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On This Day In Music… March 15, 1955: Ray Charles Proves the Devil Really Does Have all the Best Tunes

Ray's revolutionary reworking of a gospel standard for 'I've Got a Woman' caused outrage, but laid the foundation for all soul music that followed.

ray charles ive got a woman
Source: mega

Ray Charles revolutionized and scandalized with 'I've Got a Woman'

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When Ray Charles released “I’ve Got a Woman” in late 1954, he unwittingly unleashed a whole new musical genre into the world – a genre that would prove to be every bit as influential, and initially controversial, as rock ‘n’ roll itself.

On March 15, 1955, “I’ve Got a Woman” gave Charles the first of his 11 No. 1 hits on the U.S. R&B chart (debate remains over when exactly the record peaked, with the combination of multiple chart permutations and inaccurate record-keeping complicating matters – but many agree on March 15 as the date. Even more confusingly, the song title itself was later changed to “I Got a Woman”. Go figure.)

But if there’s dispute over the exact day the song reached No. 1, that is as nothing compared to the outrage created upon its release. Charles’ unholy marriage of traditional gospel music with the nakedly licentious sounds of rhythm and blues scandalized devout church-going communities… and revolutionized what popular music could do, and where it could go.

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ray charles portrait
Source: Philippe Gras / Le Pictorium/Newscom/The Mega Agency

'I've Got a Woman' would be the first of 11 No. 1 hits on the U.S. R&B chart for Ray Charles.

The genesis of the song came during a tour of the U.S. South in the late summer of 1954. Charles, then 24 years old, had signed with Atlantic Records two years earlier and in 1953 scored minor hits with “Mess Around” and “It Should’ve Been Me”. As he and his band covered the long miles between shows, they listened to the near-ubiquitous gospel music stations filling the radio dial. One song was played incessantly: “It Must Be Jesus” by a group called The Southern Tones (so devout was their output that other Southern Tones tracks include “My Mind on Jesus”, “I’ve Got A Savior” and “I’m Going On In His Name”).

Charles and bandmate Renald Richard, who were both considerably less devout, began to improvise scat-style lyrics on top of the melody… and after the tour finished, decamped to the studio to work on their new version properly.

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While keeping the basic arrangement of the original, the duo injected a wilder, freewheeling groove, sped up the tempo and infused the previously devotional vocal style with a new and nakedly lustful delivery. The result sounded not so much like they stole the song from the Southern Tones, as turned it to their own wicked ends: all sense of spirituality was gone, and what remained was filthily, wonderfully rooted in the corporeal.

“I’ve Got a Woman” took gospel music to a wholly new place – and it was a place that embraced the raucousness of rhythm and blues and proto-rock ‘n’ roll as wholeheartedly as the genre had previously embraced religious devotion.

But if the musical content was scandalous, then lyrically “I’ve Got a Woman” was outrageous.

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ray charles
Source: mega

'I've Got a Woman' took gospel music and made it gloriously physical.

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Charles laid out his blasphemous intent from the very start. Where the original opened with the line, “There’s a man (it must be Jesus)”, his version began: “Well I’ve got a woman”. It must be Jesus? Not any more.

From there, Charles reveled in his debauchery. His woman was not only completely subservient to him – giving him money, saving “her lovin’” just for him (and in the early morning, too, presumably after he gets in from a night carousing without her), never grumbling or fussing, never “runnin’ in the streets”, and, most shamelessly on Charles’ part, knowing that “a woman’s place is right there now in her home”.

Ray Charles had taken a song where the singer expressed his dedication to a higher power, and turned it into a shameless boast about how another was devoted entirely to him. And the real kicker? It’s there right at the beginning: his submissive sex object resided “way over town” – presumably the well-to-do side of town, where the white folk lived. To even imply such a relationship in 1955 was daring; to do it so gleefully was nothing short of breathtaking.

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God-fearing America may have been outraged, but a new generation was energized. After the single topped the R&B charts it was immediately co-opted by almost the entire Sun Records roster, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, and in 1956 Elvis Presley recorded his own version.

The power and impact of “I’ve Got a Woman” would resonate far beyond the effect it had on Ray Charles’ career. The bold new melding of gospel’s emotional fervor with the physicality of rhythm and blues – as well as the joyous wickedness of the lyrics – laid the foundations for much of what would become soul, and even hip-hop. She’s alright, indeed.

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