500 Greatest Songs of All Time

Rolling Stone's definitive list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

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Ray Charles, 'What'd I Say'

10. Ray Charles, 'What'd I Say'

Writer: Charles
Producers: Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler
Released: June '59, Atlantic
15 weeks; No. 6

"The people just went crazy, and they loved that little ummmmh, unnnnh," Ray Charles told Rolling Stone in 1978, describing the instant genesis of "What'd I Say," his first Top 10 pop single and the greatest feel-good song in rock & roll. "Later on, people said it was vulgar," Charles continued, referring to that irresistible, sexually heated vocal bridge. "But, hell, let's face it, everybody knows about the ummmmh, unnnnh. That's how we all got here."

The man they called "The Genius" literally wrote "What'd I Say" in front of an audience, in late 1958 or early '59. He and his crack R&B orchestra, newly supplemented by a female vocal group, the Raelettes, were playing a marathon dance show in a small town near Pittsburgh. When Charles ran out of repertoire late in the second set, he kicked into an uphill bass-note arpeggio on the piano, told the band to follow along and instructed the Raelettes, "Whatever I say, just repeat after me." Afterward, Charles said, dancers rushed up to him and asked, "Where can I buy that record?"

"What'd I Say" may not have been much of a song — a handful of short, unconnected verses, the chorus and that bridge — when Charles cut it on February 18th, 1959, at Atlantic's New York studio. (The six-and-a-half-minute rave-up was masterfully edited and re-sequenced by the label's visionary engineer, Tom Dowd, from an even longer studio performance.) But out of necessity, that night on the bandstand Charles had turned to the black gospel experience he knew so well, the shared, mounting ecstasy of call-and-response. "Church was simple," he said in his autobiography Brother Ray. "Preacher sang or recited, and the congregation sang right back at him."

That is exactly how Charles recorded "What'd I Say," with a torrid secular spin heightened by the metallic attack of his Wurlitzer electric piano. Charles' grunt-'n'-groan exchanges with the Raelettes were the closest you could get to the sound of orgasm on Top 40 radio during the Eisenhower era. Forty-five years later, they still give sweet release.

Appears on: The Ultimate Hits Collection (Rhino)


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