Flashback: Willie Nelson, Ray Charles Team Up for ‘Georgia on My Mind’
In early March 1978, Willie Nelson was atop Billboard’s country albums and country singles charts with friend and frequent duet partner Waylon Jennings. Their Waylon & Willie LP had spawned a massive hit with “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” which enjoyed a four-week run at the Number One spot. Nelson, meanwhile, could be seen as sort of taking that song’s message to heart with his follow-up album which, on the surface anyway, would seem to appeal less to cowboys than to “doctors and lawyers and such.” Released April 19th, 1978, Stardust offered Nelson’s interpretations of American pop standards. The album’s first single, Nelson’s passionate reading of the Hoagy Carmichael classic “Georgia on My Mind,” was released March 2nd, 1978, 42 years ago today.
With Stardust, Nelson the hit songwriter was completely absent, which meant that his interpretive skills were allowed to fully flower on songs such as “All of Me,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” and “Blue Skies.” Following Nelson’s version of “Georgia on My Mind,” which would reach Number One in June, becoming only the third of the Texas native’s solo hits to top the chart, “Blue Skies” became another country chart-topper, which made Stardust Nelson’s first LP to produce more than one Number One hit. A year after its release, Nelson’s version of the song earned a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Most impressively, however, Stardust logged 540 weeks on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, eventually dropping off the survey a full decade later in 1988, by which time Nelson was a bona fide American legend.
“Georgia on My Mind” was written in 1930 by Carmichael with his roommate, lyricist Stuart Gorrell. Thirty years later, Ray Charles had a Number One pop hit with it, and remains the artist most closely associated with the wistful tune. In 1984, Charles, who in 1962 had released Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, a landmark LP interpreting classic country songs, returned to the genre for Friendship, an LP of duets with Nashville acts including George Jones, Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs and more. With Nelson, Charles recorded the Number One LP’s chart-topping “Seven Spanish Angels,” making it the biggest of Charles’ handful of country-chart entries.
In 1985, Nelson teamed with Charles during a Nashville Network concert simply titled The Willie Nelson Special. The pair’s performance of “Georgia on My Mind” was a highlight of the program, as the two longtime friends sat together at the piano to trade vocals on the song, as seen above. But Nelson and Charles also played behind the scenes, too, enjoying a rivalry at chess that Nelson joked about during the special. “He won,” Nelson said, adding, “But the next time we’re gonna turn the lights on.” The comment earned a hearty laugh from Charles, as can be seen in the clip below.
Stardust would coincide with Nelson’s first appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1978. In an interview with the magazine’s Chet Flippo, Nelson acknowledged the major gamble he was taking with the LP.
“I had had the idea for some time but until I met Booker [T. Jones, who produced Stardust], I wasn’t really sure in my mind how well I could do these songs because of my limited musical ability, as far as writing down songs of this caliber. These are complicated songs; they have a lot of chords in them. I needed someone like Booker to write and arrange. Once I got with him it was easy to do the album.”