CD Review: Ray Charles - The Complete Swing Time and Down Beat Recordings 1949 - 1952

This two CD set represents the first three years of Ray Charles recording career, working for a fellow named Jack Lauderdale and his Down Beat (later Swing Time) record label. As that label was going down, Ray signed up with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, came into his own artistically, and became rich and famous.

These recordings were not particularly big sellers, and he would never have become that big a name on the basis of these recordings. They're good pop music, but nothing that amazing. He was learning the ropes, and didn't have a particularly unique or noteworthy sound yet. To put it differently, this is very skillful jazz trio pop music, but Ray hasn't yet quite figured out how to fully insert his unique personality into the mix.

You could compare this to listening to the first Rolling Stones album or the first Beatles record. They're all pretty good, but "Love Me Do" is perhaps more interesting as a historical artifact than as a listening experience in itself. It's the seed from which sprung Sgt Pepper. The Rolling Stones already had a pretty compelling way with a Chuck Berry cover, but they weren't really the Stones just yet.

Likewise, these early recordings of Ray Charles are basically genre exercises, straightforward r&b pop. These recordings have been compared to several different contemporary acts, but the obvious one is Nat King Cole. These early recordings sound pretty much like Ray aiming for that nice down market supper club soul.

That sounds a little bad so far I fear, when I don't intend it as such. Ray Charles could do Nat King Cole just almost better than the man himself. His sound was still embryonic. He hadn't fully found his own voice, but this was young, hungry Ray Charles- and some of that comes through.

The worst knock against these recordings would be to say that basically polite pop records, without the depths of emotional commitment that mark his mature artistry. Singing about shooting his woman in the "Blues Before Sunrise" doesn't carry that sense that he would at least seriously consider it. When Howlin' Wolf sang "Goin' Down Slow" he sounded like someone on their death bed. Ray here just does not. He sounds like a young pop singer trying to get a nut.

Thus, for my part, I'd say the stuff with the lighter emotional tones works the best. My big main favorite pick out of all 45 tracks is "The Ego Song (Sweet As Can Be)." It's just the cutest thing hearing Ray bopping along cheerfully explaining why all the girls in town are crazy about him. Don't hate him because he's beautiful. This is probably the catchiest and most undeniable song here.

He also gets good mileage with other bouncy cool-guy cuts like "I'll Do Anything But Work." Likewise "She's On the Ball" has a nicely understated hip swing, and some especially enjoyable piano jamming. This was the b-side of what the liner notes list as the first record put out under the name Ray Charles, the 1949 release "Honey, Honey" b/w "She's On the Ball" (Down Beat 218).

But pretty nearly all of this stuff has a consistently high quality. He's got a tight jazz trio sound going, and he already knows his business. He's got a pretty sweet way with the creamy stuff like "Don't Put All Your Dreams in One Basket."  "Alone in This City" would sound good back to back in your iPod with Jackie Wilson's "There's No Pity."

The liner notes give a nice basic history of Ray's time with Lauderdale. They helpfully note the names of some of Lauderdale's main session musicians working on these early sessions as including bass players Billy Hadnott and Ralph Hamilton, saxophone player Marshall Royal and guitarist Mitchell "Tiny" Webb

However, nowhere does this package include songwriting credits. Really, the kind of folks who are going to be buying these recordings in 2006 are going to be the kind of geeks who would be real interested in studying such things. That's real critical information they should have. There are a few obvious traditionals, like "See See Rider." Other than that, I haven't a clue where any of these songs came from.

You can hear some of the pre-formations of later Ray Charles records as he heads into 1950 and 1951. He's edging away from the jazz trio, with more instruments, and the first hints of that gospel fervor. It's not yet "I Got a Woman," but "Kissa Me Baby" is starting to show some of that jumpin' brass.  The liner notes credit horns by among others Stanley Turrentine, Marshall Royal, Earl Brown, and Jack McVea on these later sessions.   "The Snow Is Falling" puts across considerably more powerful testifying than his earliest sessions.

This material might do you most good mixed in with other stuff. One piece at a time in the iPod, every piece sounds pretty good. But all together, 45 cuts (including a couple of alternate takes) might start running together a bit. For starters, these were originally being released on 78s, so they weren't designed to be one big presentation.

Overall, this would rate as a pretty highly rated CD to have. If you don't have any Ray Charles, you're probably best to start with Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection. That five disc set is the basic serious entry for Ray. I'm also casting a greedy eye at Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959), which covers the name-making era with Ahmet Ertegun right after leaving Lauderdale's label. However, that's a really expensive eight CD set, a lot to digest, and has a lot of the same stuff covered in the main box.

While you're thnking on that, you might want to drop back and get this groovy and less expensive set. It's particularly highly recommended to Nat King Cole fans, but it's an absolute necessity for serious Ray Charles fans.

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