In American culture, blues and country are viewed as operating on opposite ends of the race spectrum. Charley Pride aside, country is still the whitest genre in pop; and before the Brits co-opted the blues in the 1960s, it was almost exclusively an African-American art form. Musically, though, the line between the two genres is a blurry one. In the early 20th Century, black and white musicians essentially played the same songs, and primitive country and blues versions sit together comfortably on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Early country legend Jimmie Rodgers, who shot to fame with his series of (appropriately named) “Blue Yodels,” was cited by Howlin’ Wolf as a formative influence. Likewise, Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” and “Rock Island Line” have been covered at least as many times by country singers as blues musicians.
Yet by 1962, when Ray Charles released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, country and blues had become firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness as “different,” both from each other and from the mainstream. Part of this divide was due to marketing (“race records” versus “hillbilly music”); part was due to decades of natural musical evolution, especially once name stars became established and emphasis shifted to recording original compositions over old folk tunes. So when Ray Charles decided to record an album of country covers, the general reaction was surprise, to say the least. And when the album became successful, it was hailed as groundbreaking. Charles’s record was perceived as a powerful statement during the Civil Rights era, uniting black and white audiences and illuminating the shared roots of blues and country in American folk music. It also, rather unexpectedly, was the record that proved country music had a place in mainstream pop.
“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the biggest hit from Modern Sounds, illustrates the record’s template. There’re no steel guitars or exaggerated accents here, just Charles crooning the ballad in his usual Southern drawl and playing his jazz/gospel piano. The result is that it sounds like a Ray Charles song, not a gimmicky cover. Current listeners unaware of the record’s history may not even realize that it had ever been a country song. And if the record had been merely Charles, his band and his backing singers, The Raelettes, it would have been a knockout. Later live versions (such as this one) demonstrate how great the song could have sounded if recorded with Charles’s usual set-up. Instead, in a bid to make the single even more appealing to white pop audiences, it’s slathered in strings and a backing chorus that sounds too formal and restrained for either R&B or country. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is still an impressive record, but one that sounds a bit too dated and straitlaced. And when viewed as part of Charles’s legacy as a whole, it also marks the point where he became less concerned with being an R&B innovator, and more concerned with appealing to the mainstream. 6
Hit #1 on June 2, 1962; total of 5 weeks at #1
72 of 972#1’s reviewed; 7.41% through the Hot 100
I can appreciate Ray Charles’s versions of standards and country ballads for their significance in music history (crossing race divisions in music) and for bringing Charles into the mainstream. But if I actually want to listen to a Ray Charles record, I’m more likely to put on some of the electric mix of R&B and gospel that made him a legend. “Hit the Road Jack” is one such record – in fact, the only one of his #1 hits to be in that style (after the Hoagy Carmichael cover “Georgia on My Mind” but before Charles’s next and final chart-topper). “Hit the Road Jack” drips with early ’60s hipster cred, from the jazzy horns to the Kerouac reference to Charles’s signature Ray-Bans. There are no over-emoting strings or session backing vocals here, just a smooth, swinging groove.
The solo female vocalist is Margie Hendricks, Charles’s one-time mistress and mother of one of his 12 children. She rips into Charles with a voice fiery enough to make any man back away, tail between legs. Well, nearly any man. Charles responds to Hendricks with the seemingly contrite “Well I guess if you say so/I’d have to pack my things and go,” but his voice is an aural wink. They’ve been through this before, and she always relents. Or maybe this time it’s for real, but she’s an unwitting pawn in his scheme to go out on the road. Either way, Charles is the one in charge here. The song may be about a woman throwing out her no-good man, but Charles makes it all about him – just like he does with all of his very best songs. 8
Hit #1 on October 9, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
59 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 6.09% through the Hot 100
R&B rave-ups like “I Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say” may have marked Ray Charles as an innovator, but it was covers of old standards and country tunes that made him a star. That’s not to say that Charles had sold out in his bid to cross over to pop audiences. He had always been indebted to the sophistication of ’40s swing/jump blues icon Louis Jordan, and, no matter what he sang, his voice and phrasing were always distinctly Ray Charlesian. Still, it’s no surprise that Charles’s first #1 hit is an old Hoagy Carmichael chestnut. What’s more surprising is that it had never been a major hit for anyone since its 1930 composition. Charles claims the title of “definitive version” by the first chorus, the weariness in his voice expressing his restlessness on the long road back to Georgia. The conflating of Georgia, a woman, with Georgia, the state, is a neat trick, done subtly enough that it adds extra depth to the song rather than being a corny gimmick. But the overbearing backup singers and gaudy strings, surely included to appeal to white audiences, lessen the recording’s impact. While “Georgia on My Mind” deservedly became one of Charles’s most famous songs, it’s a lot easier from a 21st century perspective to appreciate his more gospelly, organic-sounding versions from later decades. Even with the syrupy production, though, Charles’s voice and piano always ring out, clear and distinct. 7
Hit #1 on November 14, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
40 of 965 #1’s reviewed; 4.15% through the Hot 100
A rundown of every #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, starting from the top (1958) and progressing in order. Ratings on a highly subjective 1-10 scale. Comments perpetually open. Supposedly published weekly.