Opry sa­lutes Ray Charles



As an im­pov­er­ished blind child in Flor­ida, Ray Charles grew up lis­ten­ing to the coun­try and western stars on the Grand Ole Opry broad­casts. That mu­sic of his child­hood stayed close to his heart for the rest of his ca­reer, and it was his land­mark two-vol­ume set, “Mod­ern Sounds in Coun­try and Western Mu­sic,” that changed coun­try mu­sic in the ’60s. Charles, who died in 2004, will be the sub­ject of a new pub­lic tele­vi­sion spe­cial air­ing in Fe­bru­ary. Dur­ing a spe­cial tap­ing Mon­day at the Grand Ole Opry, a di­verse cast of singers, in­clud­ing Dar­ius Rucker, Ron­nie Mil­sap, Char­lie Wil­son, Boyz II Men, LeAnn Rimes, Cam and more, hon­oured the soul ge­nius.

The rare trib­ute from the coun­try mu­sic in­sti­tu­tion was in part­ner­ship with the Ray Charles Foun­da­tion, whose pres­i­dent Va­lerie Ervin said get­ting the recog­ni­tion from the Opry was a pri­or­ity for her.

“The Opry meant ev­ery­thing to him. He loved ev­ery­body at the Opry,” Ervin said. “He loved coun­try mu­sic, so to have it here, it just seals it for me. I felt what he felt back in 1962 when he re­ally wanted to be a part of the coun­try world and there was no bet­ter place to do it than the Opry.”

Charles’ de­ci­sion to record a col­lec­tion of coun­try songs from artists like Hank Wil­liams and Eddy Arnold was good tim­ing for the genre, said Diane Pec­knold, pro­fes­sor of women’s and gen­der stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Louisville.

“He came along at a time when the Coun­try Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion was ag­gres­sively work­ing to re­cast the im­age of its au­di­ence,” Pec­knold said. “The in­dus­try and the pop­u­lar cul­ture at large tended to view the coun­try mu­sic au­di­ence as back­ward hicks, racists, ret­ro­grade peo­ple gen­er­ally.”

Recorded in New York with lush strings and back­ing choir, Charles doesn’t just rein­vent the songs, he left his unique mark on them, fus­ing soul and jazz, coun­try lyrics and or­ches­tral pop. Fifty years later, the al­bum still holds up as one of the great­est of the genre.

The record spent 14 weeks on the top of the Bill­board al­bums chart. “I Can’t Stop Lov­ing You” spent five weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts and 16 weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts and won the 1962 Grammy Award for best rhythm and blues record­ing. The first vol­ume sold more than one mil­lion records, so a sec­ond vol­ume came out shortly af­ter. Coun­try pub­lish­ing sud­denly be­came in high de­mand as other artists sought to repli­cate Charles’ suc­cess.

“He was more suc­cess­ful than any­one in tak­ing coun­try mu­sic to pop au­di­ences,” said Pec­knold.

Rucker, who hosted the TV spe­cial, said that artists like Charles and Charley Pride were in­stru­men­tal in his own path to coun­try mu­sic.

“Ray went out on a limb and took a chance and no­body wanted him to do it,” Rucker said. “He did it any­way. It still stands the test of time. And now for some place like the Opry to pay trib­ute to Ray is huge.”

Later in the 1980s, Charles would hit the coun­try charts with an­other al­bum of coun­try songs, “Friend­ship,” in­clud­ing a No. 1 coun­try hit duet with Wil­lie Nel­son on “Seven Span­ish An­gels.”

The TV spe­cial in­cludes a riv­et­ing per­for­mance of that song by Nel­son’s son, Lukas Nel­son, who shared pho­tos of his dad and Charles from his last birth­day. From Travis Tritt’s en­er­getic per­for­mance of “I’m Movin’ On,” to Chris Young’s ver­sion of “I Can’t Stop Lov­ing You,” the coun­try per­form­ers let out their best soul­ful ren­di­tions for the spe­cial.

Boyz II Men had the daunt­ing task of tak­ing on “Ge­or­gia On My Mind,” ar­guably one of Charles’ best record­ings, and the trio of singers with their har­monic vo­cal runs did jus­tice to the clas­sic.

“One of Ray’s great­est char­ac­ter­is­tics is how he is able to take his time and for you to in­gest ev­ery­thing that he said,” said Shawn Stock­man, of the R&B group. “He did ex­actly what he needed as op­posed to try­ing to do too much.”

The trib­ute, 14 years af­ter his death, raises ques­tions about why he has been left out of the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame. Most of the per­form­ers on the spe­cial be­lieve he de­serves a spot among the coun­try le­gends for ex­pos­ing the genre to a much broader world.

As­so­ci­ated Press photo

Boyz II Men per­form dur­ing “An Opry Salute to Ray Charles” at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tenn.

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