It was 85 years ago today that Ray Charles was born in Albany, Georgia. A musical kid, he began banging on the piano as a toddler, training his left hand to play boogie-woogie bass patterns with help from a local storeowner named Wiley Pitman. After losing his eyesight as a seven year old, he headed to a boarding school for deaf and blind children in St. Augustine, Florida, where his teachers taught him to play classical music. Jazz and blues were Charles’ preferred styles, though, and by his late teens, he’d expanded his sound to include pop, R&B and country music.
Charles drew on all of those genres throughout the 1950s, scoring a handful of hits as a solo artist along the way. He hit a new, diverse peak with 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, though. Recorded in three days during the height of the Civil Rights Movement — with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech less than a year and a half away — the album ignored the racial divide that loomed between R&B and country audiences. Songs like Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Looking” and the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” were stripped to their foundations and rebuilt with big-band string arrangements, turning the down-home tunes into something grand. Background singers oohed and aahed in the background, their harmonies referencing everything from the primal punch of gospel music to the buttoned-up sound of Faron Young’s “Hello Walls,” which had topped the country charts one year earlier. Colorblind and ballsy, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music widened the reach of every genre it touched, proving that country music didn’t have to be a white man’s game.
The album also opened doors for Charles, who went on to record duets with country legends like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. In the video above, he and Glen Campbell tackle Modern Sounds‘ kickoff track, “Bye Bye Love,” during a 1978 performance at the Grand Ole Opry.
Charles and Campbell were already longtime friends, with a string of televised duets that stretched back to Charles’ first appearance on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour in April 1969, and their ease with another turned “Bye Bye Love” into a loose, limber performance. Come for the explosive opening, which takes Campbell by such surprise that he doesn’t even begin strumming his guitar until the first verse. Stay for the banter that the two musicians exchange throughout, the song with Charles even casting Campbell as the guy who steals away the narrator’s sweetheart.