In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There’s this popular idea that the Beatles pioneered the idea of the album as singular, cohesive statement with Rubber Soul and Revolver, and maybe they’re the people who really convinced the world to start looking at albums that way. But they weren’t the first to use albums to say something. Consider: Ray Charles recorded a full-on country album in 1962, when he was at the absolute top of his game. This was the king of cosmopolitan pop-leaning R&B music jumping with both feet into a genre of music that was very racially coded, and doing it at the height of the Civil Rights struggle. (Imagine, I don’t know, the Weeknd making a country album now, but doing it in an America that’s even more divided than the one we see today.) If that’s not a statement, I don’t know what is.
And it’s not just that Ray Charles made a country album. It’s that he made a country album right. Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music is a total end-to-end burner, an album so great that it’s earned Charles a place on any serious greatest-country-singers-ever list. Charles, who’d always been influenced by country, took the endeavor seriously. He put together a finely curated collection of country standards, and he figured out how to fit those songs to his own voice, bringing in jazz string arrangers to help him personalize them. Later on, in interviews, he’d say that country music and black music were “the same goddam thing exactly.”
The greatest song on Modern Sounds, at least to my mind, is “You Don’t Know Me,” which I would’ve rated at least a 9 if it hadn’t stalled out at #2. But the album’s breakout song is close to perfect, too. The country musician Don Gibson wrote and recorded “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in 1957, and Kitty Wells had a hit with it a year later. It’s a wounded, resigned lament and a poetic account of what it’s like when you simply can’t get over a breakup: “They say that time heals a broken heart / But time has stood still since we’ve been apart.”
Gibson and Wells both sang the song with characteristic country restraint, delivering those impossibly sad words with a shrug, like they’re trying to conceal the pain that they’re describing. That’s not what Charles did. He steered all the way into it, uncorking the full force of the craggy growl. The beaten-down weariness of Charles’ voice was always his single greatest weapon — greater, even, than his near-incomprehensible versatility — and on “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” it turns his narrator into a figure of great empathy. Charles’ backing singers wail just as hard has he does, while the strings blanket him sympathetically. There are lots of sad songs. There aren’t too many that are this effective.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dolly Parton and Chet Atkins performing “I Can’t Stop Loving You” together on The Porter Wagoner Show in 1974: