Now here’s one that I can actually enjoy writing about!! Don’t get me wrong, as much as I get a sick thrill out of writing about songs that I consider to be awful or in bad taste (such as, most recently, “Go Away Little Girl”), I will always love writing about songs I love even more so. Some of my most passionate song reviews have been for “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Take My Breath Away”, both of which I consider to be absolute, bonafide pop classics of the 80s. For this one, though, I’ll take it back a little further, into the 60s.
Although many people today would connect “I Can’t Stop Loving You” with Ray Charles’s bluesy vocals accompanied by lush strings and a backing choir, relatively fewer are aware that his recording is actually a cover. Indeed, the song was actually first recorded back in 1957 by Don Gibson, who also composed the tune. His version was released as a single and became a top ten hit on the country charts (although it barely made a blip on the pop charts). Concurrently, singer Kitty Wells recorded the first cover of this song, which also became a country hit at the same time as Gibson’s version, a phenomenon that was actually a pretty common occurrence in the Billboard charts.
Now, flash forward to 1962. Ray Charles was already a pretty big deal in both the R&B circuit and the pop charts. Previously, he had scored two pretty big number-one hits: “Georgia on My Mind” in 1960 and “Hit the Road Jack” in 1961. Shortly thereafter, Charles decided to embark on a huge risk by recording jazzy covers of popular country tunes and compiling them for the album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The risk here was with the barrier-crossing required to accomplish this feat – namely, a Black singer of blues and R&B turning to country music for inspiration, a genre that has generally been overwhelmingly occupied by white musicians.
But if there was any vocalist equipped to take on this task, Ray Charles would be it – even if his earlier songs don’t exactly demonstrate this. Indeed, hit singles from the first pages of Charles’s catalog, including “Mess Around”, “I’ve Got a Woman”, and his first crossover hit “What’d I Say”, demonstrate a performer more adept for R&B, boogie woogie, and even gospel music. The sultry grit in Charles’s voice during the more intense, loud parts of these songs (and others) encourage a certain vibe, one rooted specifically in the blues. It took a record deal with ABC and a more downtempo rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael jazz composition “Georgia on My Mind” to really bring out the silky smooth angle of Charles’s voice, shedding light on the now obvious potential of his ability to be a true crooner.
Like “Georgia on My Mind”, one of the most notable elements of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is the prominent usage of the backing choir to highlight Charles’s performance. Although, while the backup singers in “Georgia” were more of a jazzy gospel ensemble, the voices in the background here are very blatantly homages to the choir often used in traditional country ballads, also accompanied by a weeping string arrangement. But the subversion of racial barriers truly become clear when noting exactly how Charles using the backing choir in this recording – namely, with the call-and-response technique synonymous with traditional Black gospel music. Throughout the entire song, he never actually utters the song’s title, allowing the background singers to take charge with “I can’t stop loving/wanting you”.
The composition of this song is rather simple: chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus, with the same singular verse repeating itself before the final chorus. Yet it’s during the repetition of this verse where this song truly enters into some blissful territory. The call-and-response method is utilized wonderfully, with the choir singing each line first and Charles echoing back shortly thereafter. The way these two elements are mixed places them both at the front of the track, giving the impression that both Charles and his backup singers are on equal footing, which works very much in the song’s favor. And really, this only further emphasizes the core theme of this song: denial. Even though the speaker of this song is well aware that the good times of this relationship are long gone (“They say that time heals a broken heart / But time has stood still since we’ve been apart”), the chorus insists that he’d much rather live in blissful nostalgia of the past rather than face the cold reality of heartache. That alone is heartbreaking.
If we want to stretch the subversion of identities point even further, it might be useful to note the very first time I listened to this song – that being from its usage in the emotional climax of the 2001 anime film Metropolis. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who was taken aback by this particular implication, but it won me over immediately and still remains one of my favorite songs of the 60s. The voice of Ray Charles, the choir’s vocalization, the fluttering piano, those heavenly strings… all these elements combine perfectly to create a truly divine piece of music. While it truly baffles my mind how some of these songs that have reached number-one managed to strike gold, it couldn’t be more clear that this song is one that truly deserves the honor with every fiber of its being.