In 2004, the incomparable Ray Charles passed away at the age of 73. His death was followed with an outpouring of reflection on his massive contributions to Western music and American history.
Two events in particular stood out on the pop culture landscape. First was the biopic Ray, featuring Jamie Foxx in the title role. The second was “Gold Digger” by Kanye West.
West’s first chart-topping single was constructed on a familiar Ray Charles sample and, not coincidentally, a guest spot from Foxx, still thoroughly in-character.
2005–Year of the Raynaissance
Foxx won Best Actor at that year’s Academy Awards. West Won Best Rap Solo Performance at the Grammys. 2005 went down as the year of the Genius (as Charles was often known during his life).
Foxx and West deserve credit for their timely tributes, which are now and forever tied to Brother Ray’s final moments on Earth. But “Gold Digger” is, in fact, a time capsule bursting with treasures that predate even Ray Charles.
Kanye West dominated the charts and awards seasons that year. But the DNA for his first mega-hit was coded a century ago. Indeed, when the roots of “Gold Digger” first sprouted from the soil, Ray Charles was just three years old.
Josh White–There’s a Man Goin’ Around Taking Names (1933)
Josh White is a towering figure in the history of American music–a guitarist, blues singer, Civil Rights activist, and songwriter with a sharp and prolific pen. Born in Greenville, South Carolina in 1914, White journeyed north to New York in 1931 and quickly achieved widespread fame and success.
However, his vocal stance against segregation, particularly through his songwriting, would ultimately make him a target of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare blacklists of the 1940s. It is perhaps only for this reason that White is not a household name today. He also succumbed to chronic heart disease in 1969, at the premature age of 55.
Still, his influence looms enormous, as demonstrated by landmark recordings like 1933’s “There’s a Man Goin’ Around Taking Names.”
Like many songs of the era, White’s is not the first version. Its authorship is unknown. Evidence of its existence goes back to at least 1921.
However, the apocalyptic lyrics in White’s version would reportedly serve as the lyrical inspiration for “It Must be Jesus,” a minor gospel radio hit some 20 years later.
The Southern Tones–It Must Be Jesus (1954)
The story behind the Southern Tones is brief but consequential. In 1953, a guitarist named Bob King joined the legendary Houston, Texas gospel collective called the Soul Stirrers. Among the many icons who passed through this ensemble on their way to stardom were Johnnie Taylor, Lou Rawls, and Sam Cooke.
King’s stay with the group was also temporary, as in 1954 he departed to form the Southern Tones. Remaining in Houston, King’s group recorded “It Must Be Jesus,” which made liberal use of the lyrics from “There’s a Man…” but also tied them to an impassioned uptempo performance distinguished by its joyous vocal exhortations and call-and-response structure.
Following the 1954 release, the Tones called it quits. King was back with the Soul Stirrers the next year, but would sadly pass away from kidney failure by 1955.
Ray Charles–I’ve Got a Woman (1954)
Though King’s life was cut tragically short, his impact is beyond dispute. As the story goes, Charles was in a car with his trumpeter Renald Richard when the Southern Tones song came on the radio. Both were so moved by the song’s impassioned vocals that they immediately began to ad lib secular lyrics to the very same arrangement. From this car ride, “I’ve Got a Woman” was born.
Charles took the song into the studio in November of 1954, incorporated a boogie woogie piano bridge inspired by Big Bill Broonzy’s “Livin’ on Easy Street” and released it the next month.
“I’ve Got a Woman” quickly reached #1 on the Billboard R&B charts. It was Ray’s first hit. It was also a prototypical recording for the genre soon to be known as Soul.
“I’ve Got a Woman” launched Ray Charles into stardom. It also earned him the vitriol of many Black churchgoers, who viewed his secularization of gospel music as sacrilege. A great many others, however, were inspired by his ingenuity. Prominent recordings have since been offered by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and more.
Indeed, by the time “Gold Digger” placed Kanye West at the top of the pop pyramid in 2005, its borrowed refrain had become ingrained in American popular consciousness.