When Jack trumps Zack and Mack

You’re Ray Charles’ manager. It’s October, 1961. Hit the Road, Jack is top of the Billboard Hot 100. You’re on tour in Chicago, playing The Treasure Island. It’s 2 minutes to show time. A man in a sharp suit hands you a scrumpled note. You unfold it and read:

You sigh. Jackie “the Lackey” Cerone‘s out there in front. Again. Shiny new girl on his arm. He hates them getting ideas from Ray’s song. You catch Jackie’s eye, smile and nod.

The black paper’s a novelty, but it’s not the first time you’ve had to make substitutions. Jack Ruby‘s the same. Mafia men are surprisingly insecure in matters of the heart.  Anyway, it’s easy: run through the alphabet and you come up with Mack or Zack. Both rhyming helpfully with back.

Here’s a question for singers and songwriters:  which is the better  stand in for JackMack or Zack? One scores points for sound, one for meaning.  What makes Jack a million miles better than both?

If English isn’t your first language, you might think Jack is just another name. It isn’t. Read on and find out why. It’ll help you to sound more convincing when you sing Hit the Road, Jack.

So, back to the question: Zack or Mack?

Say Hit the road, Mack. Now say Hit the road, Zack. Which name flows more easily after the d of road?  Do you find Mack interrupts the line while you rearrange your lips to make its M? Can you feel the Z of Zack sliding smoothly into place after the d? Easier to sing.

But, and it’s a big but, Zack doesn’t work as well as Jack in this song because it’s too specific. Who’s Zack? The Raelettes can sing Hit the road, Jack to Ray without a single member of the audience being distracted by the thought, “Wait a minute, his name’s not Jack, is it?”

If the Raelettes had sung Hit the road, Zack, the audience’s attention  would have focused on the puzzle of Zack’s identity. Momentarily, perhaps. But a moment’s a long time in a short song. The name Zack turns the song into a duet. The name Jack doesn’t. Jack is both personal and universal. Like the word Babe in this Supremes song.

Jack has long been used in English to refer to any man and to no man in particular. Margie Hendricks sings it like that. She adds a subtle layer of meaning to the word. It’s no longer simply a name.

If you’re singing a cover: it’s worth thinking about the name Jack. Are you going to sing Jack as if you’re singing to one specific man whose name is Jack? Like a duet? Or will you sing to one man and, through the way you sing Jack, sing the whole story of your relationship?  Or will you go further and say something universal about male/female dynamics? It’s all there in the word. With knowledge comes choice.

Mack has the same Everyman flavour as Jack. The Oxford dictionary says that both Mack and Jack can be used “as a form of address to a man whose name is not known.” (Or whose name you don’t choose to use). Sadly for Mack, there’s too much lip movement in M for him to win a place in this song. Mack takes the starring role here instead.

The J of Jack is easy to pronounce after the d of road. Fired from the mouth of Margie Hendricks, Jack is a perfect expression of long-suffering exasperation. It’s the kind of word you’d repeat to make your man understand that he’d gone too far, this time. Again.

Margie’s use of Jack is both familiar and distancing. Her message to Ray is clear: ‘I can’t be bothered to use your proper name. You’re just one more disappointing man to me now. Just one more Jack.’ From his reaction it sounds as if she’s used the word in anger before. The ck at the end of Jack is a satisfyingly strong sound to make when you’re angry.

Listen to Ray : he starts with the old trick of ‘the best defence is a strong offence’ by calling Margie ‘woman‘ instead of using her name or, more diplomatically, a term of endearment. Once he realises that she’s serious about throwing him out, he switches to cajoling her with babe. There’s a whole relationship laid bare in the song:

Jack is the perfect word here. It’s not specific to any one man, but it’s specific to this argument. The strong ck ending of Jack and back provides a clear contrast to the floating, open re of more. Supported by the strong, angry endings of no good and understood, Margie’s clear karate chop of Jack is starkly effective in response to Ray’s soft, wheedling away, say, some day, go or soThe portrait of a relationship, painted in sound.

Back to our 1961 Chicago show at The Treasure Island.  Would Ray have chosen Zack or Mack in a threatening-note-on-black-paper situation? Or a Presidential inauguration situation? (Ray tweaked Hit the Road, Jack for JFK‘s inaugural party way back in January.)

I’d place my bet on Mack, for its Everyman quality. The audience would have loved the fact that Ray was changing things round and playing with the words specially for them. Just like he did for the President. And, after all, Margie Hendricks and the Raelettes were the ones who had to find the extra time to move their lips into place for the M as they sang Mack, not Ray.

And Jackie the Lackey would have spent his evening unruffled; French 75 on the table, parrot on his shoulder and girl on his arm. Happy Jack. 

By the way – if English isn’t your first language: be sure that your j slides nice and smoothly when you sing Jack – (or any other word with a j in it). Spend a minute to check that you’re putting your tongue in the right place with this BBC pronunciation video.

Tiny differences in airflow can make big differences in sound. When you sing, be extra careful not to muddy your English j with too much of a d sound. There are plenty of situations in English where a word that starts with a d makes as much sense in context as a word that starts with a j. Your audience will only hear the stronger d and they’ll get confused. For example, in Summertime, if your audience think you’re singing ‘fish are dumping’ instead of jumping, they’ll be bemused.

© Sing Better English, 2014


2 thoughts on “When Jack trumps Zack and Mack”

    1. Thanks.

      I always wonder when a songwriter realises how perfectly a word works. I don’t think it’s something you could plan – it would be a very unusual songwriter who consciously decided to write a song where the word Jack gave the double meaning of ‘any man’ and ‘you, the man that I’m angry with’. It’s the kind of thing that magically falls into place to fit the music and the rhyme. The kind of thing you might notice once you’ve finished the song.

      I wanted to point out the extra meaning of Jack for singers who don’t have English as a first language. As an extra string to their singing bow!

      Liked by 1 person

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