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The careers of music’s true immortals – those ten or twenty names who tower over the cultural landscape to such a degree that everyone, regardless of time or taste, know who they are and what they’re revered for – have never had a shortage of attention paid to their stories.

Thanks to that historical scrutiny we know full well that not all of these artists arrived on the scene with a fully developed sound, that stylistic self-assurance which set them apart from the moment they came into view. In fact a lot of them struggled to find themselves early on, maybe possessing the raw materials to transform music but not having the wherewithal to confidently do so just yet.

We might be able to hear some definite potential in the early records of Little Richard or The Beatles but unless you were psychic you couldn’t predict the transformation that would elevate them in short order to the status of revolutionary artists.

But of all the upper echelon of immortals in rock’s storied history few gave such little hint as to their eventual stature in their initial work as Ray Charles.

Oh, sure he had a big hit right out of the box and listening to him you certainly could grasp that he had some skills as a pianist and vocalist and would probably be more impressed if you knew he was arranging the material as well but when listening to his earliest sides there was little evidence that this guy was going to one day be universally called The Genius and that such universal praise would be spoken without a shred of hyperbole.


Beats The Model
Trying to put Ray Charles into a neat little box at ANY stage of his career was an exercise in futility. Just when you thought you had him pegged he’d pull the rug out from under your expectations and go off in another direction.

He scores with raw gospel-soul rockers in the mid-1950’s and then cuts a pure jazz album… he has his mainstream breakthrough late in the decade with tight grooves cut with a small combo on an independent label and then leaves them for an aspiring major label where he surrounds himself with a brassy big band drenched in strings… he becomes an icon of black America in the early 1960’s and yet achieves even greater success by recording country and western songs which have always been the almost exclusive province of white artists.

In other words Ray Charles would not – and could not – be reduced to a “type”, he was just far too eclectic, both musically and personally, to ever allow that to happen.

But while we grant him the right to that flexibility, admire him all the more for it even, at this stage of the game we’re having trouble accepting him as representative of ANY brand of music, rock especially.

We included Rocking Chair Blues from the fall of 1949 in these pages because it was closest he came in the 1940’s to rock’s ideals, but it was by no means a comfortable fit. His earlier sides had been purely in the cocktail blues vein by design, yet even there he was more derivative than anything as he was consciously attempting to play what sold.

But while the idea that he was suppressing his true self for these short-term goals might sound good in theory, the fact is, as evidenced by songs like Ain’t That Fine which attempted to push the envelope more, Ray Charles wasn’t yet ready to give us a clear-cut alternative to the rather malleable figure he was shaping up to be after a year in the record business.


High Cost Of Living
The first thing that jumps out at you with this release is the attribution… after issuing his last record, and the one with the most clear rock touches to date, as by Ray Charles, this is back to being credited to The Maxin Trio (actually it’s misspelled as Maxim).

Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into this… it could be the sales on I’ve Had My Fun didn’t match his earlier singles and so they reverted to the moniker the public was more familiar with… or it could be that this one has the trio’s guitarist Gosady McGee rather than Tiny Webb (both are credited on the label but there’s only one guitarist and so maybe they didn’t know themselves which it was). There’s also a real possibility that with the new Swingtime label name they needed to get as many records on the shelves as possible and were better able to do so by issuing these with different artists credited (and for that matter, the release dates of these first few Swingtime singles is approximate… they could’ve all come out at once, or a few weeks or even months apart, so take them with a grain of salt).

Whatever the explanation Ain’t That Fine is another record that shows a definite break from the more mannered cocktail blues Charles had been delivering more or less consistently since signing with the company at the tail end of 1948 but it’s still not an altogether comfortable fit in rock ‘n’ roll.

The first sounds however might have you thinking otherwise – Ray’s emphatic piano capped by either McGee or Webb’s guitar exclamation points – but rather than use that slightly startling introduction as a launching point for something even more explosive, they ease off ever so much to deliver the meat of the song.

Some of this, let it be said, might be due more to the limited personnel on the session than Charles’s mindset for the song, for they’re still just a piano/guitar/bass trio and so without drums the guitar had to take a more percussive role in the intro and without horns there’s not much chance for any wild roof-raising interludes to build to. As a result Ray’s got to be the one to establish a lively rhythm on the keys by giving it a sparse but jittery backing, particularly behind his vocals on the chorus. Ralph Hamilton’s bass gives it a little bit of a bottom on the verses but following that brief work on the lead-in the guitar remains curiously underused until it gets a solo halfway through.

Maybe the idea of holding something in reserve is a good one in theory but when you do unveil it there needs to be a bigger payoff than is shown here. The solo has to be deemed a disappointment for it does little more than offer a sonic shift from one sound texture to another rather than giving us a complete upheaval of the song. What we need is more drama, more restless energy, more variety and instead everything stays in the same lane.

If Money Did My Talkin’
You may have been hoping the story was going to make up for the rather cut and dried arrangement, but if so your expectations were probably a little too high.

Like the musical side of the equation there’s a professional quality to the lyrics that is entirely welcome thanks to Betty Hall Jones, a veteran songwriter with a long, long career (she lived to 98 and was active for much of that time). But while the composition has a solid perspective and a nice eye for detail it’s not really taking any chances and so it all sort of floats by without demanding you notice any of it.

Basically Ain’t That Fine is just a declaration of contentment using small realistic examples to set the scene. It could conceivably be delivered by people in any walk of life which at least makes it relatable, meaning that will have to suffice in the absence of a more flashy scenario. Yet in striving to keep the topic universal there’s no chance for the kind of personal idiosyncrasies that all great songs possess and which Charles, especially at this stage of his career, desperately needs to build his persona in the public’s eye.

You can’t exactly criticize Ray’s delivery much, though he’s still relying on a breathier vocal style rather than the rawer throaty growl he later became so well-known for, but you definitely buy into his claims of being satisfied with his girlfriend. He’s a good actor in that sense as he’s able to suggest his inner mood while singing which perfectly matches the external front he’s putting on which gives some indication as to his artistic intelligence, knowing enough to embody the role he’s asked to play from the inside out.

There’s also a few good lines sprinkled in, “The high cost of living does not bother me/As long as my baby’s love is tax free” is particularly winning, all of which makes this an enjoyable record to hear, but even as Ray tosses in a few subtle touches of his own along the way there’s nothing whatsoever designed to stand out.

Well, I suppose if his goal is only to mildly impress you then he has to be credited for achieving that much… but no more than that.

One Thing Money Can’t Buy
Even if you preferred this slightly more aggressive style to the laid-backed cocktail blues Charles had been offering up for the majority of his output there was still no sign that he was considering a wholesale change to his musical approach. This may have indeed been subtly influenced by the newer sounds that had taken hold over the past few years but it wasn’t totally indebted to them either and certainly not looking to expand on those advances in any conceivable way.

Essentially Ain’t That Fine was just a slight variation on their established sound, something Charles was more than capable of performing but which hadn’t captivated him enough to venture further down the road.

This wasn’t going to have any of the rock crowd stampeding to the stores for future releases but it also wasn’t about to cause them to dismiss him out of hand either. It may be little more than a tentative exploration into another part of town, but as would always be the case with Brother Ray, no matter the terrain he could be counted on to at least handle it with calm understated confidence.


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