by Julian Spivey
One of the most beautifully heartbreaking songs ever written was the result of a brief encounter between a songwriter and one of the biggest hitmakers of the 1950s.
Eddy Arnold was kind of the Bing Crosby of the Country & Western genre with his smooth vocals and pop-oriented country music that pioneered what would become known as “The Nashville Sound.” Arnold charted 147 songs on the Billboard country music charts, second only to George Jones, with 26 of them going to No. 1, including timeless classics like “Make the World Go Away” and “Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me,” written by Cindy Walker.
While at an annual disc-jockey convention in Nashville in 1955 Arnold bumped into Walker as she was leaving the event and the crooner offered her up the song title “You Don’t Know Me.” Walker teased that she did know Arnold, per Michael Streissguth’s book Eddy Arnold: Pioneer of the Nashville Sound, but Arnold insisted he was being serious. He proceeded to outline his idea to Walker, who promised to mull it over a while. Eventually the lyrics suddenly spilled out of her brain and as she would say, “The song just started singing. It sort of wrote itself.”
Arnold would record the song the next year and it would go to No. 10 on the country music chart.
Anybody who has ever heard “You Don’t Know Me” in any of its many versions is probably struck by the beauty of the lyrics about unrequited love. The story of feeling something for another who doesn’t feel the same way about you is among the most tragic of storylines one can imagine – and a feeling a good number of the population has felt at least once in their lifetime. Many have since called it the ultimate “friend zone” song. And, if you haven’t ever felt this way, the best recorded version, in my opinion, Ray Charles’ from his innovative 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music can make you feel as if you have. I first heard the song in one of my favorite films “Groundhog Day” and it’s never left my head, leaving me humming the tune for hours on end every time I hear it.
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was such a milestone event in the world of country music, and music in general. Charles, an African-American R&B, soul, blues and jazz superstar, decided to turn his crisp soulful vocals to the world of Country & Western and folk music cutting standards like Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “You Win Again” and The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.” His experiment with country music mixed lush strings and horn arrangements with heartbreaking ballads of lost and unrequited love. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music also showed the world there wasn’t much difference in the roots music of black and white people at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was raging. Country music from the mouth of a black man was quite a revolutionary act in 1962, four years before future African-American country superstar Charley Pride made his debut.
Something about Charles’ achingly pining vocals mixed with this beautiful lush string arrangement and the choir in the background makes your heart break right along with the narrator’s as if you’re standing in his shoes. Charles had a great knack of putting you in his shoes as a master vocalist, just like “Georgia On My Mind” leaves you yearning for home.
Allmusic editor Bill Janovitz said of Charles’ version of the Walker penned song: “The genius, the pathos, and the soul that is Charles oozes into this recording … no matter how many times one hears the song, it still induces chills down the spine after the narrator blows any chance he might have had and is left alone at the end.”
Charles’ definitive version of the song would become the highest charting and best-selling version of it, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Top 40 chart in 1962. Since then the classic ballad has been covered by some of the world’s biggest names and greatest artists, more than 100 times, in fact. Among the covers includes Jackie Wilson, Roy Orbison, Kenny Loggins, Bette Midler, Mickey Gilley, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Dunn. Elvis Presley would perform the song in his 1967 movie “Clambake.” Willie Nelson included the song on his album tribute to Cindy Walker, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, released just nine days before her death in March of 2006.
The song has most recently appeared on Alison Krauss’ exquisite new solo project Windy City, which sees the angelic-voiced country singer doing incredible justice to the song.
There’s no doubt “You Don’t Know Me” will live on forever as one of loveliest heartbreak songs ever written and recorded. Thank God Eddy Arnold bumped into Cindy Walker at that convention 62 years ago.