Song 259: Ray Charles, “What’d I Say” (1959)

ray-charles-whatd-i-say-1961-4

There are a few amazing things—aside from the song’s innate amazingness—to know about “What’d I Say.” First of all, Ray Charles was only 27 when he recorded it. As I get older, I know I’m getting overly concerned about how old people were when they did things, but seriously, 27? Also, “What’d I Say,” the song that launched a million parties (including, claims George Harrison, an eight-hour one in 1958), broke down genre and standards barriers, and made Ray Charles a legend, was born in a moment of improvisation. If the mood hadn’t struck Charles at that second at the end of a live performance, if he was a little more tired or uninterested, “What’d I Say” might never have happened.

Which means: The Beatles might never have sounded like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones might never have sounded like the Rolling Stones, and, in turn, a million other artists may never have tried all kinds of things. All because Ray Charles had some extra time at the end of a show, tried something out, and decided to record it later on.

Now, this logic obviously has some holes, especially since “What’d I Say” was just one song among Ray Charles’ incredible output. But the song was undeniably a watershed moment for Charles and popular music. The sexual nature of Charles’ call-and-response was enough to get the song banned by radio stations (who didn’t ban similarly charged covers of the song by white artists). The song was also one of the first to meld gospel with R&B, which caused some major hand-wringing. It’s hard to imagine that concern today.

Speaking of which, whenever I hear a song like this, I wish I could hear it in its social context, to know exactly how it sounded without knowing what followed in its wake. “What’d I Say,” must have sounded like an explosion in 1958. Today it simply sounds amazing.

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