Hit the Road Jack

Everybody knows ‘Hit the Road Jack’ right? The tune that Ray Charles wrote and which has become synonymous with his name. Possibly his most famous tune, it hit the top of the charts in 1961.

The lyrics tell of a man who is told to leave town by his lady friend.

Put succinctly:

He’s got no money, he’s just no good and I guess if she says so, he’ll have to pack his things and go…

Here’s the sweetly sung, live, call-and-answer of Ray and his babes singing the song.

The story doesn’t really end there though…

Well I’m a liar. Ray Charles wasn’t the writer, he didn’t write ‘Hit the Road Jack’ at all. He was a fan and pal of Percy Mayfield’s and heard about a demo that Percy had made and submitted to Specialty Records (the home of Little Richard, Joe & Jimmy Liggins and Roy Montrell, amongst many other great artists). Mayfield had recorded an accapella track, called ‘Hit the Road Jack’ and Ray Charles taking up the song, turned it into pure musical gold.

Here’s a nifty recording of Percy Mayfield’s early demo of the song, recently released for the first time on 45.

The story doesn’t really end there though…

If you listen to the riff from Charles’ ‘Hit the Road Jack’ it’s extremely reminiscent of Big Maybelle’s ‘That’s a Pretty Good Love’, recorded in May of 1956 and written by Fred Mendelhson. Maybelle was backed for this recording by some of New York’s top session musicians. The Brass section play a riff that’s almost identical to the descending bass line from Ray Charles’ big hit, but recorded a full 5 years earlier.

The lyrics, rendered as a duet, tell of a woman with ‘a pretty good love’ who implores her man to ‘please come on home’ after he has clearly ‘hit the road’.  ‘When it comes to lovin’ I’ll open your eyes’, she tells him, sure he will return to her arms.

Here’s The fabulous Big Maybelle giving a gutsy rendition of her hit, recorded from the original Savoy 78rpm record.

The story doesn’t really end there though…

Lucky Millinder was a big band leader based in New York and had a prolific output during the second world war years, and well into the 50’s, recording for King records. During his sojourn with King, Millinder recorded a song written by Henry Glover and Sally Nix called ‘Who Said Shorty Wasn’t Coming Back’ and it’s brother tune ‘Shorty had to Go’. When you listen to “Who Said Shorty Wasn’t Coming Back?”, the bass player plays a riff that’s again, almost identical to the brass riff from Big Maybelle’s “That’s a Pretty Good Love”.

When Glover sang with Millinder, his lyrics told the story of an itinerant philanderer who kept jumping into bed with the fair ladies of a small town. Exasperated with this sordid predicament, the good fellas of that fair city ran poor Shorty out of town:

All the guys called a meeting and took a vote.
That was all poor Shorty wrote,
They wanted satisfaction,
so they ran into action,
and ran poor Shorty outta town!

They took rag mops, clothes props, ash cans, dish pans,
and beat poor Shorty all over his head.
They ran him muddy,
’til he was bloody,
I knew poor Shorty was almost dead.

They ran him down to the railroad track,
but he laughed out loud and said I’ll be back.

All the gals,
called on their pals,
to get enough dough to get Shorty back,
They had a rally,
out in the alley,
they took up dollars in a croker sack.

Here’s Lucky’s big band version which really starts to spell out what’s happening.

The story doesn’t really end there though.

Maybe you are starting to get the picture of how this song winds it’s way through history now? Ray Charles’ Mayfield-penned tune is a new rendition of the time-honoured story of the travelling musician, who has a girl in every port. It’s the bastard child of Lucky Millinder’s Shorty tunes. It’s Big Maybelle yearning for her new beau to return. It’s a standard rendered in different ways but always with the same outcome.

It’s a song which finally spells out the ability of a glamorous travelling band leader to turn the head of the small town woman, a tale of female infidelity and of the fight back of the cuckolded small town boy. It’s how the alpha male sucker punches the beta male’s love with leather kex and swagger, and then the story of the immediate and eventual outcome. It’s a sordid story of flashing eyes, the heat of the moment, of jealousy and reprisal.
It’s a ‘how to…’ story of the rock musician getting the naive (young) girl and bending her to his will.

Of course, told from the musician’s point of view, Shorty comes back and run t’ing.

At Last, it’s the tale of the rock band and their groupies laid bare: how the singer is going to get your girl, boy and what you gonna do about it, jealous hick? Run him outta hicksville?

You better believe it, punk.

Posted in Blues, Music Blog, Rock 'n' Roll, Uncategorizeable |