I can appreciate Ray Charles’s versions of standards and country ballads for their significance in music history (crossing race divisions in music) and for bringing Charles into the mainstream. But if I actually want to listen to a Ray Charles record, I’m more likely to put on some of the electric mix of R&B and gospel that made him a legend. “Hit the Road Jack” is one such record – in fact, the only one of his #1 hits to be in that style (after the Hoagy Carmichael cover “Georgia on My Mind” but before Charles’s next and final chart-topper). “Hit the Road Jack” drips with early ’60s hipster cred, from the jazzy horns to the Kerouac reference to Charles’s signature Ray-Bans. There are no over-emoting strings or session backing vocals here, just a smooth, swinging groove.
The solo female vocalist is Margie Hendricks, Charles’s one-time mistress and mother of one of his 12 children. She rips into Charles with a voice fiery enough to make any man back away, tail between legs. Well, nearly any man. Charles responds to Hendricks with the seemingly contrite “Well I guess if you say so/I’d have to pack my things and go,” but his voice is an aural wink. They’ve been through this before, and she always relents. Or maybe this time it’s for real, but she’s an unwitting pawn in his scheme to go out on the road. Either way, Charles is the one in charge here. The song may be about a woman throwing out her no-good man, but Charles makes it all about him – just like he does with all of his very best songs. 8
Hit #1 on October 9, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
59 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 6.09% through the Hot 100