One Song/Three Versions – Hard Times

Wherein I provide three versions of a song to see how it can be (sometimes radically) reinterpreted ….

Even though I wrote a series about Ray Charles at the end of last year, I’d somehow gotten it into my head that Willie Nelson wrote this song. But no, Ray did. The song that pothead Willie wrote is called “Night Life” and a band I was in did both of these tunes. (For the record, Willie did write a song called “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” which amuses me no end.)

I will here quote a site called It’s All About Ray Charles. “Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I”) is a song that Ray Charles recorded while at Atlantic Records in the 1950s that was released in 1961 after he’d left for ABC Records and worldwide superstardom.

The song is a remarkable showcase for many of Ray’s musical and mystical talents and experiences. A short, slow blues song, it begins in the style of Ray’s earliest 1947 recordings: his piano, his voice, an apparent stand-up bass, and drums keeping the simplest of beats.

His piano playing is remarkable, burbling with short bursts of notes throughout, free of boring structure and exuding supreme confidence, a late night spent crying into a whiskey bottle.”

I think it’s one of the greatest blues songs ever written:

Spotify link

Here’s an interesting factoid I discovered in my research. Back in the late ’80s, there was (apparently) a syndicated show called Sunday Night hosted by David Sanborn and Jools Holland (and produced by Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels.) Not only did this show not make its way to my area, I never even heard of it. But with the kind of guests they had, I need to do a little more digging.

You’re thinking this tune might sound pretty good with some horns and a guitar. It’s such a good song I think it would sound good with a kazoo and a tuba. Eric Clapton appeared on the show several times and near as I can tell, this is his first appearance. Robert Cray was on the same episode as was Dan Hicks!

Here are Eric and the boys laying it down:

My inspiration for this post was hearing a pianist named Monty Alexander do a terrific instrumental version of this tune. Alas, I can’t find it anywhere. There IS a version with him on the piano with a singer. But as much as I like it, I wanted to have one instrumental version.

To the rescue comes none other than Aretha Franklin in this (mostly) instrumental version. She plays a very fine piano and scats towards the end. This is an outtake from a 1962 album called The Electrifying Aretha Franklin. Very tasty. And what a pleasure to have three of the absolute greats in one post:

Spotify link

Note – Much is made of Duane Allman’s fabled contributions to the Queen of Soul’s albums. But a perhaps little-known fact is that Eric beat him to it, appearing on her 1968 album, Lady Soul. And in 1993, Clapton played on a Ray Charles song called “None of Us is Free.” The solo sounds kinda phoned in but it’s actually a pretty good song that tries to upgrade Ray’s sound.

My mother told me before she passed away,
Said, “Son, when I’m gone, don’t forget to pray
‘Cause there’ll be hard times, Lord those hard times –
Who knows better than I?”

Well I soon found out just what she meant
When I had to pawn my clothes just to pay the rent;
Talkin’ ‘about hard times, hard times
Who knows better than I?

I had a woman, Lord, who was always around,
But when I lost my money, she put me down.
Talkin’ ’bout hard times, you know those hard times,
Yeah, Lord, who knows better than I?

Lord, one of these days, there’ll be no sorrow
When I pass away,
And no more hard times,
Yeah, yeah, who knows better than I?
Yeah, Lord, who knows better than I



22 thoughts on “One Song/Three Versions – Hard Times

  1. Good stuff Doc. I’ve seen most of those episodes of the Sanborn show. It was one of the best music shows ever. Jools replicated it years later with his UK show. Fantastic guests that you wouldn’t normally see live. wasn’t like they were promoting latest album etc. The Hicks appearance was classic. The EC version with that band is so good (so are the other ones)


    1. Jools’ show I’m familiar with. I never heard of this fucking thing. Slipped right by me. I’ll have to go seek it out.

      BTW, CB overlooked my previous Hendrix post, breaking his all-time record. I openly wept.


      1. I wont bore you with all the people you missed on that show. Amazing. Miles Davis even showed up. Being the hard rock miner you are, you will find out the reason why the show attracted so many cool people. Sonny Rollins .. people more reclusive than CB and Howard Hughes.
        (Missing Hendrix? You are the only person I get an email notification from. Pretty sure I didnt get one plus I periodically drop by and look at comments and just check up on ya. You probably figured I was pissed off at ya. Never!)


        1. Who the hell ever has Ken Nordine on their show. The episodes I watched didnt have Jools. Maybe I caught the show before or after with just Dave. Ive used clips from that show on my takes.


  2. Very cool. I love both the original and the two covers. As much as I dig Clapton, there’s just no way you can beat the Queen of Soul. Also, great to hear that apart from being a killer vocalist, she was really a great piano player!


    1. Yeah, she was a major talent. I watched a documentary that came out after she died called ‘Amazing Grace.’ Filmed at a church in LA, it’s all gospel. She comes across as rather a shy person. But it’s quite good and still the highest-selling live gospel album of all time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This sounds interesting, Jim. I recall Aretha Franklin started out singing gospel in the church of her father who also became her first manager.

        It seems to me he was a bit of a dubious character. When a pastor gets super rich preaching the gospel, I generally get skeptical.

        Anyway, I believe Franklin was also a self-taught pianist. Undoubtedly, she had amazing talent!


  3. It’s probably symptomatic of our different musical leanings that I saw the title and assumed it was going to be about the Stephen Foster folk tune. Ray Charles is a huge hole in my musical knowledge that I need to fix – this song’s great and I’d never heard it before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s likely a function of my naiveté that I would find a bunch of songs online called ‘Hard Times’ and think they were covers of this tune. Quite a few were rap songs.

      For a brief history you could check out my series. Plenty of stuff on Spotify. You could do worse than listen to ‘The Atlantic Years.’ Ironically there’s a song on there called ‘Swanee River Rock.’

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Run DMC and Paramore both have well known tunes with that title.

        I enjoyed your series, about a year ago I think, just haven’t dived in and listened.


        1. Yes, I often don’t get around to listening to things that I say I’m gonna listen to for one reason or another. On the up side, you now have something new to learn on piano.

          Liked by 1 person

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