tell your mama, tell your pa, gonna send you back to Arkansas...
February 18, 2015 4:56 AM   Subscribe

Friends, February 18 was a BIG day in American music history. For it was on this day, in 1959, that Mr. Ray Charles recorded "What'd I Say". Here is that recording, including Ray's spoken explanatory introduction. Here's a live version from that same year. Heres a version from 1963, live in Brazil. Here's a version in living color, with none other than Billy Preston sitting in on organ, from 1964. Also from 1964, here's an artfully filmed version from a British motion picture called 'Ballad In Blue. A mere 18 years later, here is a decidedly uptempo version from 1982, live in Japan. Finally let's fast forward 41 years from the original recording, and hear Ray doing it one more time (with some serious note bending) live in Paris the year 2000. Feels so good.
posted by flapjax at midnite (24 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Hell yeah. Powering up the tablet now so I can listen at work.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:22 AM on February 18, 2015

NPR discussed the song's origins back in 2000.
One night on tour in 1959, Ray Charles had run out of material, and needed to fill time before getting offstage. According to Charles, the song he improvised on the spot is really "about nothing" — the lyrics "don't make sense," he says, and it's not much more than a simple call-and-response exercise.

But from the audience's response that night, Ray Charles knew he had a hit...
posted by Gelatin at 5:42 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tell your cat
Tell your bhat
Gonna send you back to Ararat
posted by clvrmnky at 5:51 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

One night on tour in 1959, Ray Charles had run out of material, and needed to fill time before getting offstage...

That legendary moment is recreated in the movie Ray. Here's a YouTube grab, unfortunately with the audio a bit out of sync, and dubbed into Spanish.

What didn't ring true for me about that scene in the movie, though, was how the Raelettes were so openly displaying a "what the fuck is going on" kind of look between themselves. I'd imagine, by contrast, that they were probably rather accustomed to trying out new stuff onstage, and even winging it completely on brand new stuff, at least every now and again. I'd guess they were professional enough to not make it obvious to their audiences on those occasions when they weren't completely sure of what was going on.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:57 AM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

"Did you know that Ray Charles is deaf in addition to being blind?"


"Yeah. Why else would he keep shouting, "What'd I say?" and "What you say?" all the time?"
posted by jonp72 at 6:18 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

And my favorite, the Brian Dennehy/Chris Farley version.
posted by almostmanda at 6:33 AM on February 18, 2015

Such an influential track. Drumming stolen beat-for-beat in I Feel Fine; most of melody stolen for I'm Down.

The Fabs would have gone back for the piano riff as well, but they'd already made Some Other Guy their own when playing live, which is an unashamed rewrite.
posted by colie at 6:55 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Regarding the 'origins' (I can't listen to the audio interview right now so maybe it covers this), I had always assumed it was a re-purposed gospel thing; all that call and response, feel so good, etc.
posted by colie at 7:02 AM on February 18, 2015

Am I really the first one to post the John Belushi cover, with backup singing by Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman ?
posted by King Sky Prawn at 7:07 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

"It was a made-up song, made up on the spot, and you can tell if you listen, because the verses don't really have anything to do with each other. They're just made-up verses, but that isn't what the people cared about. I think what they liked was the rhythm, and of course the 'unnh-unnh.' Everybody knew what that meant. Isn't it funny how that was considered vulgar in those days, and now people sing and do almost anything on radio and TV. When we did it, it was forbidden territory, but that was what the people loved, that little sexy sound in it. But hell, let's face it, everybody knows about that. It's how all of us got here. So I don't know what the world wants to hide from it for. But even when it started selling in the black community, the white radio stations wouldn't play it. It was too suggestive for them until Elvis did it, and then, of course, it was all right." -- Ray Charles
posted by blucevalo at 7:07 AM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

The live version just blow it away, though -- Jerry Lee Lewis live at the Star-Club, Hamburg. Just crazy. This is what I thought of when I read that "Against Live Music" article last week -- some musicians are just made for live performances.
posted by ostro at 8:27 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here's Elvis doing it in Viva Las Vegas. It's not very good but Ann Margaret is incredible.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:53 AM on February 18, 2015

slash insane
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:53 AM on February 18, 2015

Ann Margaret might be the only white person who knew what that song was about.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:54 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ray Charles and Ann Margret together in one sentence.....can't beat that.
posted by taralee123 at 9:00 AM on February 18, 2015

Favorited for later, but came looking for John Belushi's version and not disappointed. Probably my favorite SNL bit ever.

Can't wait to go through these all later. I was in a band in high school that played the song. We mostly did ska and Rock steady but did enough old soul (we were courting the second wave mod scene) to pull this off. We had a brilliant singer and a horn section and a really competent keyboard player. We had stolen an old Fender Rhodes that was gathering dust in the basement of our high school. Few high school students In the 80s knew this song and it raised the roof of the house parties we played.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:26 AM on February 18, 2015

It's great that there's still a genre that is simply 'Party Record,' whoever you are and however you relate to pop music (or not). I think Uptown Funk was the most recent one.
posted by colie at 9:40 AM on February 18, 2015

I can't believe I've never shared this story on Metafilter, but I can find no evidence that I did, so I'll share it now. Its just about my only "brush with greatness" story.

In the late 80's, I was working as a house manager at an outdoor venue in Connecticut and Ray Charles was headlining one night. I didn't really know much about Ray Charles beyond "Hit The Road Jack" during that period, but I knew it was a big deal he was playing.

Anyhow, without going into too much detail, I had just cleaned the most disgusting bathroom situation I'd ever cleaned. While there were paper towel in the bathroom and I was able to dry off, there was no running water. I was heading back stage to wash my hands in real water when around the corner comes Ray Charles, his handlers, and my boss. I almost ran straight into him.

My boss said "Mr. Charles, this is Joey, our house manager."

Ray Charles stuck his hand out and all I could think of was the mess I'd just cleaned up. Everyone looked at me like I was insane for not taking his hand, so I just out and out confessed that I'd just cleaned a bathroom and was coming back for the running water.

I can't recall exactly what he said, but the gist of it was that he'd cleaned plenty of bathrooms in his day and didn't mind shaking the hand of somebody who'd just cleaned one.

I shook his hand - though I also told him and his handlers where the bathroom with the good soap was. He laughed and they went on about their business.

Anyhow, first time I recall hearing "What'd I Say" was that night and I remember thinking that Ray Charles was really something special.

Obviously, I can't speak for all of his performances everywhere or all of his encounters everywhere, but the crew at that venue all agreed he was our favorite person who played there that summer.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:25 AM on February 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

Ray was no Oscar Peterson but he had some soulful tunes, for sure.
posted by ReeMonster at 7:26 PM on February 18, 2015

Sylvie Vartan's ye-ye cover always makes me swoon, but I think that's mostly Sylvie.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:52 PM on February 18, 2015

Ray was no Oscar Peterson but he had some soulful tunes, for sure.

Not sure why anyone would compare the two musicians, much less imply that Ray would somehow come up short in the comparison. They were very, very different musicians. Different styles, different intent. Peterson was a virtuoso pianist, Ray Charles certainly never claimed to be. Ray Charles, on the other hand, had one of the most loved and expressive voices of the century. Hell, of all time! Oscar Peterson could, well, sound remarkably like Nat King Cole. But… he was no Ray Charles!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:13 PM on February 18, 2015

Once again, flapjax comes through with a fascinating musical post which also inevitably produced some fascinating comments! Kudos, sir.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 4:52 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

^^for sure, flapjax is a Mefi treasure
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:13 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

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