to stick it in the attic so it doesn’t turn your house into a gothic cathedral.


I Don’t Know Why I Have To Worry
Obviously a record like this, as well done as it is, can’t possibly pass muster with rock fans in that usual setting. Yet for those who think it’s a better fit somewhere else, tell me where exactly.

Blues would be your first choice, cocktail blues by the accompaniment, but this takes that general impression to the extreme. That was a style conceived for small intimate clubs with lots of people engaged in quiet talk, where the reflective songs being played may be poignant when you focus on them, but were mostly designed not to intrude if you chose to carry on with your date. But a song expressing this brand of stark misery would clear the place in a hurry.

Maybe the musicians he’s playing with could link it to jazz, but it’d face the same problem there where it’s too despondent to even be a torch song.

I’m not saying that rock ‘n’ roll is a better fit than those for The Midnight Hour by any means, but simply that it’s not a worse one. Yeah, the instrumentation is a little light, the pace is a little slow and there’s absolutely no way you can dance to this unless you’re in a graveyard about to be lowered into the ground, but we’ve seen some late night soul-searching records work well in rock and this one just dials it up past the point of comfort.

So take it for what it is… an outlier in every way. For the genre, for the label, for the singer and for the listener too.

But that being said, every once in awhile, after the clock strikes twelve, the lights go out and you lay down alongside an empty pillow, it has its place just the same.


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