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Ray Charles And Country Music

Fifty years ago, Ray Charles blended R&B, jazz, and country to make a new American sound.  We listen back.

Country Music Hall of Fame curator Mick Buck, left, works on Ray Charles exhibit items on Monday, Feb. 20, 2006 in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)

Country Music Hall of Fame curator Mick Buck, left, works
on Ray Charles exhibit items on Monday, Feb. 20, 2006 in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)

When Ray Charles was a boy, country music could be a rifle shot warning to a black man. No matter how sweet the lyrics, it could say “Race line here. Step Back.” But he didn’t . Ray Charles was the great blender of American music.

Gospel, jazz, R&B, soul – and country. In 1962, before civil rights and “I have dream,” he put out an album that crossed all kinds of lines. And set American music free.

This hour, On Point: Ray Charles and the blending of American music.

-Tom Ashbrook


Matt Glaser, jazz and bluegrass violinist and artistic director of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music.  He, with the Ray Charles Foundation, directed and curated Berklee’s Ray Charles symposium: “Inspired by Ray.”

Alonzo Harris, assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music

Ricky Skaggs, 14-time Grammy-winning country and bluegrass singer-songwriter

From Tom’s Reading List

The Boston Herald “This weekend Berklee College of Music celebrates one of pop music’s greatest trailblazers. Put together by Matt Glaser, director of Berklee’s American Roots Music Program, “Inspired by Ray” is a celebration of a man who made the sacred profane, helped invent both rock ’n’ roll and soul, and topped the charts with a blend of white country and black r&b.”

Rolling Stone “Charles’ biggest-selling record was the audacious racial-boundary-smasher its title promised, applying gospel grit and luscious soul-pop strings to standards by Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold.”

AllMusic “Covering a period from 1939 to the early ’60s, the 12 tracks here touch on old-timey fare (Floyd Tillman’s “It Makes No Difference to Me Now”), honky tonk (three Hank Williams songs), and early countrypolitan (Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You”). Along with a Top Ten go at Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me,” the Gibson cover helped the album remain at the top of the pop charts for nearly three months and brought Charles international fame.”


“Hey Good Lookin’ ” by Ray Charles  (1962, Modern Sounds)

“Kentucky Waltz” (OUTTAKE) by Ray Charles  (1953)

“It Must Be Jesus” by The Southern Tones (1954)

“I’ve  Got A Woman” by Ray Charles (1954, I’ve Got A Woman)

“I Can’t Stop Loving You” by Ray Charles (1962, Modern Sounds)

“Just A Little Lovin’” by Ray Charles (1962, Modern Sounds)

“Half As Much” by Hank Williams (1952, Half As Much (SINGLE))

“Half As Much” by Ray Charles (1962, Modern Sounds)

“You Are My Sunshine” by Jimmie Davis (1939)

“You Are My Sunshine” by Ray Charles (1962, Modern Sounds)

“Friendship” by Ray Charles and Ricky Skaggs (1984, Friendship)

“I’ll Never Stand In Your Way” by Ray Charles (1962, Modern Sounds)

“Your Cheating Heart” by Ray Charles (1962, Modern Sounds)

“Careless Love” by Lead Belly (1940s, Recorded by MOSES ASCH)

“Careless Love” by Ray Charles (1962, Modern Sounds)

“America the Beautiful” by Ray Charles (1972, Live on The Dick Cavett Show)

“Bye Bye Love” by Ray Charles (1962, Modern Sounds)

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  • TinaWrites

    An almost murderously hot summer, 1966.  A last-ditch stay in the college dorms for those of us who were on our way to flunking out.  I just couldn’t care about Jurassic rocks and trilobites, but, life was sweet from the LPs played over and over, both sides, to no one’s complaint:  Ray Charles’ Cryin’ Time and a soundtrack to a Natalie Wood movie, “This Property is Condemned”.  They were both gorgeous, moody, and rich;  and “Heaven” was waiting for one of Ray’s falsettos, so artfully placed, we could never anticipate where.  Our guy friends would climb in thru the Victorian dorm windows, all of us aware that we could get kicked out even faster for that, but we were all just good friends, virgins all, I expect.  It wasn’t a Radicals and Hippies summer yet, at least not where we were.  There WAS something about the boy/girl thing, though.  For us girls,  the music knew what we wanted, even if we didn’t and had no idea how to “apply” ourselves like young adults to the tasks at hand.  For the boys, though, things were different.  We all knew that for them, getting entranced in the music, failing another test, fully flunking out… that was a certain trip to Vietnam.  Maybe that’s why we needed music that was so rich and sonorous and rhythmically agile.  The Beach Boys had great songs out that summer, but with ‘Nam behind our thoughts, we needed Ray.

    *********************Sadly, I notice now, that “Cryin’ Time” is not available on iTunes as the album we knew it to be.  Some of the great songs on that LP seem lost.  So glad I still have my original! 

  • Shag_Wevera

    Maybe off topic, but I love the song “I’m Busted” by Ray Charles.  My Dad used to listen to it when I was a kid, and I can listen to it over and over again.

  • Gregg Smith

    No one sang like Ray Charles. His phrasing was most unique and soulful. I loved his work in Country music but I loved all of it.

  • Prof_Sarah

    Please talk about Ray Charles’ fondness for, and genius with, duets! I love his album with Betty Carter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike1942 Michael Abrams

    I was in the service in 1962, kileen , Texas. Ray Charle’s music made me aware of Hank Williams and his body of work. It broadened my music knowledge.


  • winterspring_butler

    I was so lucky to be in the audience last Saturday night.  Ricky Skaggs singing You Win Again reached right inside me and wrung out my heart.  I’m hoping the concert was recorded and will be available.  By the way, you probably know that Matt Glaser plays a mean fiddle.  Oh, and Renald Richard playing the trumpet! 

  • Bruce94

    As a piano player (sideline) who grew up in the 60′s and taught by a jazz stride player, I eventually wound up performing a variety of music and styles including gospel, blues, jazz and country depending on the circumstances and gigs. 

    This is a fascinating program today and reminds me of other cross-over, fusion or hybrid talents like Mose Allison who combined country, blues and bebop.  Another talent that fused different genres was Berklee’s own Chick Corea (Latin and jazz). I was also influenced by, Denny Zeitland, who apparently incorporated Bela Bartok into his jazz voice.

    Someone said genius, musical or otherwise, seems to revolve around the combination or juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory elements. 

    Thanks, OnPoint, for this window into creativity.

  • Rex Henry

    Could you tell your guest to stop with the “NPR mmm” after every comment?

    Great program, by the way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ben.schenck Ben Schenck

    I’m a professional musician (clarinet/bandleader) living and working in New Orleans.  My band plays all kinds of folkloric music from Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America as well as traditional jazz from New Orleans.

    A couple of things: There’s only 12 notes and everybody has to work with the same ones.

    Also, my experience has been (and this is a blanket generalization) that Black folks get the commonalities more than White folks.  That 1962 Country album is an invitation from Ray Charles to (and in a sense permission for) White people to rejoin the HUMAN race.

    Music categories (much like racial identities) were invented by the capitalists to make things simpler for themselves.

    Ben Schenck
    Panorama Jazz Band
    New Orleans, LA

    • 1Brett1

      Great comments!

  • Leni Sorensen

    Ray did not sing some essentially black or white music: he created American music out of each genre!  I’m a 70 years old mixed race woman and was a folk singer way back in the day and Ray was a true model of how to make all music accessible!  

  • 1Brett1

    I learned a lot about playing music listening to Ray Charles’s music. I learned a lot about vocal phrasing, and I learned a lot about tempo.

    Many of his tempos were incredibly slow. Often, people with sight impairments will move their heads in side-to-side patterns; this is to give them depth perception in determining the distances of objects or sounds. I’m sure Ray probably developed this as a result of his own sight impairment, but he also used his head as a kind of conductor’s baton. He wanted his grooves deep and he wanted his band to keep those deep grooves in the slower tempos, as well as in the faster tempos.

    I saw Ray several times throughout the ’80s and got backstage on a number of occasions. I have a friend who has been a music photographer for the last thirty years, and he always had backstage passes. He had established enough of a rapport with iconic musicians that I could hang out a little bit. I remember asking Ray for some advice one time on playing covers…he said, “make the song your own!” This was great advice.

  • 1Brett1

    I didn’t quite hear all of the discussion on “crossover” music, but I do think ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’ (the first one) was deliberately designed as a crossover album. I believe the recording-company executives were keen on the strings and choral arrangements, as these were popular at the time with white, middle-class audiences. Ray was a great lover of Country music and wanted to take a chance, though, and he wanted to make a statement. The Civil Rights Movement was also gaining in momentum, which made the timing pitch-perfect

  • 1Brett1

    Most of Ray’s covers I like better than the originals…he definitely was a genius at interpreting and arranging, making the songs “his own.” (However, I like the Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Correll song, ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ best by the Quintette du Hot Club, Django Reinhardt’s band, with vocals by Freddy Taylor.)

    Ray wasn’t much of a song writer, though, and of the few songs he did write, they were weak and derivative.

  • http://www.facebook.com/signjay Jay Peterson

    @1Brett, I would hardly categorize “Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So” or “What I Say” as weak or derivative. 

    • 1Brett1

      Jay, you didn’t, I did! By the way, it’s, “What’d I Say.” This one, in particular, was made up on stage one night because he had run out of material (people applauded, so he decided to record it). It is a I, IV, V progression (as commonplace as bazillions of songs before this) based entirely on a boogie woogie piano riff that was around long before his ‘original’ song. The lyrics in the song aren’t exactly much, either. Also, “Hallelujah I Love Her So” was based completely on a Gospel song. (Humble Pie did a great version of it with a then 16 year old Peter Frampton  playing lead guitar on their live LP.)

      I love Ray Charles, but his song writing skills just weren’t anything exceptional, in my opinion.  

  • Mouse_2012

    What a sweet shows, 

    Very interesting to learn about his history and country music. 

    Thanks Onpoint

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnaustin.murphy John Austin Murphy

    Great show, Tom.  On Sunday, September 23, 2012, in honor of Ray’s 82d birthday, I hosted a two hour special program of his music broadcast on WRIU-FM, in Kingston, RI.  In that program, I said:
    “We started our show with “Born To Lose”, because of the way that song, in both music and lyrics, captures the sadness and loss that was a regular theme throughout Ray’s career.  It was also chosen because of the importance of the 1962 album on which it appeared.  That album is Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music.  Ray was 31 years of age when he recorded it.  He had, starting two years earlier, after leaving Atlantic Records, gained substantial control over what music he would record, and how it would be presented.  This album represents a true breakout, Ray’s excursion far beyond the boundaries that then limited most black musicians.  That excursion led to Ray becoming an iconic and beloved figure in America and throughout the world.

    And later…the commentary continued…”Blues Waltz was followed by three great tunes from Modern Sounds:  “You Win Again”, “Careless Love”, and the huge hit from that album, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”.  If you want to learn more about the incredible process leading to the creation of Ray’s deeply personalized versions of all the country classics on this album, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article on it.  It describes in detail how Ray made these songs his own, in a way that sometimes completely eclipses the original versions which were big hits in the country music world.”

    John A. Murphy
    Jamestown, RI

  • Joe Murray

    Tom, Great Show, I was good to hear you have such a good time with a topic.

  • Duras

    I caught by chance CMT’s 100 best country songs of the 20th Century.  During the top 10, they had musicians and singers come out and play the song.  Ray Charles played what CMT believed to be the 4th greatest song.  He was 85 or so at the time, he sat down at a black grand piano, and his voice just poured into the mic as good as he’s ever been (and perhaps as good as it gets).

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