Sweet Voice, the emotionally expressive debut recording by Charles Atkins,
is infused with strains of infectious jump blues, soul blues, raw blues
shouting and echoes of gospel. And, while he’s not an established artist
outside his home state of Florida, Atkins has long been a cultural and
educat1ional force — and a blues hero — in Tallahassee.
Often referred to as "Sir Charles," Atkins is a blues pianist and educator who received his training at the Florida School for the Blind in St. Augustine, where — like fellow FSB alumnus Ray Charles — he focused on keyboards and vocals. After graduation, Atkins went on to work professionally with Sam & Dave, the Ink Spots and Benny Latimore. Atkins also established the Blues Lab program at Florida State University, a musical outreach and education program which has become a model for similar programs throughout the U.S. The Los Angeles Juvenile Probation System sites have been awarded municipal grants specifically for Blues Lab programming. (See BA #44 or visit www.blueslab.com for more information on the Blues Lab.)
Most of the songs on Sweet Voice were written by Atkins, and much of the material recalls or honors Atkins’ late wife Mary, who passed away a few weeks before the recording sessions were set to begin. Atkins seems to be singing to her even when he’s not singing about her, as on the title track, "Sweet Voice." Here and there his lyric readings speak so plainly to how much Atkins misses her that it would seem to be painful to hear, but he infuses even the sad tunes with hopeful asides and an uplifting attitude. There are even a few sassy, feel-good numbers in the traditional blues vein, like the celebratory "It’s Me" and the feisty, humorous "Go Get Laid."
The tracks sound as though they were recorded live in a performance hall or nightclub, with a live, set-down-the-microphone-and-record-the-proceedings feeling that perfectly suits the spontaneous, informal blues-gospel temper of Atkins’ material. The smoky, sultry horn arrangements and evocative saxophone solos by Bill Samuel are right on time, and guitarists Warren King and Ace Moreland (who was involved in the recording, mixing and mastering of the album) both add to the strength of the backing band.
Atkins has a hearty, resonant delivery that’s full of soul — sometimes sweet and plaintive, sometimes gritty and brimming over with shouting gospel and blues tones, and his emotionally exposed, warm-hearted singing and song-writing are lovingly documented here.
— B.J. Huchtemann