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.
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.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)