It was 63 years ago today (February 18th, 1959) that the late Ray Charles recorded his classic song “What'd I Say.” The song originally started out as a jam to kill time at a dance, after Charles realized that he and the band had run through their entire repertoire and still had an additional 12 minutes to kill. Charles broke into the song's legendary five-note opening riff and instructed his background vocalists, the Raelettes, to simply repeat everything he sang.
The inspiration for the song's call-and-response section came from the church music Charles grew up with in Greensville, Florida. He remembered that when the preacher sang something, the congregation shouted it back, as if on cue. He incorporated that style of gospel singing into the song, in addition to what he called “the sweet sounds of love.”
Shortly before his death in 2004, Ray Charles explained that keeping women entertained was the key to a long, successful career: “You have to always remember, if you keep the girls happy, as in entertained, the men are going to follow, 'cause they're not gonna let the women go to them concerts by themselves. Y'know, the girls say, 'Well, I'm going to go see Ray Charles' — even if he don't want to go, he going.”
The song originally clocked in at six-and-a half minutes until recording engineer Tom Dowd decided to edit the song by splitting it into two parts for the single.
“What'd I Say (Part One)” backed with “What'd I Say (Part Two)” entered the Top 40 on July 20th, 1959 and peaked at Number Six, spending 11 weeks on the charts.
During his 2015 induction speech for Ringo Starr at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Paul McCartney recalled “What'd I Say” playing a huge part in the “eureka” moment when all the pieces fit and the Beatles found the missing link that made them the “Fab Four”: “Me, John, and George were on the frontline, singing, as we usually were, and now behind us we had this guy that we'd never played with before. And I remember the moment we started playing Ray Charles' 'What'd I Say.' And most of the drummers couldn't nail the drum part — it was a little difficult to do — but Ringo nailed it. Yeah! (Laughs) Ringo nailed it!!! (Applause) Woo! And I remember the moment just standing there and lookin' at John and then lookin' at George, and that was 'the moment.' Y'know, that was the beginning, really, of the Beatles.”
Ray Charles died of liver disease on June 10th, 2004 at the age of 73. His health had been in decline since the previous summer.