In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Certain songs feel like they’ve always existed, to the point where it’s strange to imagine them as being new, as being songs that people would hear on the radio for the first time. “Hit The Road Jack” is one of those. As we experience it today, it’s less a song, more of an all-purpose signifier of the idea that someone should get out. It’s what plays over the PA at the hockey arena when someone get sent to the penalty box. But of course, before all that, it was a pop single.
It’s a slight song, less than two minutes. The setup is simple: The woman knows she’s stuck with someone who isn’t worth shit, and she’s kicking him out. The guy begs and pleads for another chance, but he knows it’s hopeless. They’re following a script, and they know it. Maybe they’ve had this argument before. Maybe this really is the end. But the contours of it will always be familiar.
Charles isn’t the guy winning the argument, and he’s not the star of the song, either. That would be Margie Hendrix, leader of the Raelettes, Charles’ trio of backup singers. She shows so much fire and personality on “Hit The Road Jack” that it seems criminal that she was consigned to a backup singer role. But “Hit The Road Jack” would be the peak of her career. She was in a relationship with Charles, and they were doing a lot of the same drugs, and maybe having fights not too different from the one outlined in the song. (The song isn’t about their fling, though. Charles’ friend Percy Mayfield, a onetime singer whose performing career ended after a disfiguring car accident, was the one who wrote the song.) A couple of years after “Hit The Road Jack,” Charles fired Hendrix. He survived his addictions, but she didn’t; she died in 1973.
Charles was a genius at straddling genre lines, and “Hit The Road Jack” is a fine example. It’s an R&B song, but it pulls some of its swagger from big-band jazz, and some of its intensity from rock ‘n’ roll. It sounds tough, and simple, but the sounds are there to get the story across. It’s not the work of transcendent genius that Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” was, but it remains plenty durable anyway.
BONUS BEATS: “Hit The Road Jack” has been covered and sampled dozens of times, including by Charles himself, who turned it into a KFC jingle in the late ’80s. But the track that always springs to my mind is the first one I remember hearing: Debbie D’s Charles-sampling 1989 dance-rap single “Hit The Rap Jack,” which has a perfect title. Here’s that: