RAY CHARLES / “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
After his Atlantic contract ended, Ray signed with ABC-Paramount in November 1959. He obtained a much more liberal contract than other artists had at that time. With the success of his Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, Ray gained new fame and financial security. His succeeding contract with ABC gave him more control over his creations. All master recordings were to revert to him at the conclusion of his contract.
With his continued successful recordings and expanded personal appearances, Ray and his close associate and adviser, Joe Adams, built an office building in Los Angeles. Included was a fully equipped professional recording studio. This move changed Ray’s life forever. Now he had a place to spend all his creative time when not on the road performing.
In the beginning he needed help in the studio. A recording engineer was hired. Ray’s main agenda was to learn everything possible about the recording booth and its mysteries. Those familiar with the recording booth know what is involved—tape machines, control board (console), patch boards to connect the many mics to the recording equipment and hundreds of patch cords to make the connections, speakers, amplifiers, and much more.
As time went by, Ray mastered his equipment in the recording booth, eventually taking the place of the engineer. He started mixing his own dates, an unbelievable sight. He was still playing by company rules—his own!
Before Ray started mixing his own sessions, he, like all other recording artists, was in the studio singing live and playing piano with the orchestra and chorus. After he took over in the booth, a new era started. Now he sat in the booth at the console, balancing and mixing the orchestra dn chorus, who were out in the studio playing. He instructed the individual musicians to adjust themselves to the mics for a better balance. When he felt the sound was just right, he’d call a master take number over the P.A. system and the recording would begin. After some stops for adjustments or changes were made, a finished take was approved after listening to a playback. This same routine continued until all the songs to be recorded were finished. Then the fun began—Ray would set up mics in the studio for his voice and piano. While an assistant started the tape machines rolling he would sing and play—overdubbing his part on the vocal and piano tracks that were left open on the original tape. Ray would listen to the combined tape playback—the original orchestra and chorus plus his just-completed vocal and piano. After his approval of the completed take, the basic recording was finished.
Next came the final mixing of the multitrack tapes. Ray did all the patching of the various tracks to the tape machine, which would make the master tape. He’s set each fader (volume slides on the console) to feed the sound he wanted. When he was satisfied with the results, he’s start all the tape machines and make slight adjustments as the machines were playing back and recording. When the final mixed sound was what he wanted, the recording was over. Ray did it all himself!
—Sid Feller, liner notes* * *
This music is over forty years old. In 2007 these Country & Western classics might sound safe and even a little tame. But think of the context. 1962. No March on Washington yet. No “I Have A Dream.” We were still living the national nightmare. Blood was in the streets. Literally. Fact is: America was still segregated. De facto. De jure. Day. And night.
Western was still the rage. The Grand Ole Opry was on television. But it was a white thing. A white Southern thing. Kissing cousin to the Klan thing. Mississippi Goddamn thing.
Plus on the pop side of town, Chubby Checker had everybody, including Frank Sinatra—doing the Twist. Chubby had back-to-back #1’s with Twist songs.
Plus, as the high priest of R&B, Ray Charles had church folk tee-totally pissed at him for mixing gospel with the devil’s music. Bishops envied his ability to sermonize, to move crowds of colored folk to heights of delirium previously reserved for Sunday sanctuaries.
Despite all the negatives prevalent in those years, Ray Charles was riding high in ghettos all across America. From Boston to Seattle, Chicago to New Orleans, Brother Ray would have people dancing and shouting to “What’d I Say” or drinking and crying to “Drown In My Own Tears.” Black, blind and bluesy, Ray Charles was it—at that time, as far as the inner city was concerned, Ray was bigger than James Brown or any other Black entertainer.
All you had to say was: Ray Charles in town. I got a dollar and a quarter and I’m just raring to clown.
So, Ray Charles comes out with the biggest record of his storied career: the album was Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music. The single was “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
I don’t know if you heard me. Ray Charles dropped some Country & Western on us and ALL of America, black and white, Klan and civil rights workers. Everybody got with the program.
* * *
When I heard Hank Snow sing “Moving On,” I loved it. And the lyrics. Keep in mind, I’m a singer, so I like lyrics. Those lyrics are great, so that’s what made me want to do it.
—Ray Charles, in the liner notes
C&W songs are funny, as in witty and often gritty—dealing with the down and dirty of everyday life on the poor side of town. If the music were not so indelibly associated with “crackers, peckerwoods, and po’ white trash” (or at least that’s the way the average black person assessed the sociology of C&W), however, if it were not for that association, black people would definitely enjoy these hard luck stories in song form.
So what Ray Charles did for the first two albums was wrap the stories in his gravelly, soulful croon, buttressed it with some of his bluesy piano playing, and put some hip, jazzy arrangements on the music and presto, we couldn’t stop loving it.
With his recording of “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Ray Charles did more for country music than any other artist.
—Willie Nelson, in the liner notes
Right now we’re just focusing on Ray Charles singing Country & Western. When you think about it, Ray Charles was both genre-defying and simultaneously a major icon of popular American music.
It may sound easy today, but back in the beginning of the sixties, back before the Civil Rights Bill, back when everything was black or white, not black and white, Ray Charles stepped forward and did what no one else had ever even thought about doing.
It’s important to recognize what Ray Charles did in negotiating his post-Atlantic recording contracts so that he would own his masters; what he did in building his own studio and learning to be his own engineer; what he did in recording whatever he wanted to record regardless of the source.
Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music was not just an entertainment phenomenon. This was a political and economic statement. Ray Charles was showing us how we could claim it all, own it all, do it all howsoever we wanted to do it. In the paradoxical way revolutions are often consummated, a black man recording a C&W album, Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music, was a quintessential example of self determination. Who would have thunk it?!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
What music is all about
Listening to these songs, what I notice is how close the relationship between R&B and C&W actually is…or perhaps I should say, could be. As I’m typing this, I’m seven songs in, and I’ve yet to hear one that I wouldn’t have considered R&B if it wasn’t specifically labeled ‘Country & Western.’ Some of the tunes, like “I’m Movin’ On,” “Busted” and “Crying Time,” are already in my collection – probably from a Ray Charles box set I got once. I didn’t even realize those were supposed to be country songs. I just thought of them as Ray Charles songs.
I remember reading this book in which the author talked about many of the (mostly hidden) connections between the two musical genres. He talked about various playing and singing techniques that traveled from R&B to C&W and he talked about the numerous C&W songs that ended up in the repertoires of R&B singers. It was a fascinating discussion; I wish I could remember what the book was.
Personally, I got to know and like country music while I was a long-haul truck driver. The job lasted less than a year, but in that time, I learned a lot about my prejudices and preconceptions. Most Black people in America live in or near urban centers, and so we tend to think of white people as generally well-to-do with the exception of a small group of poorer folk who live in that one run-down, mostly-white suburb that every urban center seems to include. In reality, there are hard-working, relatively poor white folk all over this country from coast to coast. For me, that truth was repeatedly hammered home as I criss-crossed the country over and over.
I saw things I’ll never forget. I remember one day I was heading east on the I-40 somewhere in Oklahoma (I think) when I saw a sign advertising truck washes for $20. Most truck washes charge a good bit more than that, so I decided to do it. Following a series of handmade signs, I ended up in a clearing at the bottom of a dirt road. As soon as I cut the engine and set the parking brakes, three kids came running out of a small shack. (And I’m not exaggerating for effect – this place was a literal shack. It looked like the first stiff wind would take it down.) The kids were carrying buckets and scrub brushes and they immediately started washing the wheels. I hadn’t so much as lowered the window yet. After another minute or so, a woman came out of the shack as well. I would guess she was in her mid-thirties, although her sun-worn skin and generally run-down appearance made her look about fifty. She said, with no preamble, “Twenty bucks.” I told her no problem. She went off somewhere and came back with some extensions for the scrub brushes. Then she and the three kids started washing the truck and the trailer.
The weirdest thing about the whole experience is that the kids were so covered in dirt, that I initially thought they were in blackface! When they first came out of that house, I thought it was some kind of fucked up joke. Those kids’ faces were almost completely covered in what looked like soot. It was only as they started washing the truck that I realized they looked like that because they were just that dirty.
Anyway, the point of this story is, there are white people like that woman and her three kids all over America. And by and large, country music is their soundtrack. Over time, I learned that country music extolls certain virtues and beliefs. Those beliefs – things like pride, steadiness, a strong work ethic, faithfulness, virtue, etc. – are the things that these mostly working-class people believe in. One of the reasons that country songs tend to tell stories is because a lot of country fans believe in stories. They believe in getting up every morning, saying their prayers, working hard all day and then doing the same thing all over again. I don’t know that I’ll ever actually be a fan of country music, but I have learned to respect it as a genre. It’s a style of music that is very much alive because it still speaks to the needs and beliefs of the people who listen to it. And if you ask me, that’s what music is all about.
—Mtume ya Salaam
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