Analysis: What’d I Say – Ray Charles

At the end of a performance in late 1958, Ray Charles spontaneously composed a song in front of an audience after he and his orchestra had exhausted their set list for the night and were left with extra time. The song that came to be known as “What’d I Say” got such a positive reaction from the performance-goers that Charles ended up recording it with Atlantic Records on February 18, 1959 produced by the owners of the label, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. It was performed by Ray Charles and his orchestra, with the female vocal group, the Raelettes, as back-up singers.

Atlantic Records was technologically ahead of most of the other recording labels at the time. “Just a year earlier Tom Dowd had bought one of the first Ampex eight-track recorders, allowing him to “compose” the balance of the instruments in the new context of stereo sound” (Evans). Tom Dowd was the musical engineer at Atlantic who worked with Ertegun and Wexler to produce “What’d I Say”. Since the beginning of music recording, studios had been highly concerned with getting the record to sound as close to a live performance as possible. As Charlie Gillet writes in The Sound of the City, “…well into this century, live performances of songs were more important to the publishers than were the firms that recorded them.” It was the most important effect of music recording technology, the fact that you could hear it as it had been performed live. This was especially true of “What’d I Say” with its beginning as an improvised performance and its audience-inclusive style. With the combination of Atlantic’s advanced recording capabilities and the small studio in which it was cut, “What’d I Say” was produced with great quality true to its original sound.

Although Atlantic was ahead of the game in recording technology, they ran into another technological problem with the release of the song. The typical length of songs on the radio at the time were around two and a half minutes long by reason of the time-restricted vinyl on which they were produced and released. The first “singles”, released in 1949 by RCA-Victor, played at 45rpm with a seven-inch diameter and allowed for, at the most, three minutes of music on each side. “What’d I Say” was a performance that recorded at over seven and a half minutes long. Being much longer than the typical single, Dowd was unsure of how it could be released. In order for it to fit onto the vinyl and released as a single he decided that it had to be cut down into two separate tracks. “What’d I Say Part I” played for three minutes and five seconds on the A side of the vinyl and “What’d I Say Part II” played for just under two minutes long on the B side.  This innovation of breaking the two parts of the song for a single release was something that hadn’t been done before. It became more common in the 1960s and 1970s with artists such as James Brown and Don McLean who released longer, broken up singles. This shift signified the possibility for more freedom of musical expression by not necessarily being limited to the three minute A or B side of a single.

In 1949 Billboard magazine introduced the term “Rhythm and Blues” to replace “Race” as a marketing label. In fact, it had been Jerry Wexler who had invented the new name for the chart back when he worked for the magazine. Typical instruments, depending on which region of the country the music came from, include drum kits, bass guitar, saxophone, horns, piano, organ, electric guitar, vocals and background vocals. The electric piano was often favored by Charles when he was on the road playing “in venues where the house piano often proved unreliable” (Evans). It was a relatively new instrument, only growing in popularity in the 1950s, that amplified the sound of the piano. Like other electric instruments, the electric piano musicians a wider array of sounds and tonal possibilities. “What’d I Say” was a combination of the old and the new, a unique recording in that it combined new, electric, state-of-the-art sounds and techniques with something with much more historical roots—gospel. The way that Charles sang with the Raelettes, in a call-and-response way like a church choir following a preacher, linked the electrified R&B style with gospel music.

After its release, however, “What’d I Say” was met with some strong critics of this fusion of styles. The lyrics and the “uuuhhhs” and “oooohs” called by Charles and responded by the Raelettes were highly suggestive and several radio stations even banned it. “Charles was criticized for violating the sanctity of the church with the music of the devil” (The Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel Music). The critics were mostly older, African-Americans however, and the target audience for the record companies during this post-war era were young people under 21. Hit records tended to be romantic songs performed by crooners with an orchestral back-up. “What’d I Say” was a mix of sexually charged lyrics with gospel elements that was a shocking combination at the time but also one that fueled the next generation’s tastes. Charles croons, cries and yells, interchanging with the orchestra and the back-up singers forming a kind of congregation that is worshiping the way they feel rather than any God. These were the early beginnings of “Soul” music, the synthesis of Blues and Gospel, a genre that linked together the spiritual with the sexual. Ray Charles earned the nickname “The Genius” for his ability to blend different styles together, later also earning the nickname “Father of Soul”.

“What’d I Say” became Atlantic’s best-selling song, reaching number one on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, peaking at number six on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and became Charles’ first gold record, but the success of the song is immeasurable. Part of what sparked what would become the Beatles, “What’d I Say” was reportedly what inspired Paul McCartney to get into the music business, and one of the best records George Harrison had ever heard. Numerous covers have been done by various artists in different styles. It ranked number ten on Rolling Stone’s list “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and in the year 2000 was chosen by National Public Radio as one of the 100 most influential songs of the 20th century. What made Ray Charles and “What’d I Say” such an achievement was that he had an astounding range of talents, from writing and composing kills to incredible piano playing to his outstanding vocals, that were all combined perfectly in forming this song.









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