Song: "What'd I Say (Parts 1 & 2)"
Album: What'd I Say (Parts 1 & 2) (single)
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)
In any creative field, true moments of genius are rarely planned, and often has to appreciate the "chance" that this amazing moments was somehow captured. Within the world of music, these moments often occur either live on stage or during times in the studio when the artist is either not recording, or when they are just "messing around" on a take. Then of course, there are a very small number of instances where a certain "magic" that occurred outside of the studio is able to be properly captured on a studio recording, and this allows for the general public to experience whatever occurred during that live performance. Naturally, if one has earned the nickname of "The Genius," it is understandable that a song of this nature is in the catalog, and even moreso when one considers that there are few performers in history with as legendary a live performance name as the one and only Ray Charles. However, the fact that there is a song in the Ray Charles catalog that was played live before recorded in the studio makes it an extremely rare item, as Charles was a notorious perfectionist, and almost never "tested" a song on a live audience. Yet sometimes, a situation forces an artist to change their style, and it was under these special circumstances that Ray Charles found himself improvisation in front of a live audience, and this gave birth to an all-time classic in the form of his 1959 hit, "What'd I Say (Parts 1 & 2)."
It was December of 1958, and Ray Charles and his band were playing a live show, and having reached the end of their setlist with about ten minutes still to fill, Charles turned to the band and said, "...I'm going to fool around, just follow me..." What followed was Charles improvising on both his electric and "regular" piano, and the band falling into place with a swinging, upbeat groove. Moving to some rather suggestive, if not risqué "call and response" work with The Raylettes, legend says that the crowd in attendance immediately began dancing, and the improvisation was clearly something far beyond "just messing around." Months later, Charles and his orchestra decided to lay down the track in the recording studio, but after they completeled the song, it as clearly too long for a side of vinyl, so the track was split into two parts and released as "What'd I Say - Part 1" as the a-side and "What'd I Say - Part 2" as the b-side. Such a move was almost unprecedented, and the engineers in the studio at the time of the recording were quoted as feeling the song was "nothing special." Yet there is no denying that the song has become one of the most iconic in history, powered by the brilliant keyboard work of Ray Charles. In truth, one can almost remove every other instrument on the track, as the swing and groove of the song are all created and moved my Charles' work, and one cannot deny that this is one of his finest moments.
Along with his fantastic performance on the keys, there are few songs in music history that are as instantly recognizable as the vocals delivered by Ray Charles on "What'd I Say (Parts 1 & 2)." Using the entire pitch spectrum, Charles delivers the verses with his signature growl, and yet there is a certain swagger to this performance that is rarely found elsewhere in his recordings. It is this swagger or attitude that makes the song a bit risqué, as the spirit behind the song becomes less subtle, and it is almost a bit shocking that such a suggestive song was "allowed" on public airwaves at the time. Charles himself once joked about the songs' subject matter when he said, "...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." It is the vocal interaction between Charles and his backup singers, The Raylettes that push this song into "questionable" territory, and yet this call and response section has become a part of pop culture, and in many ways, the original meaning behind the song has become lost. Yet, the lyrics on "What'd I Say (Parts 1 & 2)" also reinforce the idea that in many cases, actual words are not needed, as the "oh's" and "uhh's" found here perfectly convey the spirit behind the song without needing to explicitly state the emotions. In many ways, this fact alone not only serves as a testament to the true genius or Ray Charles, but is also perfectly embodies the power of music to convey emotions without words.
Laying claim to one of the most impressive and timeless recorded catalogs, it is easy to make the case that the music of Ray Charles will never die, and with each generation, many of his songs are born anew. With his boundless talent, Charles touched on nearly every genre during his career, and it is often the "oddball" songs that remain his finest work. Yet Charles was a performer who rarely left anything to chance, and even his live shows were kept in strict order, through this yielded some of the most amazing live shows in history. However, in December of 1958, Charles found himself with ten minutes to fill at a live performance, and his spur-of-the-moment improvisation with his band led to the birth of one of musics' greatest songs. Standing as one of the most loose and high energy songs of his entire career, "What'd I Say (Parts 1 & 2)" truly knows no equal, as the hard swing and groove found within the music push the song into a category all its own. With Ray Charles switching between electric and normal piano playing in the blink of an eye, the song never slows down, and it remains one of the greatest dance-hall songs ever recorded. Topped off with sensational lyrics and some rather suggestive call and response singing between Charles and his backup singers, there is simply no other song in history that quite compares to Ray Charles' monumental 1959 song, the unmistakable, "What'd I Say (Parts 1 & 2)."