“What’d I Say”: The Accidental Hit By Ray Charles

On February 18, 1959, Ray Charles laid down the song “What’d I Say” at the Atlantic Records studio on New York City. Besides being a great song, it is also unique for the way the song went from creation to recording to becoming a major hit.

The Creation of “What’d I Say”

One night while touring, Ray Charles was trying to fill the four hours he was contracted to perform at a dance near Pittsburgh (reportedly in Brownsville, Pennsylvania). Charles began on his Wurlitzer electric piano, finding a riff. As the riff began to build, Charles began making up words on the spot in front of the live audience.  And then he found himself asking his female backup singers to repeat after him.

As illustrated in the movie Ray (2004) with Jamie Foxx, below is the film version of the evening (note that this video has the talking dialogue in Spanish but the singing is in English).

The audience went wild. Charles continued playing the new song on the road, eventually calling Atlantic to say, “I’m playing a song out here on the road, and I don’t know what it is—it’s just a song I made up, but the people are just going wild every time we play it, and I think we ought to record it.”

Newport Jazz Festival

The following year, Charles performed “What’d I Say” at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island as his closing number.  But it left the audience wanting more.  He was called back on stage for an encore as his tenth song of the night, “I Believe to My Soul.”

During this performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, unknown to those on stage, outside the festival police were clashing with a crowd of up to 12,000 young people.  The angry youths were upset they could not get into see the performances.

“What’d I Say” Becomes a Hit

After “What’d I Say” was recorded in the studio in two parts, Atlantic released it as a single in July 1959. Then, it became the lead-off two-part title track for the What’d I Say album released in October 1959.

The song was a shot in the arm for the music industry.  At the time, Elvis was in the army, Chuck Berry would soon be going to jail, and Buddy Holly had died.

Although some criticized the song for blending gospel with sounds of sexual bliss, the recording became Charles’s first big crossover hit. It climbed to number one on the R&B charts and to number six on the pop charts.

“What’d I Say” was Charles’s first gold record, and Charles continued to use it as his closing number, as he did in Newport, throughout his career. While he would have other big hits, it was this little impromptu number that helped launch his career into the stratosphere and give the country a little soul.

What is your favorite Ray Charles song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • 2013 Pawscars Award Winners Announced
  • Cartoonish Gunfire But Brutal Slavery in “Django Unchained” (Review)
  • Seven Spanish Angels: Happy Birthday Willie
  • (Back in the) USSR Established on Today’s Date
  • Is That All There Is?: Jerry Leiber, Rest in Peace
  • Happy Thanksgiving!
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    6 thoughts on ““What’d I Say”: The Accidental Hit By Ray Charles”

    1. Essentially a stage jam that became a hit. Many bands rough out new songs during sound checks, but this is the first I’ve heard of a jam being so successful that it helped make a career. Spinal Tap should have been so lucky with their jazz odyssey.

      1. Yeah, I can’t recall another onstage jam that went on to be such a classic or even a hit song, although there may be some out there. Thanks for the comment.

        1. That’s how American Woman by the Guess Who was created. Randy Bachman was filling in time on stage after replacing a string on his guitar. It was made up on the spot and the lyrics were later refined by Bachman and Burton Cummings.

    Comments are closed.