Today in Music History: “Hit the Road Jack” becomes a hit

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On this day in 1961, Ray Charles began a two-week reign at No. 1 with “Hit the Road Jack.” The song makes the most of Charles’ voice as it mixes with those of his backup singers. The song is not presented as a classic duet, but the male and female perspectives are perfectly embodied by the respective singers.

“Hit the Road Jack”: a classic

Understanding the song’s elements help to explain why “Hit the Road Jack” is a classic. First, there is Charles’ voice. The late singer was gifted with a powerful voice that could be used to emote or declare with ease, moving across registers and genres with each new song. “Hit the Road Jack” finds him arguably in the middle of his range. No special vocal tricks are needed for Charles to play his role in this song.

Second, Charles seemed to have his finger on the social and emotional pulses of US audience members. Charles’ work as a singer and songwriter captured the life and times of black American love and expression, even while he crossed genres to give nuances to his work. Ultimately, his songs developed a crossover appeal. “Hit the Road Jack” is no different.

The universality of “Hit the Road Jack” can be seen in its use for popular brands such as Apple and KFC. The no-nonsense lyrics help the song make its point and there is no need for lengthy analysis.

As a recording, “Hit the Road Jack” is a spirited vehicle of horns and voice. The idea is simple: a woman wants to break up with her down-on-his-luck lover. He, however thinks that when his fortunes change, so will her mind. But the female perspective assures listeners that such is not the case. That moment also injects humor into the song.

“Hit the Road Jack” also succeeds on the strength of its repetition. The song’s title is used as a chorus, and toward the end, Charles can be heard pleading for a change of the woman’s mind. “Aww, you can’t mean that,” he groans at the end. A simple but humorous song, “Hit the Road Jack” displays why it remains a classic, a feat that began in 1961.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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