Having grown up in Georgia surrounded by blues, gospel, and country music—and having studied the classical composers when he was learning piano—Ray Charles was bound to become a polymath of musical genres. He is often credited with creating soul music, but a less remembered but equally important part of his career was recording one of the first major crossover records, 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The record execs at ABC-Paramount understandably thought it would be career suicide, but Charles, who had a contract that gave him creative control (and ownership of his master tapes), insisted. It went on to be both a commercial and critical success, creating racial and genre bridges during the Civil Rights Movement.
So the above video of Willie Nelson performing a duet with Charles was not the oddity that it may first seem. The two recorded “Seven Spanish Angels” for the former’s Half Nelson album of duets, and the single would go on to be the most successful of Charles' country releases, reaching the top of the country charts in 1985.
The song has become a favorite country cover, and judging by the YouTube comments is a favorite at funerals, seeing that it's a tale of an outlaw couple pledging their love and going out shootin’. (That is, it’s good for honoring devoted couples, not for criminal parents. But we’re not here to judge.)
The 1984 TV special from which this excerpt came was filmed at the Austin Opry House, and featured Charles on five more songs with Nelson, including “Georgia on My Mind” and “I Can't Stop Loving You.”
And although he didn’t write “Georgia on My Mind” (Hoagy Carmichael did), Charles’ name is synonymous with the well-loved soul number. That being said, Willie Nelson’s cover of the song reached higher in the charts in 1978, a kind of thank you to Charles for his country work.
After this 1984 video, the two would duet nine years later for Willie Nelson’s 60th birthday celebration where they once again sang “Seven Spanish Angels,” a testament to their long friendship.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.