One night in December 1958, Ray Charles and his band were scheduled to play a four-hour set at a Pittsburgh dance hall. At the time, this was a regular gig for the singer-pianist, a promising Atlantic-signed artist who had broken through with his 1954 single “I Got a Woman.” Charles was slated to perform from 9 to 11:30 p.m., then take a 30-minute break and resume from 12 to 1 in the morning.
But by around 12:45 a.m. on this specific night, Charles and his band had exhausted their entire catalogue. They had nothing left to play, but needed to fill the remaining 15 minutes or risk not being paid for the night’s performance. Charles had to think fast to save the show — and his paycheck. So he turned to his band with an idea.
“I said to the guys, ‘Hey, whatever I do, just follow me,’” Charles later recalled in an interview with David Letterman. “And I said the same thing to the girls, I said, ‘Whatever I say, just repeat it, I don’t care what it is.’”
Charles then began to play a bass riff with his left hand on his electric Wurlitzer keyboard. His band joined in, giving the Pittsburgh crowd the very first taste of the now-legendary “What’d I Say,” Rolling Stone’s pick for the 10th-greatest song of all time. A refined version of the tune — as heard in the video above, taken from a 1963 concert — would become a Ray Charles staple throughout the rest of his storied career.
Before the band could even finish the improvised song, the crowd turned feverish. At the end of the show, fans rushed to the stage, begging Charles to tell them where they could purchase a copy.
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Charles took the song with him on the following few tour dates, receiving the same enthusiastic response from each crowd. After a few shows, Brother Ray realized he had something on his hands, and that he should probably record it. Charles phoned his producers at Atlantic and told them that he had a song he’d been playing to positive response. He didn’t know what it was, but the people seemed to go wild for it.
Charles recorded “What’d I Say” in New York City a short time later, and the song was released on June 8th, 1959. It would go on to become Ray Charles’ first official gold record.
The track met with resistance from music executives and radio stations, who took offense at Charles’ suggestive “oohs” and “aahs.” Years later, during an interview with Bob Costas, he responded in characteristically witty fashion. “What is suggestive about making a sound?” Charles quipped, “It’s all I was doing… “Ooh,” “aah,” that’s all — I didn’t say nothing!”