Essentials: Ray Charles ‘Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music’

This 1962 landmark album is one of the most important records ever made: musically, socially and politically.

In the early 1960s Ray Charles was known primarily for his achievements in jazz and rhythm and blues. He had burst onto the music scene in the early 1950s as a pianist and erstwhile vocalist with a focus on his own talent as an arranger. His first real hit was a collaboration with his good friend Guitar Slim on “The Things I Used To Do”, and from that he went on to record such classics as “I Got A Woman” and his trail-blazing triumph in 1959 with “What’d I Say”. That was hardly the accepted background to taking on country music, but when Ray moved from Atlantic Records to ABC Paramount he also signed a contract that gave him considerable artistic freedom.

Who knew he would take up with material straight from Nashville? His record company didn’t like the idea one bit and told him he would lose some of his fans. After all, Ray was a soul singer supreme, and what the dickens did that have to do with country music? Well, the resulting record spent two years on the Billboard charts, including fourteen weeks at No. 1, and it revolutionized country music. You see, what Ray did with this material flavoured it with soul that no one knew it had. No one, that is, except for Ray himself, one of the three greatest musical geniuses of the twentieth century. (Who were the other two? – in the view of noted producer John Hammond, they were Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan). The recording session produced two volumes.

Sid Feller, the artistic director of ABC-Paramount, had this to say about the album in retrospect: “He understood country music. He loved the simple and plaintive lyrics and wanted to give it a new approach. He felt that by giving the music a lush treatment, it could be different from what country singers would do with the material.”

For a Black man, and a jazz musician, to put forth an album of white-dominated country music, was considered folly by the record company, but Ray Charles insisted that “country music and blues music are the same thing.” He proved right with immense album and singles sales across the world. Musicians to this day cite this record as a major influence. Socially and politically, the album had an enormous impact on the civil rights movement.

Key tracks on the album include “Born To Lose”, “You Win Again”, “You Don’t Know Me”, and the timeless version of the Don Gibson classic “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” It’s no coincidence that each of these key tracks was arranged by Marty Paich, the gifted arranger whose life work included more than 2000 studio dates. Paich not only played on, but arranged and produced, numerous West Coast jazz recordings, including albums by Ray Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Terry Gibbs, Stan Kenton, Shelly Manne, Anita O’Day, Dave Pell, Art Pepper, Buddy Rich, Shorty Rogers, Toni Harper and Mel Tormé.

When Ray sang this material, even using the same melody, he brought a soulfulness that registered with music fans across the spectrum. The cross-pollination he achieved interested jazz and popular music fans in so-called hillbilly music.

Then there’s the jazzed-up approach that Ray brought to Hank Williams’s “Half As Much” – it’s an understated and eloquent barnburner that completely reinterprets Hank’s original, and the true glory of it is that Ray and the band swing harder at half-speed that many another band does at double-time. Hank would have loved it, just as millions of new country fans have in the past sixty years. This is an indispensable recording, still sounding as passionate and emotion-drenched as the day it was made.

Brian Miller

Brian Miller is the Publisher and Editor of Vivascene, which he founded in 2010. A former record store owner, business executive and business writer, he is devoted to vinyl records, classical guitar, and b&w photography.

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