Ray Charles, ABC-Paramount 45-11170, 1969, #112 Pop, #25 Adult Contemporary
My idea of the perfect party: having a few beers, sitting around with a group of friends singing harmony. In the Dallas area there’s an acoustic jam group of thirty-five-plus years run by a woman who is a wonderfully earthy singer and force of nature, and for several years of Sundays, I didn’t miss it. It was in this jam group that I met another force of nature, the late Jimmy Lee. Poor, bedeviled Jimmy Lee had a powerful voice, which he was able to masterfully control in order to convey intense longing on a ballad, and then follow it with hilarious irreverence.
Jimmy Lee brought a song to the jam circle once and requested that I harmonize with him on it. It was the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming,” a sweet and soaring ¾-time ballad that I’d heard but only vaguely remembered. We enjoyed our first, fumbling try so much that I learned the words, and we did the song every time we met thereafter. On every occasion, it was a thrill to sing: a well-wrought song with the strong, sure voice of Jimmy Lee laying the foundation. Yes, he sang happy-go-lucky brother Charlie Louvin’s lower melody part, and I sang the high harmony that crazy, drinkin’, wild-man brother Ira Louvin did originally. We all found out later how much more Jimmy Lee was like Ira than Charlie when Jimmy went to jail for murdering a business partner, and died there of cancer, well before his time.
It is one of those rare Ray Charles records where his cover does not outshine the original
The Louvins were the influential example of the filial harmony that the Everly Brothers carried to pop-rock immortality. Their commingling voices were sweet and pure, but their repertoire tended toward songs of death and despair—enough so that one collection of their songs is entitled Tragic Songs of Life. They could’ve sung the story of Jimmy Lee.
I recently came across a couple of other single versions of “When I Stop Dreaming.” In 1971, Charlie Louvin, now without his ill-fated brother, sings with perennial duetter Melba Montgomery. (She got around: In addition to Louvin, her recording partners included George Jones and Gene Pitney.) With only one Louvin Brother, it just ain’t the same. It’s a beautiful song that’s hard to tarnish, but a little too saccharine without Ira on hand. Another thirty-six years later, Charlie duetted on the song with Elvis Costello. Others who’ve covered “When I Stop Dreaming” include Roy Orbison, Emmy Lou Harris, Johnny Cash, and Louvinites Phil and Don Everly. Even The Everlys’ recording can’t compare to the original. The Louvins were just too perfectly suited to interpret the song, one of the few that they wrote.
But I also found Ray Charles’s version of the song, recorded for his Tangerine label in 1969. It is one of those rare Ray Charles records where his cover does not outshine the original, but it’s a gorgeous song that Ray puts his stamp on, and so it is worthy. Ray Charles transforms show-tunes, like “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” standards, like “Georgia on My Mind,” even anthems, like “America the Beautiful.” Ray Charles could take any song from any genre and make it his own.
Ray had had his way with C&W songs before, of course, but he’s holding back a little here when I’m thinking he could be less restrained; the strings and backing vocals are a little too sweet, and the pacing is sedate. But the vocal performance is moving and true, and I imagine Charlie, like me, may have preferred it to his own duets with Melba and with Elvis. But, of course, would still rank brother Ira over Brother Ray.