1953: Mess Around, by Ray Charles
In 1953 the party hadn’t quite started, but everything was in play. And Ray Charles was playing everything. R&B, blues, gospel and, according to Ahmet Ertegun in Gerri Hershey’s seminal history of soul music, Nowhere to Run, even playing country tracks nearly a decade before he recorded Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
“He had the wisdom to embrace the whole musical heritage,” Ertegun, the man behind Atlantic Records, told Hershey, “the suffering, which was the blues, and the celebration, which could come out in gospel.”
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Mess Around is a joyful boogie woogie track written by Ertegun under an alias. It’s a party song built around Charles’s piano riff, a fat, throaty sax line (from David “Fathead” Newman, I think. Anyone put me straight?) and a sense of fun.
Is Mess Around the best tune of 1953? The first ten seconds of BB King’s blues track Please Love Me is more exciting – a rock riff waiting for rock ’n’ roll to arrive. And maybe it's a track that sounds a little tame now because we know now what came next.
But Charles was a pioneer, a musician who knew that popular music wasn’t about musicological purity, but about putting everything into the pot and stirring it up. Mess Around does just that.
Please Love Me, BB King
Mercy, Mr Percy, Varetta Dillard