I Got a Woman: Ray Charles, the Beatles, John Mayer

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider I Got a Woman, one of the greatest soul music songs from the 50s. We will review the original version by Ray Charles, and covers of that song by The Beatles and John Mayer.

Ray Charles and I Got a Woman:

Ray Charles Robinson grew up in Florida in the 1930s. He suffered from glaucoma, which took his sight by age seven. Ray learned to play the piano at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, FL. The photo below shows Ray Charles performing circa 1960.

Ray then began searching for fame and fortune in the world of music. Initially, Charles had decided to copy Nat King Cole’s vocal style. However, his fortunes changed after he took off for the West Coast.  In Seattle he began to collaborate with a very young musical phenom Quincy Jones.

Next, he moved to LA where he was signed to a contract with Atlantic Records by the great producer Ahmet Ertegun.  Ertegun sent Ray down to New Orleans to gain exposure with musicians who focused on R&B and jazz.  There, he oversaw a number of arrangements at Cosimo Matassa’s studio.  This trip had a huge impact on Ray.  He was impressed by the New Orleans musicians, who had developed and remained true to their own individual styles.

When Ray went back to LA, he was determined to tap into his roots and to assemble his own band.  Ray’s first record upon returning from NOLA was I Got a Woman.  The tune was co-written with Renald Richard, who was a trumpeter in Ray’s band. The song was released as a single in December 1954 and subsequently shot up to #1 on the Billboard R&B polls.

The tune for I Got a Woman was inspired by It Must Be Jesus by the Southern Tones. Ray built on the pace and rhythm of the gospel tune, but combined it with an R&B style that incorporated elements of jazz. The end product? Voila! Ray had virtually invented “soul music.”

The song delineates the virtues of Ray’s woman “way over town that’s good to me.”

She give me money
When I’m in need
Yeah, she’s a kind of friend indeed
I’ve got a woman
Way over town
That’s good to me oh, yeah

She’s there to love me both day and night
Never grumbles or fusses, always treats me right
Never runnin’ in the streets, and leavin’ me alone
She knows a woman’s place is right there now in her home

So here is Ray Charles and his band performing I Got a Woman live. I believe this is from a May 1965 segment of Shindig, a TV program that featured live rock and roll.

Ray is really in great form here. This particular version is considerably faster than his normal take on the song, and it really rocks. As you can see, Ray’s vocals are outstanding. No wonder he became known as the Founding Father of soul music.

As the leading proponent of popular R&B, Ray Charles had insured his legacy. However, he did not stop there, but proceeded to expand his range to take in both pop music and country, with classic covers of songs such as Georgia on My Mind and I Can’t Stop Loving You.

In his earlier career, Ray Charles was a dedicated fighter for civil rights. He cancelled at least one concert when he learned that the audience would be segregated, with whites on the main floor and blacks confined to the balcony. He also wrote or covered a number of songs that championed the civil rights movement.

Ray’s personal life was rather messy and complicated. Like the lyrics from his song, Ray usually did have “a woman, way cross town, who’s good to me.” He had a long series of affairs, and eventually Ray ended up fathering twelve children with ten different women.

Ray also had serious addiction problems in the mid-60s. After his third arrest for heroin possession, Ray entered a rehab clinic in 1965 and successfully kicked his heroin habit. At that time, Charles claimed that he had been a drug addict ever since he was 16.

Ray Charles was a fantastic artist and innovator, a true pioneer in R&B music, and one of the great cross-over musicians. He was an inspiration to all the generations of musicians who have followed him.

The Beatles and I Got a Woman:

From 1963 to 1965, the Beatles frequently gave ‘live’ performances on BBC Radio. I put ‘live’ in quotes, because although some of the shows were live, the material for these performances was generally pre-recorded. On the other hand, as the songs were taped in the BBC studios, there were very limited opportunities for re-taping or overdubbing. To be frank, at that time the BBC studios featured really crap recording technology.

So even the pre-taped Beatles performances were mostly recorded in a single take in the studio, and have tremendous historical value. They essentially show what it was like to attend a Beatles concert during the period ranging from the beginning of `Beatlemania,’ to the point when the Beatles had just conquered the pop music world.

The great majority of these performances occurred during the period 1963-64. Forty-seven of their BBC appearances occurred in 1963 and 1964, including ten on Saturday Club, and fifteen on their own weekly series Pop Go The Beatles which began in June 1963.

Many of these songs were released 30 years later, in 1994, in a two-CD set titled The Beatles, Live at the BBC. This was a veritable treasure-trove of Beatles material. It included 56 songs, of which 30 had never previously been released.

Most of the songs reflected Beatles material from the late 1950s and early 1960s. As Lennon and McCartney were just beginning to write their own songs at this time, a majority of these were covers of tunes that inspired the Beatles and were incorporated into their early stage act.

Below is a photo of John Lennon taken in July 1966.

So what were these songs that inspired the Beatles? Not surprisingly, Chuck Berry and Little Richard were the artists whose songs the Beatles covered most frequently. A few Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins rockabilly tunes also feature in this collection, as well as a couple of songs by the great pop-music songwriting duo Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

It is interesting that the Beatles also included a cover of I Got a Woman by Ray Charles, the song that essentially marks the beginning of the soul music era. At first sight this seems a somewhat unusual selection, in that the Beatles generally favored straight rock and roll or rockabilly music over R&B or soul. So you might ask, what was it about I Got a Woman that appealed to the Beatles?

Well, here is the audio of the Beatles’ cover of I Got a Woman. It was recorded on July 16, 1963 and subsequently featured on the August 13th BBC Radio show Pop Go the Beatles.

What did you think? It is apparent that this Beatles cover was based not on Ray Charles’ original version, but on Elvis Presley’s cover of Ray’s song. This is most evident at the very end, where John Lennon channels his best Elvis impression.

As a result, this is more of a rockabilly version of the song, than Ray Charles’ soul classic. The vocals are a solo by John Lennon. However, the songs also features John on acoustic guitar, and George Harrison has an Elvis-inspired electric guitar solo in the middle of the song.

For comparison purposes, here is the Elvis Presley cover of I Got a Woman.  The song was recorded at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis and released in August 1956.

The YouTube video has some nice photos of a very young Elvis and his group, including a photo with producer Sam Phillips and shots of the Sun Studios building in Memphis.

As you can see, the Beatles’ version of I Got a Woman follows the details of the Elvis cover quite closely, including the electric guitar solo and continuing right up to John Lennon’s copying Elvis’ slowed-down bump-and-grind vocals at the very end of the song.

I strongly recommend the collection The Beatles Live at the BBC. By now there is also a “Part 2” release from this collection. It gives a priceless glimpse at the music that inspired the world’s best pop group ever. You can imagine I Got a Woman being part of the bill at a Beatles concert in the early 60s, in Liverpool’s Cavern Club.

John Mayer and I Got a Woman:

John Mayer is an American blues guitarist and pop singer. As a teenager, his father rented him a guitar and he became hooked on the blues when he got his hands on a Stevie Ray Vaughn cassette. He then worked his way through the material from several legendary blues guitarists, copying and mastering their riffs.

John Mayer first hit the charts in 2001 when his mainly acoustic pop songs became gigantic hits. He won Grammy awards and rapidly achieved stardom. However, following some continued success with songs like Your Body is a Wonderland and Waiting for the World to Change, Mayer moved back to his first love, the blues.

Mayer began to collaborate with blues legends such as Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Since then, he has moved back and forth between pop music and more blues-based songs. In 2005 he formed the John Mayer Trio, and went on tour with songs that focused on his R&B roots. Here is the John Mayer Trio in New York, with a live performance of Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman.

So what do you think? The John Mayer Trio featured Steve Jordan on drums and Pino Palladino on bass. Both Jordan and Palladino are terrific musicians. Jordan’s drumming really holds the song together, and Palladino has a substantial bass solo in the middle of the song.

Mayer provides some extended guitar solos in this piece. They show off both his familiarity with blues guitar, and also his rather refined jazz sensibilities. I find this to be a really creative cover of Ray Charles’ soul classic.

As John Mayer’s fame has spread, he has become quite a celebrity. As a result, you can find him featured in the tabloids paired with various supermodels or pop stars. He has also given some widely publicized and genuinely unfortunate interviews where he comes off as a real jerk. Partly as a result of this notoriety, and also because of his status as a teen pop idol, one can find a number of critics who suggest either that Mayer has no talent, or that he has not ‘paid his dues’ as a blues musician.

I have to say that I strongly disagree with both points of view. To my mind, Mayer is a really terrific musician. He has written some fine pop and blues songs, and I think he is an extremely talented blues guitarist. I have seen him perform with blues legends such as Buddy Guy or Eric Clapton, and my impression is that Mayer holds his own even in such exalted company.

Below is a photo of John Mayer with Eric Clapton at a Madison Square Garden concert in May 2015 commemorating Clapton’s 70th birthday.

In recent years, Mayer has experienced some fairly serious health problems. In 2010 a granuloma was found on his vocal cords. After a couple of surgeries were not successful, Mayer went for a couple of years without singing in public. At the beginning of this period, he was unable even to talk.

It appears that Mayer is now healthy, and he has once again resumed touring. His work continues to oscillate between primarily acoustic pop music and R&B. Mayer is a major collector of antique timepieces. His collection of watches is reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars, and he has served as a juror at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve, a competition that highlights fine Swiss watches.

Most recently, Mayer has joined up with various members of the Grateful Dead to form a new group, Dead and Company.  They have announced that they will go out on tour later this fall.  Wow, I am really looking forward to that! We can only hope that John Mayer stays healthy and continues to produce great new tunes.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
This entry was posted in Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Rockabilly, Soul music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to I Got a Woman: Ray Charles, the Beatles, John Mayer

  1. Roger Lipton says:

    Nice review. Love those old BBC recordings and Mayer was great with Dead &Co. In Worcester Mass.

    Like

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