Late one night in 1958, Ray Charles and his band were nearing the end of a very long performance at a dance somewhere in the Midwest when they found themselves in a jam. They were out of material. What Charles came up with that night to kill a little time would wind up making music history.
In his memoir Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story, co-written with David Ritz, Charles describes the scene:
It was nearly 1:00 A.M., I remember, and we had played our whole book. There was nothing left that I could think of, so I finally said to the band and the Raeletts, “Listen, I’m going to fool around and y’all just follow me.”
So I began noodling. Just a little riff which floated up into my head. It felt good and I kept on going. One thing led to another, and suddenly I found myself singing and wanting the girls to repeat after me. So I told ‘em, “Now!”
Then I could feel the whole room bouncing and shaking and carrying on something fierce. So I kept the thing going, tightening it up a little here, adding a dash of Latin rhythm there. When I got through, folk came up and asked where they could buy the record. “Ain’t no record,” I said, “just something I made up to kill a little time.”
The song, “What’d I Say,” became a hit not only on the rhythm and blues charts, where Charles had already had some success, but on the pop charts as well. It was Charles’s first cross-over hit, and his first gold record. It was widely covered by other artists and became Charles’s signature song, the one he ended his concerts with.
The video above was made almost exactly ten years after “What’d I Say” was written. It’s from one of a pair of concerts Charles gave on October 8 and 9, 1968, at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. The orchestra was led by Wallace Davenport, and the back-up singers, the Raeletts, were: Susaye Greene, Verlyn Flenaugh, Barbara Ann Lesure, and Barbara Nell Terrault.
Despite the eventual triumph of “What’d I Say,” the song encountered strong resistance when it was first released by Atlantic Records in 1959. Some radio stations banned it. “They said it was suggestive,” writes Charles. “Well, I agreed. I’m not one to interpret my own songs, but if you can’t figure out ‘What I Say,’ then something’s wrong. Either that, or you’re not accustomed to the sweet sounds of love.”