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'Modern Sounds' Re-Release Revives Ray Charles' 1962 Venture Into Country


This is FRESH AIR. In 1962, Ray Charles released two albums that became surprise hits - "Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music," Volumes 1 and 2. At the time, few popular black artists had released collections of country music songs. Now the two albums have been rereleased in a single collection. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Makes no difference now what kind of life fate hands me. I'll get along without you now. It's plain to see.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: By 1962, Ray Charles had fused rhythm and blues and gospel in an artfully, gritty way that came to be called soul music. He'd already demonstrated his interest in jazz, but few of his admirers foresaw where he'd next turn his restless ambition. Charles had moved from Atlantic Records to ABC-Paramount Records in an effort to gain greater control over his career.


CHARLES: (Singing) You give your hand to me, and then you say hello. And I can hardly speak. My heart is beating so. And anyone can tell you think you know me well, but you don't know me.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) No, you don't know me.

CHARLES: (Singing) No, you don't know the one...

TUCKER: That's "You Don't Know Me," which Ray Charles would have known as a top-10 hit for Eddy Arnold in 1956. The story goes that Charles called ABC producer Sid Feller and asked him to compile a list of recent country hits. From this list, Charles took about two dozen and cut his interpretations of them over the course of two recording sessions - one in New York City and one in Hollywood. In general, the upbeat numbers were recorded with a tight little band and Ray Charles' backup singers the Raelettes. The ballads were recorded with a string section led by arranger Marty Paich, plus some studio backup vocalists. You can hear the smoothness applied to the latter material in a song such as "You Win Again" written by, arguably, the greatest country songwriter, Hank Williams.


CHARLES: (Singing) The news is out all over town that you've been seen just running around. I know that I should leave, but then I just can't go. You win again. This heart of mine...

TUCKER: I'd like you to listen now to Hank Williams' own recording of that song because it illustrates a problem I used to have with Ray Charles' version of country music.


HANK WILLIAMS: (Singing) The news is out all over town that you've been seen just running around. I know that I should leave, but then I just can't go. You win again. This heart of mine...

TUCKER: You can hear the intentional rawness in Hank Williams' version. To be sure, Ray Charles' own vocal style, his remarkably expressive roar, has its own kind of rough passion. But when I first heard Ray Charles' versions of country music when I was a teenager, I scorned them. I found his interpretations mawkish and the arrangements fussy. Like so many firm opinions formulated in adolescence, this was, of course, idiotic. I was too young, too wedded to a false notion of authenticity to hear the mature beauty and passion that rippled through so much of this music.


UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) I can't stop loving you.

CHARLES: (Singing) I've made up my mind to live in memories of the lonesome times.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) I can't stop loving you.

CHARLES: (Singing) It's useless to say. So I'll just live my life in dreams of yesterdays.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Yesterdays.

CHARLES: Those happy hours...

TUCKER: That version of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" hit No. 1 for Ray Charles and helped turn "Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music" into a major pop hit. The album became ABC's first million seller. Elated, the record label released Volume 2 just 6 months later. And it, too, was a smash.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) Take these chains from my heart and set me free.

CHARLES: (Singing) Take these chains from my heart and set me free. You've grown cold and no longer care for me. Oh, my faith in you is gone, but the heartaches linger on. Take these chains from my heart and set me free. Take these tears...

TUCKER: Like so many pop culture revolutions conceived by African-American artists, Ray Charles' venture into country was initially perceived condescendingly, as a novelty. My, how interesting - a soul singer tackling Hank Williams. But as was clear to anyone with an open mind and ears, what Ray Charles was doing was seizing country music and extending its reach as American music, something every citizen could claim as his or her own. As such, these two albums now stand as great democratic gestures whose beauty remains undimmed.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the reissue Ray Charles - "Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, Vols 1 & 2."


CHARLES: (Singing) You'll never know I cried when I found out you lied, for I've been hiding all these teardrops in my heart.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) In my heart.

CHARLES: (Singing) My eyes dare not reveal...

GROSS: After we take a short break, John Powers will review a spy novel about an African-American, female FBI agent during the Cold War. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "DOODLIN'" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.