Ray Charles and Fats Domino are about as different as two great piano-playing, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame vocalists can be.
Where Charles was at his best on soulful ballads that dealt with heartache and regret, Domino’s strength was in his good-natured, sing-along approach.
This contrast of styles is one of the fascinating aspects of their highly recommended new box sets: “Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul” on Atlantic Records and “They Call Me the Fat Man” on EMI Records.
Ray Charles had more than six-dozen hit singles, enough to make him No. 10 on the list of the most successful recording artists of the modern pop era. That total places him ahead of such superstar rivals as the Supremes (No. 15 on the list), Frank Sinatra (No. 20), Michael Jackson (No. 24) and Barbra Streisand (No. 41).
But anyone looking just at Charles’ “pop” success is missing many of the Georgia native’s most rewarding and influential works.
“Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul,” a three-disc set, contains 53 of the R&B; tracks that the singer-pianist recorded between 1952 and 1959, only five of which made the national pop charts.
It’s the promise reflected in this body of work--including the classic “What’d I Say,” one of the most galvanizing records of the ‘50s--that led rival ABC-Paramount Records to lure Charles from Atlantic in 1960 with one of the most lucrative contracts ever given a performer to that time.
It was with the new label that Charles recorded many of the tracks most closely identified with him, from the soulful strains of “Georgia on My Mind” to the country sentiments of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
But the Atlantic years are essential to anyone interested in how Charles molded gospel and blues influences into the prototype for contemporary soul music.
In Disc 1 of the box set, you can hear Charles, still searching for his own musical voice, experimenting with the styles of some of his own vocal favorites, including Nat King Cole and Charles Brown.
By Disc 2, however, Charles exhibits more authority, starting with “I Got a Woman,” which was a No. 1 R&B; single in 1955. Elvis Presley was so impressed by Charles’ version that the young rock star also recorded the song.
Though some other tracks from this period (especially “This Little Girl of Mine”) caught the ears of the emerging rock audience, Charles wasn’t detoured from his soul-music path, as evidenced in such prized numbers as “What Would I Do Without You” and “I Want to Know.” And things just keep getting better on Disc 3, making this an essential document on the evolution of soul music.
Domino, the roly-poly singer-pianist from New Orleans, had more Top 40 singles in the ‘50s than any other member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame except Presley.
Why, then, is he probably less known to young rock fans today than almost any other Hall of Fame member?
Domino made some of the most appealing music of the ‘50s, but neither his cuddly image nor his music’s infectious blend of boogie, blues and occasional country reflected the youthful rebellion that defined rock.
Teens bought his records, but they turned to other, more flamboyant or radical figures when it came to designating heroes--Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis.
Similarly, rock musicians in the ‘60s built their styles more on the revolutionary, guitar-driven energy of the Presley and Berry recordings than on Domino’s more conventional, piano-based style.
Still, Domino--with the considerable assistance of songwriter and record producer Dave Bartholomew--made some of the most inviting records of the modern pop era: records characterized by his disarming, sing-along vocals and some of the brightest musical arrangements and playing of rock’s first decade. The new four-disc box set includes 100 of Domino’s recordings.
Though the pianist had his first R&B; hit in 1950, it was 1955’s “Ain’t That a Shame” that made him a favorite of the young rock audience. The record would no doubt have gone to No. 1 if Pat Boone hadn’t made a pop version of the song and captured most of the mainstream radio airplay. As it was, Domino’s far superior rendition went to No. 10 on the pop charts. Among Domino’s other Top 10 hits: “I’m in Love Again,” “Blueberry Hill” and “I’m Walkin’.”