Behind The Song: “I Got a Woman,” Ray Charles

Legend has it that famed recording artist Billy Joel has said Ray Charles was more important than Elvis. To wit, Frank Sinatra called Charles at one point the “only true genius” in show business. With a steadfast, yet brittle almost woodgrain voice, fingers that could seemingly boogie-woogie all night long, and a songwriting vision (despite being literally blind) that stretched for decades, and continues to do so today, Charles is an American treasure.

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One of the artist’s most famous hit songs was the salacious “I Got a Woman,” which he released in 1954 as a single (with the B-side being his gut-wrenching tune, “Come Back Baby”). And both songs appeared on his 1957 self-titled record, which was later renamed, Hallelujah I Love Her So. But Charles told Pop Chronicles before he died that he was playing “I Got a Woman” for about a year before recording it.

Charles recorded the track on November 18, 1954, in the Atlanta studios of the Georgia Tech radio station WGST. The song became his first hit, climbing to No. 1 on the R&B chart in January 1955. Rooted in gospel sounds, the song is steeped in what Charles was listening to at the time while on the road in the hot summer of 1954. Charles wrote the track with his bandleader Renald Richard.

It was the combination of church sounds with secular lyrics that made the songwriter famous. It was his soul music, and some say the first-ever soul music. “I Got a Woman” was built on the tune “It Must Be Jesus” by the band the Southern Tones, as well as a bridge inspired by the song “Living on Easy Street” by Big Bill Broonzy.

For Charles, who was born in 1930 in Georgia and who died in 2004 in California, the songs stirred the crowd but did not make them feel guilty like they might in church. Fire and brimstone were replaced with flirtation and bourbon. It was rousing music with real-life stories. Case in point: Charles singing the lyrics about a lady friend of his:

Well, 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 / Well, I’ve got a woman / Way over town / That’s good to me oh, yeah / Say I’ve got a woman / Way over town / That’s good to me oh, yeah

The way Charles even begins the tune sounds tawdry as if he’s leaning over to a friend of his and to tell him about this great setup, about this out-there sexual relationship. Of course, the meaning of the lyrics likely points to Charles’ (or the narrator’s) relationship to a white woman, which of course, in the 1950s was taboo when the other partner was Black.

Charles has a lady friend over on the other side of town (perhaps, on the well-to-do side of town) that’s good to him. She treats him right, offers him a bed, food, comfort. A respite in a world of late nights and show-biz hangers-on. She gives him money when he’s in need. “Yeah, she’s a kind of friend indeed!” She saves her loving for him early in the morning, when he’s finished with the late-night carousing required of an entertainer. Oh yeah!

Those of us who listened to pop music in the early 2000s are used to hearing this song sampled by hip hop producer and rapper Kanye West for his song “Gold Digger,” which features the standout actor, musician, and Ray Charles impersonator (and Oscar Award-winner for his role as Charles in the movie, Ray), Jamie Foxx.

But the song takes a turn for the curious later. Not only does Charles want this woman there for him in the early morning for some tender affection, but he wants her all to himself. She’s not to leave her home (without him). Perhaps that’s just the situation she wants, or perhaps it’s what she’s willing to put up with (for at least a little while) for some attention from the great Ray Charles. While we can’t adjudicate that now, we can love the song for its storytelling, its candor, and its hip-shaking energy.

Many others along the way have felt the same, too. “I Got a Woman” has been covered by nearly any- and everyone from the Beatles to Elvis to Bryan Adams, Roy Orbison, Chet Atkins, Michael Bolton, Stevie Wonder, and even Johnny Cash and June Carter.

Check out two of those versions below.

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