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What'd I Say Parts 1 and 2 - Ray Charles

18 years ago today Ray Charles died at the age of 74. Of his great musical legacy, arguably his greatest is his 1959 release "What'd I Say". Legend has it that Charles improvised the whole song, at a concert after he'd finished his set but was told he was contracted to play for another 7 minutes, his band and female backing singers (the Raelettes) picking up the call and response motif as they went along.

"What'd I Say" vies with a handful of other late fifties releases as the first ever soul hit. Soul or not, the use of the gospel style exchange between pulpit (Ray) and congregation (Raelettes' backing vocals), with its grinding and grunting echoed between the two, was so overtly sexual that campaigns were launched to get it banned from radio, not only by southern black churchmen, but by the outraged parents of teenagers all over the country too. However, most ordinary people, both black and white, loved it, making the record Charles' breakthrough hit and his first US top ten entry.

The record is brilliant on some many levels, the wonderful laid back organ riff, the terrific piano playing, the layering build- up of the tune themes, until Charles's vocal, followed by the tidy introduction of the brass section, still all smoothly laid back. Then on side two it immediately takes off, launching into the aforementioned groan and response with Charles really cutting loose.

As the song ran to the original proscribed 7 minutes, the Atlantic records production crew of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and co wanted it cut down to "fit" onto the standard 7 inch single format which was around 3 minutes. Charles refused, so they compromised on splitting the song onto sides 1 and 2. Perhaps record label owner Ahmet Ertegun thought it was good to have the more sexually explicit half of the song hidden away on the "B" side of the disc. But this sense of hidden forbidden fruit only made it more desirable.

When I play disco's, I could, if I wanted, make sure I have two copies of the original vinyl platter, and just switch decks, but the excitement created when, as quick as I can, I lift the needle, flip the disc, and bring the needle back down again, all adds to the moment's sense of rising pitch and exhilaration. And that's what has been happening in the best dance halls and back rooms ever since "What'd I Say" came out. The only other record I do this with is the Isley Brothers' "Shout" with much the same effect.

So, the the top ten hit was "What'd I Say Part 1" but the bit that everyone remembers and wants to hear was "What'd I Say Part 2", making it without doubt the greatest "B" side in history. Here's to you "Uncle" Ray.


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