February 1959: Ray Charles Records "What'd I Say"

Ray Charles in concert
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Paul Hoeffler/Redferns

On Feb. 18, 1959, Ray Charles recorded his signature song, “What’d I Say.” When it comes to the iconic tune, however, the best story isn’t about the day he recorded it, it’s about the day when he came up with it.

Picture it: Pittsburgh, December, 1958. Charles and his band are in the midst of a four-hour gig, which was semi-typical for them back then, but for whatever reason, they’d managed to blown through their entire repertoire with 15 minutes to spare...and if they didn’t play something, the owner of hall could, if he was of a mind to, tell them they didn’t fulfill their contract and that he didn’t have to pay them.

Years later, Charles told David Letterman how he managed to fill the time: “I said to the guys, ‘Hey, whatever I do, just follow me. And I said the same thing to the girls: I said, ‘Whatever I say, just repeat it, I don’t care what it is.’” And with that, he started playing the famous bass riff on his Wurlitzer, the band followed along, and - voila! - “What’d I Say” was born.

Read More: January 1986: Ray Charles Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

And talk about being a hit right out of the womb: the crowd went insane. Seriously, they were demanding to know where they could buy a copy of the song to enjoy in the privacy of their own homes...and when the same thing happened the next few times he played it, Charles realized that he’d better hit the studio as quickly as possible!

Of course, as music history reveals, “What’d I Say” was a resounding success,  becoming Charles’ first-ever gold record, but what’s funny is that both music execs and radio stations weren’t nearly as on board with the song as audiences had been. In fact, some of them were offended, claiming that Charles sounded suggestive.

Unsurprisingly, Charles couldn’t be bothered, innocently asking Bob Costas during an appearance on Later, “What’s suggestive about making a sound? It’s all I was doing! ‘Ooh, aah,’ that’s all! I didn’t say nothing!”

Read More: Superbowl 2001: Ray Charles Performs "America The Beautiful"

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