Classic Ray Charles Performance: ‘What’d I Say’ Live in Paris, 1968

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.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

‘Willie and the Hand Jive,’ by the Late Great John­ny Otis

The Queen of Soul Con­quers Europe: Aretha Franklin in Ams­ter­dam, 1968

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