Brother Ray Finds His Voice: Ray Charles and the Birth of Soul Atlantic Recordings

Editor’s Note: G. Bruce Boyer has just published RIFFS: Random Reflections On Jazz, Blues, And Early Rock. You can purchase it here. Bruce allowed us to excerpt the book on Ivy-Style. Enjoy!

Last year [2022] marked the 70th Anniversary of one of the greatest musical marriages of the 20th Century. In June, 1952 Ray Charles signed a contract with Atlantic Records, a venture that took Charles from being a minor band musician to an international star. The hit records started flowing the following year and never really stopped during Charles long career. For some, this period with Atlantic, from 1952 to the early 80s, produced Charles’ most beloved recordings, an authentic treasure trove of golden R&B, jazz, and Blues hits unmatched in their virtuosity and diversity.  This collection of songs – first released on Atlantic in 2006 as The Birth of Soul — is the bedrock of Charles’ success. By the time he left the record company over a quarter-century later he was an international star, a musician with dozens of hit records behind him. He had recorded pop songs, country, jazz, Blues, R&B, standards of the American Songbook, Latin numbers, and his own compositions. He was the new star at The Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. In the more than half century after signing with Atlantic, hit followed hit and the acclamation piled on accolade.

In 1952 Atlantic Records, under the guiding hands of producers Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, bought Ray Charles recording contract from Swing Time Records, a small label that was folding, for a reputed $2,500. It was a lot of money for these young entrepreneurs who were just getting started themselves, but it was no gamble. Their ears told them what they were doing. They were both jazz aficionados with an uncanny intuition for musical talent, and that year they produced Ray Charles’ first jazz album. He had actually recorded some of the music the year before in the Atlantic studios in New York, and the full eight instrumental numbers for The Great Ray Charles, the first Atlantic album,weren’t released until 1957. These tracks, including the stunning versions of “I Surrender, Dear”, “Doodlin’”, “Undecided”, and “My Melancholy Baby” among theselections, is right up there with Genius + Soul = Jazz as Charles finest work.  Listening to “My Melancholy Baby” – with the incredible solos by David “Fathead” Newman on alto sax, the song becomes brand new, as the musicians dig out hidden emotion and meaning in the old chestnut.

Even early on Charles was as prolific as they come, taking sounds from wherever he found them and listening to everything. To recount his accomplishments would be an extreme case of restating the obvious, but what is perhaps worth considering is what he did with the music as he first found it. What was he working with, what were his influences, what were the roots he picked up on? What were the sources that he bent to his talent and which made him, in the words of no less than Frank Sinatra, “the only true genius in show business.”?

As a young person growing up in the 50s, I didn’t think about any of this, the roots of the music I listened to weren’t a concern. We didn’t care where the music came from, it was enough to “dig” it, to listen and dance to it. It was what actors mean by “sense” or “body” memory: the enjoyment went from my ears to my brain and straight into my veins, and I learned the song viscerally. The songs were a joy to hear, a treasure to dance to. It wasn’t until many years later that I read the distinction made about jazz by the great poet and music critic Phillip Larkin: that there is a difference between a listening audience and a dancing audience, and until after World War II and the birth of Bop, jazz music was very much involved with both for the audience: you listened and you moved your body. You tapped your feet and snapped your fingers, you swayed, you danced. I was first and foremost part of a dancing audience. If it didn’t have a beat you could dance to, it wasn’t really music was my feeling. Because, as I believe D. H. Lawrence pointed out in a wonderful essay, “Making Love to Music”, dancing is making a physically erotic statement to a beat set by musicians. For young people it was a sexual encounter.

Everyone danced to Ray Charles, who had a long list of hit records even before his breakthrough double-sided What’d I Say came along in 1959. But listening now, we can put him into a context that we couldn’t then, and I’ve come to understand why the good folks at Atlantic Records judiciously entitled the three-volume set of his 1950s recordings The Birth of Soul. Soul, as Ray Charles came to experience and relate it, was a hot amalgam of jump blues, West Coast ballad style, Southern Blues, and Gospel, and it’s those elements of Black music that come uniquely together in these early recordings which eventually broke through to a white audience like a tsunami. Charles encompassed the various styles of music at his disposal, mixed them together with his own genius to create the New Sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the mid-1950s. The birth of Soul.

He was an offspring of Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, a good dose of The Dixie Hummingbirds and Swan Silvertones, a bit of Nat King Cole, and some Amos Milburn, Wynonie Harris, and T-Bone Walker thrown in for good rockin’. And in that sense, was both the culmination of these styles and forces, as well as the result of mixing them together to create something new. You could write a book on the influence of gospel on early R&R. Think of “Crying in the Chapel” and of the lyrics of Charles’ version of “Careless Love”, with the line “I once was blind, but now I see”, which is of course a line from “Amazing Grace”. He took the music forward from the streets, churches, and night clubs of Black America into a post-war world of young people dancing in auditoriums, high school gyms, home parties, and even on TV. It was on The Georgie Woods’ Dance Party TV show from Wilmington, Delaware – the Black equivalent to Philadelphia’s “Bandstand” –that I first heard Charles and saw teens dance to his music.

The three-disc Atlantic album is unique as a historic documentation in that different cuts from that collection reflect the different influences, as well as clearly show the incredibly creative meld that came out of it all. Most obvious is the similarity between Ray Charles blues ballad voice and that of the super-smooth blues stylist Charles Brown. It’s so close that on Vol. 1 (1952 – 1954), three cuts – “The Midnight Hour”, “Losing Hand”, and “Funny But I Still Love You” – sound in every way, almost indistinguishably like Charles Brown. You have to listen intently to know that it’s Ray Charles singing and not the famed vocalist of “Driftin’ Blues” and epitome of the West Coast laid-back style so popular after WWII, with its almost whispering, laid-back crooning. And even then it sounds almost as though Ray’s intent on doing a perfect imitation of Brown. Not to forget, as it happened, that both were incredibly accomplished pianists. As of course was Nat Cole, another singer-pianist that Ray imitated for a while. But then, everyone wanted to be Cole, if only because he had made it, crossed over to the lucrative White audience of the Pop charts and actually had a national TV show, short-lived though it was. Charles must have imitated these singers consciously, they were such a powerful influence on the style of the times.

Charles Brown (who was born in Texas, 1920) was ten years older than Ray, and his career started a half-dozen years before Ray’s had. Brown began recording with The Three Blazers in 1944, and had already developed into a smooth blues stylist, as evinced by hits on the R&B charts, of which the incomparable “Driftin’ Blues” became an immediate sensation and remains a classic of the urban blues ballad to this day. Along with these sensual blues ballads, he put his urbane stamp on versions of such solid standards such as “Harbor Lights” and “Cottage for Sale”, as did Cole. He had that perfectly cool, laidback West Coast saloon- style delivery down better than anyone. As easygoing and blasé and smooth as molasses on a waffle. Those recordings evoke a feeling of the urban smoky night clubs of the 1940s better than anything I can think of short of a Humphrey Bogart film of the period. It was the kind of music that would accompany Lauren Bacall walking across a nightclub dance floor.

Ray Charles started recording in the late 1940s, but didn’t hit his stride or the R&B charts til 1951. He recorded “Losing Hand” 1953, the session that also produced “It Should Have Been Me”, which is a talking jump blues that Louis Jordan would have been proud of; as well as “Heartbreaker”, with its echoes of T. Bone Walker’s “Bobby Sox Blues”.  But those tracks were realistically just a brief look backward, almost a history lesson in urban blues if you will, because it was during that same session that Charles recorded “Mess Around” (written by Ertegun for Charles), a song so much in the moment, a song which so forcefully shows he’s already found his own voice and that his days of imitating Jordan, Brown, Nat Cole, or anybody else were over. Virtually over because he continued to mix the blues with gospel – as many solid members of the Black church were horrifyingly aware (this problem would also occur for Sam Cooke, who had started out professionally as a member of The Soul Stirrers Gospel Quartet, and then moved on to become a Rock ‘n’ Roll star by the mid-50s) – but he had definitely found his own groove. It didn’t matter whether he sang and played with a fast, pulsating Rock beat or an agonizingly slow soulful one, we loved it all. That early session also produced “MaryAnn”, with its Latin beat and the swing bridge so characteristic of the 50s that even a solid blues man like B. B. King used it (on hits such as “Don’t You Want a Man Like Me”). But “Mess Around” was Rock ‘n Roll, it was Swingin’ Soul, and it was the figurative birth of Ray Charles’ indelible style. As the announcer on Charles’ first live album screamed, Brother Ray was The High Priest of Soul.

It took until 1959 for Charles to cross over to the general white audience with the huge two-part hit “What’d I Say”, but by that time he was already a legend in the Black community for a decade and easily identifiable. Disc jockeys, juke joints, house parties, auditorium dances, and outdoor concerts had already racked up countless hours of “This Little Girl of Mine”, “Hallelujah I Love Her So”, “Swanee River Rock”, “That’s Enough”, Yes Indeed”, “I Got a Woman”, “Drown in My Own Tears”, “Night Time is the Right Time”, “Rockhouse”, “One Mint Julip” and a dozen more solid tunes. He went on to record Country & Western songs, Broadway standards, Big Band Jazz, Gospel, even movingly righteous patriotic anthems among his massive repertoire. But after 1953 nobody would have confused him with Charles Brown. Or Louis Jordan, Nat Cole, T-Bone Walker, or anyone else. Brother Ray had found his voice.

It’s still hard to accept for those of us who heard him when we were young and when he started to produce the soundtrack of our lives that there won’t be any more albums, we still wonder what Ray might have done with some standards he never got around to tackling, what his approach to some  of the newer songs might have been. Unless there are some tapes in a vault somewhere, we’ll never know. But in the end, we’re just damn lucky to have what we do.     

 A Basic but Pointed Discography Relating to the Text:

Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul , Atlantic, 1991.

Ray Charles at Newport, Atlantic, 1959.

Ray Charles: Blues and Jazz, Rhino/Atlantic, 1994.

Pure Genius: Ray Charles The Complete Atlantic Recordings, Warner     Classics, 2012.

The Cool Cool Blues of Charles Brown, 1945 – 61. Jasmine, 2012.

Best of Louis Jordan, MCA, 1989.

The Dixie Hummingbirds: Complete Recorded Works, Document, 1996.

The Swan Silvertones: My Rock / Love Lifted Me, Specialty, 1991.

The Very Best of T-Bone Walker, Rhino, 2000.

Nat King Cole Story, EMI, 2001.

  • G. Bruce Boyer

12 Comments on "Brother Ray Finds His Voice: Ray Charles and the Birth of Soul Atlantic Recordings"

  1. Hardbopper | May 24, 2023 at 6:21 pm |

    Great chapter! It looks like this is an excellent book. I’m pretty sure this will be in the libraries of many legitimate schools of music. There’s a lot of old standards mentioned here. 161 pages, how many chapters?

    In the later years of the 20th C, we carried a then, new medley of three Ray Charles tunes from the Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volume Two recording, arranged for 10-12 piece society band. This particular arrangement is straight C&W until the last 16 bars of the last number in the medley, “Born to Lose”, (Don Gibson) which swings pretty hard. The arranger is Sidney Feller. The dancers liked it. The band liked it. Those were the days, my friend.

  2. Just ordered a copy! Can’t wait to read more.

    Kind Regards,


  3. Prescott Forbes | May 26, 2023 at 12:15 am |

    Ivy style?

  4. Thank you I just bought a bottle for my better half and will report back.

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