It’s been a little while since I’ve done one of these… so I might as well jump back on the wagon! After devoting a good chunk of my time to Halloween TV specials and then to the interesting pop music scene of 1987, it’s nice to jump right back into this Hot 100 Number-One Singles challenge. Now, out of the three number-one singles that Ray Charles had accomplished in his illustrious career, I have so far covered one – “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, his final single to top the chart. After this post, I will eventually get to writing about his first number-one single, “Georgia on My Mind”. Nestled in between, of course, is “Hit the Road Jack”, which many would consider to be Charles’s definitive song – or at least the most well-known.
By 1961, Ray Charles was reaching an impressive amount of crossover success. In particular, 1959’s “What’d I Say” mixed gospel, jazz, and blues with sexual undertones, creating his first top-ten hit that pop radio both loved and attempted to ban. Additionally though, his sixth studio album album The Genius of Ray Charles of the same year eschewed the R&B flair of his early music in favor of a more polished, traditional pop sound. As a result, this album was his first top 20 entry on the Billboard 200 and is widely considered among his best. Nonetheless, Charles’s contract with Atlantic Records dropped later that year and he then signed with ABC-Paramount. Upon this change, he had almost completely abandoned writing his own material; although this would eventually grant him his first chart-topper in “Georgia” (a Hoagy Carmichael composition), his role as a musician relied almost entirely on him recording covers and reinterpretations of preexisting material.
It was around this point that Charles met songwriter Percy Mayfield. A successful R&B performer in his own right, Mayfield’s career came to a tragic halt when a severe car accident left his face disfigured. Not willing to back off completely, Mayfield opted for a turn to writing for others, in which he found some comparable success. He came to the attention of Charles with an a capella demo of his latest composition, titled “Hit the Road Jack”… and the rest, as they say, is history.
While “Georgia on My Mind” hit listeners with a sumptuous blend of strings, piano, and a backup choir, “Hit the Road Jack” marked a brief detour in sound for Charles’s recordings, with its heavier emphasis on punchy horns and stronger, high-tempo percussion. While this is a far cry from the rawer, gospel-infused recordings of his earlier years, the energy demonstrated by the recording brings us back to these more vibrant days, especially after “Georgia”‘s easy listening vibes. And it’s clear that many listeners appreciated this change as well – not only did this song hit number-one on the Hot 100 for two weeks and on the R&B charts for five weeks in the fall of 1961, but it would eventually win the Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording and was, overall, the 19th biggest pop song of 1961 as a whole.
All of this is amazing considering just how deftly this song makes its presence known. In terms of length, this song runs at exactly two minutes in length, and while it’s true that pop records in these days tended to be shorter than in later decades, most at least broke the two-and-a-half minute mark. Additionally, the quickness in tempo and simplicity in this format somehow seems to make it whizz by even faster. Without only a couple bars of an instrumental intro, The Raelettes – Charles’s backing girl group – hit us immediately with that earworm of a hook: “Hit the road, Jack, and don’tcha come back / No more, no more, no more, no more”. After this, Charles comes in with a verse which, of course, only consists of a few brief lines before the hook comes in again. Wash and repeat, and then the outro, and then we’re finished.
The immediate reaction one would normally have to this song is that it is catchy as all hell – maybe not so much Charles’s verses, but definitely the Raelettes’ hook. The second reaction is that this song is pretty damn feisty in its depiction of a failing, loveless relationship, almost comically so. Charles’s first verse indeed carries the crux of the idea. While the first half demonstrates his exasperation for his partner in a fittingly exaggerated manner (“Oh woman, oh woman, don’t treat me so mean / You’re the meanest woman that I’ve ever seen”), he waves his white flag in the second half and admits that it’s all over (“I guess if you say so, I’ll have to pack my things and go”). The Raelettes’ contributions in the chorus act as a collective voice of his soon-to-be ex, with their energetic demands of him “hitting the road” pulling back no punches and the repetition of “no more” asserting that this has gone on for far too long.
It’s when the second half of the song kicks in that things start to get really interesting, During what I assume to be the same conversation, Charles’s character in this song attempts to assuage the situation by promising that he will improve himself to make their relationship work (“Now baby, listen baby, don’t you treat me this way / ‘Cause I’ll be back on my feet some day”). It is at this point, in possibly the most radical moment of the song, where Margie Hendrix of the Raelettes steps in for a solo, interrupting this verse with a statement of defiance (“Don’t care if you do, ’cause it’s understood / You ain’t got no money, you just ain’t no good”). While casual listeners might’ve been none the wiser, the fact is that Hendrix and Charles were themselves involved in a romantic affair that had turned sour at this point. Although it’s only two lines, Hendrix’s solo is incredible in the way it so strongly and effortlessly seeps anger and betrayal from every word she sings. After this, Charles repeats the latter half of the first verse (“I guess if you say so…”), but it somehow sounds meeker and less confident than before, as if he was genuinely hurt by her words, proving that his character is really not just a work of fiction. It’s an amazing moment in pop music, even more incredible considering that this is only a fraction of this already very short song.
The rest of the Raelettes do offer support to this scenario, though, with strong declarations of, “That’s right!” after each chorus. These are offset by Charles’s howls of, “What you say?” during the chorus itself, which both act as a leader’s call for for repetition (typically found in gospel choir performances) and this man’s cries of disbelief over his partner’s requests. The last few seconds of the song contain a flurry of Charles’s pleas of denial over these demands, which at this point are pretty comical considering all we’ve just witnessed. Although while many are quick to only praise the performance of Charles and the Raelettes, especially with that vocal hook, I do think that the horns of this song are pretty spectacular as well. It’s the very first thing that listeners hear upon pressing play – those couple of bars of descending instrumental that anticipate the petty drama about to occur. These horns also punctuate the verses with the right amount of flavor, making them pop at just the right moments.
Overall, this was a very welcoming somewhat-return to form for Ray Charles. While he would continue on the easy listening path, eventually recording Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and nabbing his final number-one single “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, this brief detour back to his feistier roots showed that he still had that energy in him. While a brilliantly catchy pop-soul tune on the outside, “Hit the Road Jack” also managed to highlight the ways in which the format could so creatively display the musician’s personal life – perhaps unintentionally so. But really, everyone always comes back to it for that nursery rhyme of a hook, which contains a universe of emotions that listeners could contextualize for their own needs. And sometimes, their needs might solely contain an utterly satisfying, short slice of early 1960s R&B, an undeniable classic.