The career of Ray Charles (1930-2004) spanned almost six decades, and by the time of his death he was considered an American icon.
One of the most influential artists in American music history, his fusion of soul, blues, country, and gospel proved unique and provided a template for generations of artists who followed him. Even more important, perhaps, Charles was among the first black recording artists to consistently cross over to become popular with a white audience.
He began his career in the mid-1940s, but first rose to prominence during his tenure with Atlantic Records, 1953-1959, which produced such hits as “I Got A Woman” and “What’d I Say.” However, the best was yet to come during his time with the ABC label, 1960-1967, in which he sold tens of millions of albums and changed the fabric of American music.
“Hit The Road Jack” was written in 1960 by Percy Mayfield and has been recorded by dozens of artists. It is Ray Charles’ version that remains the most memorable, though, and is considered one of his signature songs. Released as a single on September 11, 1961, it reached the top of Billboard’s Pop Singles Chart on October 9 of the same year, remaining in that position for two weeks. The song also topped Billboard‘s Rhythm & Blues Chart for five weeks.
It had an up-tempo beat that combined a soul and rock ‘n’ roll sound. He used question and answer lyrics a number of times during his career. The protagonist is being told to hit the road but can’t quite believe what he is hearing, so he asks, continually, to hear it again.
Margie Hendricks, formally of the girl group The Cookies and a member of The Raelettes, was the prominent female voice. The chorus and melody are unforgettable as they drive the song along, but it was the use of the bass lines that gave the song its foundation and helped the story find its authenticity.
It was and is a rare song of rejection that makes you feel good. The song won a Grammy Award and was ranked among The 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time by Rolling Stone. It was a song and performance that is still instantly recognizable today to many music fans.
Charles ultimately placed 76 singles on both the Billboard Pop and R&B Charts, but few were better or more memorable than “Hit The Road Jack,” which topped the American music world 50 years ago this week.