When Ray Charles came to Seattle in 1947, he was 17 years old, had been blind for two-thirds of his life, and was still a few years away from developing the style that would remake R&B in particular and popular music as a whole, and that would place him among the dozen or so most influential American musicians of the last century. Instead, when he got here, he woodshedded, playing local clubs and honing a style that, as has been noted by many a eulogizer these past two weeks, owed more than a little to Nat “King” Cole and Charles Brown, two of the leading R&B performers of the era.
While it’s true that there’s not much of substantive genius happening on the 47 sides the London label Proper has reissued on the new two-disc Mess Around, which spans Charles’ work from 1949 to 1953, this is the music Charles played in Seattle: small-combo R&B with a hint of cocktail politesse, smooth and sophisticated. Much of Mess Around does indeed hew closely—very closely—to Cole and Brown, with a little Louis Jordan thrown into “She’s on the Ball.” But what’s interesting about it in the present day are the hints at Charles’ impending breakout.
Most of these hints come on the second, later disc. On “Hey Now” and “Misery in My Heart,” Charles employs the shout that would become his specialty, though its hoarseness sounds more like an inadvertent side effect than the cunning device he would come to employ it as. The blues here tend to feel more pop than down-low, though toward the end he begins inching toward later glories: the wailing, sepulchral “Why Did You Go” ends with a great “Yeah!,” while the vocal on “Walkin’ and Talkin'” catapults Charles into his future (check the way he stretches the last word of “Look for meee-eee-eee” near the end) and leaves behind the relatively plodding music underneath him. The real bomb, though, is “Mess Around” itself, the lightning-intense record that signaled the change Charles’ music underwent when he joined Atlantic Records’ roster—with American pop as a whole soon to follow.