Ray Charles | Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (April 1962)
Country / Rhythm and Blues / Countrypolitan – 39:33
“The music field was the first to break down racial barriers, because in order to play together, you have to love the people you are playing with, and if you have any racial inhibitions, you wouldn’t be able to do that.”
It would be fair to say that modern music has been instrumental in breaking down barriers of race. However, such a sweeping statement would need to come with a rather hefty caveat. Think about the number of artists who have introduced a sound to the masses – and, as we’ve seen before, by this we mean the vast number of white Westerners who sadly have the say on what constitutes popular music. Take a look through the cultural highlights of the last 60 or 70 decades: artists like Nat ‘King’ Cole had to wear make up to lighten their appearance on television; blues progression into the more popular rock ‘n’ roll was courtesy of Elvis rather than artists like Little Richard; world music only became popular after the likes of the Beatles visited India; disco and rap were pushed to the top of the charts thanks to the involvement of white rather than black stars (Run DMC’s biggest hit in the 1980s was their teaming with all-white rockers Aerosmith, while the Beastie Boys had higher charting tracks than NWA or Public Enemy).
This is obviously a massive generalisation, but it does appear to the casual observer that the record buying public, en masse, would prefer its artists to be white. Thankfully there are still those who insist on doing things differently. One such person is the great Ray Charles. Having already brought his distinct sound to the jazz genre with his album The Genius of Ray Charles, the pianist was looking for other forms of music to experiment with. He set his sights on Country and Western music – a huge decision at the time, given that Country music was seen as predominantly (if not wholly) white music. But, fortunately, Charles refused to see colour in music and was keen to point out the similarity between his own background in the blues and the lyrics of many Country and Western songs. He is quoted as saying: “[T]he words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down. They’re not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, ‘Look, I miss you, darlin’, so I went out and I got drunk in this bar’.” Or, as he put it elsewhere: “You take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing exactly.”
Of course, none of this counts for anything if the album itself doesn’t work – or comes across as tongue-in-cheek, like Dredd Zeppelin, Hayseed Dixie or Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. It is essential that the work is taken seriously, rather than coming across as a novelty recording, in order for it to make this list of quintessential recordings. Luckily, his own genius, alongside the talent of producer Sid Feller, helped to ensure that this was a work that combined the raw lyrics of the genre with the best big band arrangements. Feller selected a number of tracks from a catalogue of 250 or so songs, allowing Charles to then work his musical magic on them. The results proved a hit with the public and critics alike, with the album regarded one of the artist’s best.
Things kick off in style with the breezy Bye Bye Love, an incredible opener by any standards. The rhythm jumps straight in, instantly turning the tune into a classic swing number. Charles is able to stamp his intention early and any doubts that this would work are thrown out of the window within the first few beats. It may be short, but it declares his aim and works brilliantly. As he slows things down, with the gentle You Don’t Know Me, it becomes evident that Charles’ plan was not as crazy as it may have first appeared; through the powerful arranging and Charles’ natural talent, you forget that these songs were ever sung by anyone else. One of the things which struck me about the previous Ray Charles album on this list was the fact that it was when he was interpreting other people’s work that he was at his best. It was something which Charles was actually aware of, and this album features only songs already popular with other artists, albeit in a different genre. And, yet, it works. Many of the tracks may be slower than you’d expect from someone like Ray Charles and, as before, the slower numbers don’t always work – I Love You So Much It Hurts, while not a painful listen, does seem out of place. But when things speed up again, on tracks like Just a Little Lovin’ or his incredible version of Hey, Good Lookin’, then the album comes into its own.
Ray Charles certainly earned the right to call himself ‘The Genius’. To take two genres which seem, on the surface, to be so opposed both culturally and musically, and to bring them together with such success is surely indicative of the type of person Charles was – someone who, like many other great artists, was able to see what others could not, and make it work. Forget the mash-ups of the late 1990s; the first person to succeed in combining two disparate styles was the great Ray Charles. Listening to Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music proves that, regardless of what the statistics might say, doing something different can create a great piece of work. Heck, if all Country and Western sounded like this, I’d soon change my mind about it. If only it did.
Unfortunately Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is not available on Spotify.
Next time: Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs