Soul pioneer Ray Charles achieved his only solo number 1 single with his cover of singer-songwriter Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You. He had already brought jazz, gospel and blues sounds into soul, and here was a successful attempt to draw on elements of country and develop the genre further. The original version had been a hit for Gibson in 1958.
Born into poverty in Greenville, Florida on 23 September 1930, Ray Charles Robinson was blind by the age of seven due to glaucoma, but it didn’t prevent him studying composition and learning to play various instruments, including of course, the piano, at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. By the time he became a teenager, both his parents had died, and he used his savings to move to Seattle in 1947, where he performed in two different bands, and adopted his trademark sunglasses. Back then however he modelled himself on Nat ‘King’ Cole, and his early recordings were fair facsimiles of his softer sound. It wasn’t until he joined Atlantic Records in 1952 that he began experimenting with mixing genres, and he began to score his first R&B hits, including Mess Around and the mighty I Got a Woman. In 1959 he reached his pinnacle for the label when he released perhaps his finest song. What’d I Say combined Latin rhythms with soul to create a racy classic that made him a pop star.
By 1962, Charles had moved to ABC-Paramount Records as they offered him greater artistic freedom. He had further pop hits, including Georgia on My Mind and Hit the Road Jack, but following a near-death experience in a plane, he decided to try something new. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was the result, and is considered by many his finest album. I Can’t Stop Loving You became its first single after a version by Tab Hunter, who had previously hit number 1 with Young Love, enraged Charles. ABC-Paramount quickly edited the album version down and had a hit on their hands.
My ears were crying out for something a bit more mature after Come Outside, but I must confess to being disappointed by this. It could be down to my lack of appreciation for most country music, but I don’t feel I Can’t Stop Loving You hits the mark like his aforementioned hits. Charles is in fine voice as always, his weathered tones belying the fact he was only 31 when he recorded it, but the backing vocals from the Randy Van Horne Singers are shrill and date the production. The album version is also overlong, but at least the single edit shaves off some of the excess fat. It’s another number 1 that is perhaps easy to respect, less easy to enjoy, these days. But this single did open the doors to the further blurring of boundaries. They didn’t call him ‘The Genius’ for nothing.And to think he managed to do all this while nursing a heroin addiction!
However, in 1965 he was arrested for possession for a third time, and went into rehab. This time he kicked it for good, even though two subsequent hits sound like statements of defiance – I Don’t Need No Doctor and Let’s Go Get Stoned. By the 70s his star was on the wane.
1980 saw a cameo in much-loved musical comedy The Blues Brothers, and this would definitely have been the first time I became aware of Charles, as I was obsessed with this film for years in my childhood. In 1985 he made another appearance at number 1 when the charity supergroup USA for America topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with the mediocre We Are the World. Charles acted as bandleader, trying his best to coax better performances out of those who couldn’t be arsed (I’m looking at you, Paul Simon). His health declined as the new millennium dawned, but after hip surgery in 2003 he was ready to hit the road once more. Sadly ill health took hold, and at the age of 73 he died of complications from acute liver disease on 10 June 2004. Several months later, the biopic Ray was released, starring an Oscar-winning Jamie Foxx in the title role.
From humble beginnings and personal struggles, Ray Charles went on to not only become one of soul and R&B’s most important figures, whose music was enjoyed by millions, but he was also an inspiration to a diverse range of legendary artists, including Stevie Wonder, Elvis Presley, Steve Winwood and Roger Waters. He also contributed to the civil rights movement, and will be remembered as one of the 20th century’s brightest talents.
Written by: Don Gibson
Producer: Sid Feller
Weeks at number 1: 2 (12-25 July)
Historian GM Trevelyan – 21 July
12 July: Blues singer Long John Baldry performs at London’s Marquee Club. His support act for the night are performing their first gig. The Rollin’ Stones consisted of Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ian Stewart and Dick Taylor. They would become the Rolling Stones shortly after, but it would be nearly another year before the first classic line-up fell into place.
13 July: Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sacked a third of his cabinet. Panicking after poor polling results and Liberal gains in by-elections, the speed and scale of the dismissals saw the press refer to it as the Night of the Long Knives, which was the name of a purge in 1934 Nazi Germany.