SONG: What’d I Say
ARTIST: Ray Charles
Listen to it here:
“What’d I Say” is considered one of the first soul songs. Written by Ray Charles, and released as a two-part single in 1959, it started out as an improvised tune that Charles, his orchestra, and backup singers messed around with after they’d played their whole set list and still had time left on their show. The audience response was so enthusiastic that Charles announced to his producer that he was going to record it.
This was the song that finally broke Charles into mainstream pop music after a run of R&B hits. This song was not without controversy though. Some audiences didn’t get this new style which combines gospel, and rhumba, and pop, with the sexual innuendo in the lyrics. Regardless, this song earned Ray Charles his first gold record, and is still considered one of the most influential songs in R&B history.
When this song came out, Ray Charles was already 28 years old, with 10 years of recording experience under his belt. After starting out with mainly Nat King Cole and Charles Brown style, his producers encouraged him to broaden his repertoire a bit, which annoyed Charles. Years later, producer Jerry Wexler said “I realized the best thing I could do with Ray was to leave him alone.”
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23 (also Kelly’s birthday!) in Albany, Georgia. He was the son of a laborer, Bailey Robinson, and Aretha Robinson, a laundress. When Charles’ mother Aretha was a child, her mother died. Her family couldn’t keep her so the Robinson family (Bailey and his wife Mary Jane) informally adopted her and Aretha took their surname. A few years later, at the age of 15, Aretha became pregnant by Bailey. A scandal ensued, and Aretha moved back closer to her own family, but once the child, Ray Charles, was born, they returned to the Robinson family. Aretha, Bailey, and Bailey’s (assuming) long-suffering wife Mary Jane, all shared in Charles’ upbringing, until Bailey abandoned the family, and married another woman elsewhere. By the time Charles turned one, he had a younger brother, George, but nobody can remember who George’s father was.
As a young child, Charles’ curiosity around music was sparked when he heard Wylie Pitman playing boogie woogie piano at his cafe. Pitman subsequently taught Charles how to play piano as well. Pitman was alway good to Charles and his mother, and welcomed them to live with him when they were in financial distress. He also took care of young George to take some of the burden off of Aretha. George accidentally drowned in his mother’s laundry tub when he was four years old.
Around the age of five Charles started to lose his sight and was completely blind by age seven, likely as a result of glaucoma. At this point, Aretha had hit a very low point in her life; she was destitute, and mourning the loss of her younger son, while struggling to support her newly blind son. She eventually found a school that would accept a blind African-American pupil. So from 1937 to 1945, Charles attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. There, he was able to develop his musical skills even further, learning the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and reading Braille scores. When he was 14, Charles’ mother died, and he decided not to return to school after the funeral.
After leaving school, Charles moved to Jacksonville and lived with a friend of his mother’s. He played piano for bands at a theater for a year, and slowly built up a reputation. His career wasn’t advancing fast enough for him in Jacksonville, so he moved on to Tampa, where got more work, but always playing for other peoples’ bands. He longed to have his own band and live in a bigger city, so he followed his friend to Seattle in 1948, knowing that all the big radio hits of the era were coming from the north.
The move to Seattle proved to be a great one for Charles. He formed a trio, recorded his first national hit on the R&B charts, and then moved on to LA to further his success. A few years after the move, Atlantic Records bought Charles’ contract for $2,500. His first small hit with them was “Mess Around” in 1953, and then later “I’ve Got a Woman.” The pinnacle of his success with Atlantic, though, was today’s review, What’d I Say.
I’m pretty positive this is not the last of Ray Charles we’ll see on this list, so stay tuned for more on this R&B giant!
- When Charles moved to Seattle, he became good friends with Quincy Jones – they were both around the same age.
Yessssss it’s time for some soul! I love soul music. And while I kind of find Ray Charles is hit or miss for me, I really like this song. That organ is so warm and yummy and I like that he used it instead of just going for piano. It gives the song more depth of sound. That drummer ting ting-alinging on the ride cymbal for the whole damn song?? Bravo sir. My wrist would have fallen off. I like that he has that kind of funny rapport with the band, paving the way for the way James Brown would call back to his band. And the backup singers? Come on now. Merry Clayton and Minnie Riperton, both big time legendary soul-singing HEAVYWEIGHTS were Raelettes. Their voices are absolutely seamless. The song itself is some relatively basic 12 bar blues, but Ray’s masterful combination of call and response, instrumentation, back up singers and his own soulful delivery (a type of singing I would argue we haven’t really heard yet at this point) really started digging the soul music canal. I can hear a lot of James Brown and Wilson Pickett in his voice, but I guess one of my small criticisms is that he doesn’t have some of the smoothness that we see in Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Although Ray was a bit of a butt in real life, for this song I have to give him a ‘well done’.
I love this song. I think it sounds so unique for its time, the piano/organ playing is high energy, and this drummer, though! Wow, great fills and cymbals all through the tune! There’s no questioning Ray Charles’ skill, and the band he put together is great. The drummer sounds awesome, the bass actually exists in the mix, and Charles’ voice is so recognizable. Nothing against the vocals, but my favourite part of the tune is the extended intro. I love the introduction and the gradual addition of more instruments, the interaction between all the instruments, and the great balance. But let’s talk about Ray Charles’ voice. I feel like it wouldn’t be considered “traditionally good”, but his energy, inflection, and coolness override any lack of polish or anything like that. I guess the only thing I don’t love about this tune, is that once we start getting into the verses, it’s pretty repetitive. The horns sound fun, but too far in the background for me as well. There’s a bari sax in there, but you barely hear him. The call and answer is tons of fun as well! All in all, this song definitely deserves a place on this list!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Elvis just doesn’t quite get the right vibe going on this tune:
And talking about missing the mark, here’s Bobby Darin:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
Link to the Best of the Best 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: