Ray Charles – Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music – Vol. 1 & 2 – ABC Paramount/Concord Records CRE 00899 – 1962 – 180 gm audiophile vinyl – ****
Ray Charles was a fearless innovator. Already a master craftsman on soul, rhythm and blues, and jazz influences, Ray was anxious to branch out to new audiences. Gifted with a new contract with ABC/Paramount that gave him full artistic control, he pushed his new label to take on his new project- his interpretation of country classic tunes with either big band, or string laden accompanied by choral background singers. Ray had grown up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio from his small town of Greenville, Florida, near the Georgia border.
It took the genius of Charles to recognize that without traditional country instruments like the pedal steel guitar, or banjo, he could still explore the pathos and heartbreak of country lyrics, with a soulful twist, both honoring the genre’s strengths, and yet playing to his gift of rhythmic big band, hip piano lines, and rich emotive vocals.
His prediction was accurate, and within a month in 1962, the album went gold, and the 45 rpm of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” became his biggest single. The album’s success led to a quick (seven months later) issuance of a Vol. 2. The first volume mixed big band and string based arrangements throughout the album, while the second album had all the big band cuts on side one, and the strings side, conducted and arranged by Marty Paich, on side two.
Earlier this year, Concord Records issued CD versions of the albums, and just last month, they released 180 gm audiophile quality vinyls, with remastering at Pacific Multimedia. The acoustics are warm, vibrant, and are distortion free. For fans of Charles, who recognize the historical value of these two albums, vinyl is the way to go.
The 24 tracks (12 on each issue) cover very traditional country classic tunes, with a brief foray into pop
(The Everly Bros. hit “Bye Bye Love”), American folk (“You Are My Sunshine”), and a sole Charles original, “Careless Love.” The choral background singers’ (as “white bread” as you can get) accompaniment can be distracting, but Ray’s vocals rise above the challenge that the choral singing presents. The strings can be saccharine at times, but more often they bring an ethereal vibe that adds to the deep emotion that Charles gives to the heartfelt lyrics. It proves that he had no contemporaries that match his skill in bringing gospel based church soul and blues to whatever genre he explores.
Several tracks stand out for laudable mention. The horns roar on the opener, “Bye Bye Love,” while the Raelets sweetly croon behind their leader. The brass response led by Don Wilkerson on “Half as Much” brings much joy. The achingly beautiful ballad, “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” benefits from soaring strings. David “Fathead” Newman delivers on “Just a Little Lovin’.”
“It Makes No Difference Now” has a sensuous Ellington type riff, and Ray presents the vocal at a confident stroll. Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’” has the classic uptempo Charles’ treatment with a bluesy piano solo mid-tune.
Vol. 2 is more of a mixed bag. To me, side one is a clear winner with the big band on all six tracks, arranged by the iconic west coast jazz titan, Gerald Wilson. The second side, all string arrangements, ably led by Marty Paich, features the Jack Halloran Singers, whose response choral vocals just don’t cut it for me. Ray is able to rise above the fluff, and bring true emotion, caressing the heartbreak covered on “Take These Chains From My Heart,” and “Your Cheating Heart.” Ray’s affection for country lyrics is even more evident on “Teardrops in My Heart,” where his voice cracks, a definitive version of emotional anguish, and the piano notes drop like tears. Charles proves a master of bringing a melancholy mood throughout the strings sessions, yet still keeping the soul quotient firmly in place.
Side one with all big band backing is uniformly excellent. The combination of Wilson’s arrangements, the big bands power, and Margie Hendrix channeling Tina Turner on “You are My Sunshine” will bring a smile to your face and a lift to your step.
These two vinyl treasures should make it onto your pre Christmas shopping list…
Bye Bye Love
You Don’t Know Me
Half as Much
I Love You So Much It Hurts
Just a Little Lovin’ (Will Go a Long Way)
Born to Lose
It Makes No Difference Now
You Win Again
I Can’t Stop Loving You
Hey, Good Lookin’
You Are My Sunshine
No Letter Today
Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)
Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles
Oh, Lonesome Me
Take These Chains From My Heart
Your Cheating Heart
I’ll Never Stand in Your Way
Teardrops in My Heart
Hang Your Head in Shame
(Ray Charles – piano, vocals; Marty Paich – string arrangements; Gerald Wilson and/or Gil Fuller – big band arrangements; Raelets with Margie Hendrix – background vocals on Vol 1, side 1, track , and Vol. 2, side 1, tracks 1 & 4; Jack Halloran Singers – background choral vocals on Vol. 2, side 2; David “Fathead” Newman – tenor sax solo on “Just a Little Lovin”; Don Wilkerson – tenor sax solo on “Half as Much”)