They didn’t call Ray Charles “The Genius” for nothing.
But it wasn’t like there was a calculated effort to do something to bring white people and people of color together. Charles was simply drawing upon his childhood, where he listened to, and learned to play, both Country and the Blues…and despite their sonic differences, never saw a conflict between the two.
In 1961, Ray Charles, recently signed to ABC-Paramount Records, was looking for creative control – something rarely enjoyed by any artist at that time. Despite his superstar status in R&B and growing popularity in Rock & Roll, he really wanted to record an album of Country songs.
The label’s reaction was quite predictable…they looked at him as if he had three heads.
But Charles’ reasoning was as simple as it was profound…he told the ABC folk that Country is the white man’s rhythm and blues.
Check…MATE. Creative control…granted.
The time frame – Spring 1962 – is significant, as Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music came before Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964…when Jim Crow was still LEGALLY President of the South.
But Jim Crow couldn’t stop “I Can’t Stop Loving You” from spending five weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, or Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music from spending NINETEEN weeks as the top-selling album in the USA. I like how Billy Joel described this moment to Rolling Stone: “Here is a black man giving you the whitest possible music in the blackest possible way, while all hell is breaking loose with the civil rights movement.”
This album raised the profile of both Ray Charles and Country Music in mass culture; its musical integration of both Soul and Country into Pop Music has been said to transform racial boundaries in music, thereby contributing to the civil rights movement.
I have no way of knowing if Dr. King was aware of this music in those days, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that it helped prepare the public to receive his message.
What I can tell you is that Ray Charles went on to have an illustrious career in Country Music, and remains an influence to this day.
Whenever you hear R&B influences in Country Music…
…Ray Charles it where it started.
It’s been said that music unites people. Few records have done more to bring cultures and people together than Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music.