In the next of our series looking at songs/singers and the way that they interact with one another Rick Bayles puts ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ (good and not so good) under the microscope:
Tony Joe White (1967) – In 1967, Tony Joe White was fronting a band, playing Elvis and John Lee Hooker covers and driving a Dumper Truck to make ends meet while he tried to get a foothold in the music business. He realised he needed to try to write some original material and, according to a later interview, he reckoned the only things he knew enough about, for writing purposes, were Polk Greens, a “poor man’s spinach”, and the rain in Georgia, since it had so much affect on his driving shifts. So his first songwriting efforts were a country cookery song that will be forever synonymous with Elvis Presley and this blue-eyed soul ballad that’s sold millions of copies worldwide and has been covered by the likes of Ray Charles, Randy Crawford, George Benson, Aaron Neville and many, many more. Not bad for your first two songs!
This is Tony Joe’s original version of his own song, recorded in 1968 for inclusion on his ‘Continued’ album, released early the following year. It’s a song that establishes what was to become one of his signature sounds, southern country soul punctuated with his very recognisable sparse, clean guitar licks and all pushed along with some very tasty Hammond organ playing (from Mike Utley, in this case, who would go on to be Jimmy Buffet’s right-hand man in the Coral Reefer Band), and, of course, featuring White’s instantly recognisable, tuneful growl of a voice. The original and, for me at least, still the best version of a truly great song.
Brook Benton (1969) – This is the big hit that underlined White’s abilities as a great songwriter. It’s not a huge departure from White’s own arrangement but it’s a smoother, poppier version, aimed at a wider record-buying public. It’s slowed down very slightly and Benton’s delivery is much cleaner and crisper, he doesn’t drag the lyrics. With a certain irony it sounds “whiter” than Tony Joe’s original (pun intended). The organ is still there but it’s been pushed into the background and much of its sound has been replaced by a string section, punctuated by Toots Thielemans mournful harmonica, giving the song a more lush, fuller finish. In short, it’s a far more commercial production for the time, produced by Arif Mardin, one of Atlantic Records top producers in the 60s and 70s. This was Benton’s big come back recording. He’d been successful in the late 50s and early 60s with a string of R&B hits, many of which he co-wrote, but he’d been out of the charts for some time when Jerry Wrexler signed him to an Atlantic subsidiary (Cotillion Records). His version of ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ topped the Billboard Best Selling Soul Singles charts in 1970 and would reach number 4 in the Hot 100.
Ray Charles – (1972) You’d think this song would be tailor made for Ray Charles but this is a version that really doesn’t work for me and has lost the sense of loneliness and yearning that should be a part of the song – the song has been sacrificed to the great man’s sense of personal style. The vocals are, of course, excellent, if a little over stylised, but it’s overproduced, especially when you compare it to the elegant simplicity of the original. The intro feels almost as if it’s some sort of pastiche and, as the song develops, the strings aren’t so much a wash as a heavy deluge, and the backing vocals always seem out of place. There’s also a rambling, almost scat ending to Charles’ own vocals that is just daft. It’s really not Ray Charles finest hour and it’s perhaps no surprise that the album this comes from, 1972’s ‘Through The Eyes of Love’, was his weakest performing album of the ABC years that had started so strongly and given us the chart topping ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’ albums (Volumes 1 & 2). ‘Through the Eyes of Love’ only made 186 in the U.S charts and made no impact in the UK at all. Even geniuses have bad days at the office!
Tony Joe White and Shelby Lynne (2010) There have been a lot of versions of this song and I could’ve included Randy Crawford’s beautifully sung version, that scored her a UK top twenty hit in 1981 or Chris Young’s very countrified take from 2009, or any of the recordings by Tennessee Ernie Ford or Hank Williams Jnr, but I thought we’d close with this one, from a live recording at a radio session in Nashville, and bring it back full circle. Tony Joe White was drawing towards the close of his career and, while the voice may not be the instrument it once was, it still reverberates through you and his guitar playing is as good as ever on this beautiful acoustic duet with Shelby Lynne. Lynne and White had worked together a number of times over the years with Lynne guesting on White’s ‘The Heroines’ album and co-writing the track ‘Can’t Go Back Home’ with him; and Lynne has recorded her own solo version of ‘Rainy Night’, which appeared on her excellent 2005 album ‘Suit Yourself’ (listed on the album as ‘Track 12’). Here they re-visit the song together and draw all the poignancy out of it – two of the world-weariest voices in Americana; you can close your eyes and see those wet streets and the neon reflections. I could never tire of this song.