FACT: Every American born between 1969 and 1979 will, upon hearing “(Night Time Is) The Right Time,” immediately think of Rudy Huxtable.
You know the scene. The brief scene in the second season of “The Cosby Show” stands out not only as the series’ most memorable, but as one of the most iconic in all of 1980s television: in celebration of the 49th wedding anniversary of Cliff’s parents, the Huxtable clan teams up for a lively lip sync of the Ray Charles classic; midway through, little Rudy takes the Margie Hendricks part and pretends to wail a refrain of “Bay-baaaaaayyy!!!”
Looking back, the scene shouldn’t have worked. There are no jokes, unless you count the over-the-top mugging to the camera, especially by a rubberfaced Cos himself. Insert shots of the grandparents howling in delight only underline the fact that we’re watching other people have fun, which isn’t the same as having fun (or, more simply, being entertained) ourselves. And the whole thing runs for a full two and a half minutes, longer than the novelty of such a moment can sustain.
And yet, we laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Cosby’s mugging was – is – funny, and Keshia Knight Pulliam’s Raelette impression steals the show. So much, in fact, that she now essentially owns the song, all to herself.
Which is impressive, considering how many others have tried. First recorded in 1937 by Roosevelt Sykes, “The Right Time” quickly evolved in the next few years as lyrics got worked and reworked, artists and writers adding new lyrics along the way. The song was revived in 1957 by Nappy Brown, then one year later by Ray Charles.
It’s that version, released first as a single, then again on the 1961 compilation LP The Genius Sings the Blues, that would essentially give the song to Charles. Many cover versions followed, some artists (The Righteous Brothers, The Rolling Stones) opting to maintain the sax-heavy sound of Charles’ recording, others (The Animals, James Brown) trying to rework it to fit their own sound, others still (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tina Turner) falling somewhere in between.
Each version aims for a certain down-and-dirty-ness, a rough-edged sexuality lightened with just a touch of sweet. Not all of them hit the mark, of course, especially most of the amateur bar band covers that litter YouTube. But it’s obvious that everyone, from the Stones on down, isn’t trying to duplicate the sound of Nappy Brown or Roosevelt Sykes. They all want to be Ray Charles.
And rightly so. His is the definitive version, the one that remains popular some fifty-plus years later. But does he still own the song?
Short answer: no. He lost it on October 10, 1985, the second little Rudy Huxtable opened her mouth and fake-squealed “Bay-baaaaaayyy!!!” It’s been hers ever since.