In early 1963, when incoming Alabama governor George Wallace delivered his infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech, the Number One record on the nation’s R&B chart, as well as a recent Top Ten hit on pop radio, was “You Are My Sunshine” by Ray Charles. That country standard was already well-known to generations of pop fans, thanks to sunny, sing-a-long recordings by Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and others. But Charles’ version was something else. A fierce and danceable duet with Raelette Margie Hendrix, Charles’ “You Are My Sunshine” swiped a song from the country canon, the music then, as now, most associated with Southern racism, and mixed it with unmistakable soul rhythms and a vocal attack born in the black church. The record was a subtle, and in many ways not subtle at all, embodiment of the integration Wallace and other racists were standing against.
Charles’ two previous singles had pulled a similarly subversive trick, but with a twist. Just like his “You Are My Sunshine,” Charles’ versions of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “You Don’t Know Me” had foregrounded the bluesy, soulful voice of an African-American man singing mostly already old country songs. But instead of the call-and-response shouts and rhythms of soul music, these previous records had surrounded Charles with state-of-the-art country-pop arrangements, string-bejeweled and augmented by a mass of backing vocals. They were even bigger hits than “You Are My Sunshine” had been.
When Charles first announced he wanted to do an album of country songs, his new record label, ABC, argued it was a bad idea: He’d lose fans. But Charles bet that, though he might anger some of his listeners, he would gain many more. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and its sequel Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volume 2, both originally released in 1962, proved immensely popular. In addition, they aided Charles’ transition from soul giant and budding pop star to American icon. The albums have gone in and out of print over the decades, more often cited for their historical importance than actually listened to. Now both albums are being reissued, digitally and on CD, as well as vinyl, by Concord Records, with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum also hosting a panel discussion of the records.
One explanation for the albums’ success in the day was the song selection. It’s important to keep in mind that nearly every one of the songs Charles and producer Sid Feller chose for the recordings had already experienced significant pop exposure at some point over the previous 20 years. What’s more, while many of the albums’ tracks were delivered in modern, either country-pop or country-pop adjacent settings, many other tracks were not. The opening track on the first Modern Sounds album, for example, was the widely known “Bye Bye Love,” a song that had been a country and pop chart-topper for the Everly Brothers five years earlier, and a Number Five R&B hit to boot. Charles delivers it in a big-band soul style that’s perfectly consistent with his earlier R&B hits. Charles performs “Half as Much,” a Hank Williams song Rosemary Clooney had scored with in 1952, in a sweet jazzy stroll, reminiscent of the records one of Charles’ great heroes, Artie Shaw, might have made, except with a sax solo where the clarinet would be. “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” a Floyd Tillman song long known to pop audiences thanks to a 1949 Mills Brothers hit, is rendered as a kind of fragile, counter-intuitive lullaby: “I’m so afraid to go to bed at night,” Charles coos to himself, tip-toeing through each anxious line.
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music did not mark the first time a black singer had scored with country songs dressed up as sumptuous pop and soul. As routinely noted, Solomon Burke had already landed a big hit in 1961 with the country song “Just Out of Reach,” and with an arrangement that was a dead ringer for the Nashville Sound. But keep a thought, too, for poor Lenny Welch. Though he never gets so much as name-dropped in these discussions, the singer had a Number 28 R&B hit with his tears-and-violins take on “You Don’t Know Me” a year and half before Burke’s breakthrough.
Still, Charles’ Modern Sounds albums were the first to deploy a country + soul + pop approach as a sustained, self-conscious project. The first Modern Sounds album topped the Billboard chart for most of the summer and fall of 1962, and its sequel climbed as high as Number Two before the year was over. The Modern Sounds albums have also proven to be among the most consequential ever released, particularly for country music. Not because any Modern Sounds singles were included on country radio playlists. The country format would remain “whites only” for another five years when Charley Pride became the lone exception to the segregated rule. Pride remained the only significant mainstream black country artist for nearly the next 20 years — when Charles himself finally enjoyed a brief moment of country radio success in the early 1980s.
The absence from country radio of “You Don’t Know Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was racially motivated: There was simply no musical justification for excluding those first Modern Sounds singles. In a country-music era known for the lush orchestration and swoony, piano-and-choir prodded melodies of crossover hits like Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” or Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World,” Bill Anderson’s “Still” or Ray Price’s “Make the World Go Away,” Charles’ records would have fit right in. In other words, first Modern Sound singles weren’t suggesting new sonic possibilities for country to adopt. Rather, it was Charles who adopted, and helped to popularize and codify, an already winning modern Nashville formula.
At the same time that Charles was being excluded from country radio playlists, the Country Music Association and other industry institutions were embracing Charles and his music — and for the same reason Charles had himself turned to country music: to increase audience. “Although [the country music industry] did not imagine the album as a country record or Charles as a country singer,” writes scholar Diane Pecknold in an anthology she edited, Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music (Duke University Press, 2013), “the industry enthusiastically promoted Modern Sounds to broadcasters and broadcast advertisers as proof that country and its audience were… no longer hillbillies or ignorant hayseeds.” Rather, the country audience was now, Pecknold continues, “the industrial blue-collar middle class…a lucrative broadcasting demographic that could not be ignored.” The country music industry’s simultaneous embrace and rejection of Charles’ Modern Sounds albums was a key component of the campaign that helped the number of dedicated full-time country radio stations balloon from just 81 in 1961 to more than 600 in 1969.
Nashville drafted on Charles’ popularity in all sorts of ways. Almost immediately, there were a couple of Nashville-produced tribute albums. “Jerry and Tom” (producer Jerry Kennedy and guitarist Tommy Tomlinson) released an instrumental set, The Guitar Sounds of Ray Charles. And the Anita Kerr Singers had Vocal Stylings of “The Genius” in Harmony. (The album was presumably already in the works before Modern Sounds as it was released while “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was still high on the pop charts and as it included not one selection from the Modern Sounds repertoire.) The Kerr Singers’ haunted reading of Brother Ray’s “Drown in My Own Tears” feels almost surreal, a slow-motion submersion in depression.
Other Nashville reactions to the success of Modern Sounds took just a bit longer to emerge but stuck around for years. Though the Charles albums were cut in Hollywood and New York, Nashville quickly used the Charles association to solidify its reputation as Music City, U.S.A., the center for all varieties of pop artists looking to find commercial success with some Nashville-cut modern sounds of their own. Charles’ success inspired, as well, any number of those “[Insert Non-country act here] Sings Songs from the Country” albums that proliferated for the next decade or so. That delightful if mostly forgotten trend went a long way toward securing for Nashville country its mainstream status and never mind that quite a few of those albums were actually cut in L.A.
Even more common than the country-themed projects and tribute albums that Charles inspired were the countless pop acts who now routinely seasoned their albums with a stray country track or two. As these tracks were frequently new versions of songs that had been returned to wider attention via the Modern Sounds sets, Ray Charles get a large share of the thanks for another key development in country music history: The recognition of what’s since been termed a second Great American Songbook, this one coming from Music Row instead of Tin Pan Alley.
One of the treasures of that songbook, of course, is “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” It became the biggest hit of Charles’ career, topping the pop and R&B charts and also the brand new at the time “Easy Listening” countdown (what we today call adult contemporary). The song was written by Don Gibson, famously recorded on the same demo tape that included “Oh Lonesome Me,” Gibson’s own career record and a song Charles included on Modern Sounds Volume 2. It was Kitty Wells, though, not Gibson, who had the original and bigger country hit with “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” She beat Gibson’s cut to the country charts by two weeks and beat him again when her record climbed to Number Three to Gibson’s Number Seven.
Despite this early success, Gibson’s song didn’t immediately enter the country canon, though it was covered a couple of times, by Cowboy Copas and Roy Orbison. Since Charles had his hit with the song, however, it’s been recorded hundreds of time, by all sorts of singers: Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Henry Mancini, jazz guitarist Grant Green, Connie Francis, Peggy Lee, Conway Twitty (who had a Number One country hit with the song in 1972), Van Morrison, Tom Jones, Martina McBride, and so on.
Why was the song been so popular? Gibson’s lyric speaks straightforwardly of loss and continued devotion, but it is perhaps the song’s melody that has mattered most, compounding a melancholy beyond its words — even when the melody is traced by a singer as gifted as Ray Charles.
Charles’ version opens with the Jack Halloran Singers, a mass of 20 or so voices that sounds completely lacking in any black influence — no melisma, no focus on rhythm or timbre or texture — and in any rural Southern white influence, either — the singers don’t sound pinched or twangy, there’s no drawl. In fact, it’s the smooth, precise, comparatively static, presumably edgeless sound of these inexplicably cheery singers — the group’s lack of obvious cultural appropriation — that has led so many listeners to say they sound so “white.” And it’s the juxtaposition of these voices with Charles’ black one, in this case rough and bereft, that has led so many to say the record triumphs only because Charles’ transcends the limits the singers impose — or at least to suggest the record would be better without their “whitewashing,” as it were, of Charles’ misery.
But what if we hear those voices not as inappropriate to the record, as some sort of production misstep, but as aiding precisely the tension Charles intends to create? Maybe the juxtaposition of Charles’ voice with the Halloran Singers is a key to the record’s political subversion, subtle and radical at once, as well as its popularity.
For the last chunk of the record, Charles engages in extended call and responses with the singers. They sing a line; he sings it better; repeat.
“Sing the song, children,” Charles, in 1962, tells the whitest-sounding voices in the universe. They do what he tells them.