We Want the Funk: 1959 “What’d I Say”

June 15, 2012 11:27 am in Drumset by Web Team




A Journey Through
the History of R&B Drumming

Presented by Zoro, this series of video lessons features some of the grooves that charted the course of drumming history – starting in the 1940s when shuffles ruled the airwaves, through the dawning of drum-machine inspired hip-hop beats in the late 1970s. This weeks’ groove:

Watch Zoro’s video lesson on this great groove!



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Here’s Ray Charles performing “What’d I Say”:

Here’s Ray Charles Live at the Olympia in 2000 performing the same song:

And Elvis covering “What’d I Say” in his movie “Viva Las Vegas”:


About the history of the song:

According to Charles’ autobiography, “What’d I Say” was accidental when he improvised it to fill time at the end of a concert in December 1958. He asserts that he never tested songs on audiences before recording them, but “What’d I Say” is an exception. Charles himself does not recall where the concert took place, but Mike Evans in Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul places the show in Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Shows were played at “meal dances” which typically ran four hours with a half hour break, and would end around 1 or 2 in the morning. Charles and his orchestra had exhausted their set list after midnight, but had 12 minutes left to fill. He told the Raelettes, “Listen, I’m going to fool around and y’all just follow me”.

Starting on the electric piano, Charles played what felt right: a series of riffs, switching then to a regular piano for four choruses backed up by a unique Latinconga tumbao rhythm on drums. The song changed when Charles began singing simple, improvised unconnected verses (“Hey Mama don’t you treat me wrong / Come and love your daddy all night long / All right now / Hey hey / All right”). Charles used gospel elements in a twelve-bar blues structure. Some of the first lines (“See the gal with the red dress on / She can do the Birdland all night long”) are influenced by a boogie-woogie style that Ahmet Ertegun attributes toClarence “Pinetop” Smith who used to call out to dancers on the dance floor instructing what to do through his lyrics. In the middle of the song, however, Charles indicated that the Raelettes should repeat what he was doing, and the song transformed into a call and response between Charles, the Raelettes, and the horn section in the orchestra as they called out to each other in ecstatic shouts and moans and blasts from the horns.

The audience reacted immediately; Charles could feel the room shaking and bouncing as the crowd was dancing. Many audience members approached Charles at the end of the show to ask where they could purchase the record. Charles and the orchestra performed it again several nights in a row with the same reaction at each show. He called Jerry Wexler to say he had something new to record, later writing, “I don’t believe in giving myself advance notices, but I figured this song merited it”.

The Atlantic Records studio had just purchased an 8-track recorder, and recording engineerTom Dowd was familiarizing himself with how it worked. In February 1959 Charles and his orchestra finally recorded “What’d I Say” at Atlantic’s small studio. Dowd recalled that it did not seem special at the time of recording. It was second of two songs during the session and Charles, the producers, and the band were more impressed with the first one at the session, “Tell the Truth”: “We made it like we made all the others. Ray, the gals, and the band live in the small studio, no overdubs. Three or four takes, and it was done. Next!” In retrospect, Ahmet Ertegun’s brother Nesuhi credits the extraordinary sound of the song to the restricted size of the studio and the technologically advanced recording equipment used; the sound quality is clear enough to hear Charles slapping his leg in time with the song when the music stops during the calls and responses. The song was recorded in only a few takes because Charles and the orchestra had perfected it while touring.[12]

Dowd, however, had two problems during the recording. “What’d I Say” lasted over seven and a half minutes when the normal length of radio-played songs was around two and a half minutes. Furthermore, although the lyrics were not obscene, the sounds Charles and the Raelettes made in their calls and responses during the song worried Dowd and the producers. A previous recording called “Money Honey” by Clyde McPhatter had been banned in Georgia and Ahmet Ertegun and Wexler released McPhatter’s song despite the ban, risking arrest. Ray Charles was aware of the controversy in “What’d I Say”: “I’m not one to interpret my own songs, but if you can’t figure out ‘What I Say’, then something’s wrong. Either that, or you’re not accustomed to the sweet sounds of love.”

Dowd solved the recording issues by mixing three versions of the song. Some call-outs of “Shake that thing!” were removed, and the song was split into two three-and-a-half minute sides of a single record, titling the song “What’d I Say Part I” and “What’d I Say Part II”. The recorded version divides the parts with a false ending where the orchestra stops and the Raelettes and orchestra members beg Charles to continue, then goes on to a frenzied finale. Dowd later stated after hearing the final recording that not releasing the record was never an option: “we knew it was going to be a hit record, no question.” It was held for the summer and released in June 1959.




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Zoro (SZ)
An enlarged HD4 with a barrel tip for great tone while grooving on the cymbals and hi-hat.
L = 16 3/8" | Dia. = .555  [enlarge photo]



Zoro is an internationally known rock star and the consummate definition of the rare man who marches to the beat of a different drum. One of the world’s most renowned and respected drummers, he has toured and recorded with Lenny Kravitz, Bobby Brown, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, The New Edition, Jody Watley, Sean Lennon, Philip Bailey, Lisa Marie Presley, among many others.

Zoro’s worldwide appeal is evident from his numerous awards and accolades. He is consistently voted “#1 R&B Drummer & Educator” in Modern Drummer, Drum! and Rhythm Magazines. The author of several books, his current work-in-progress is destined to provide inspiration to readers of all ages for the fulfillment of dreams.

The “Minister of Groove” has been the subject of dozens of print, radio and television stories for more than two decades.

He has been described as tenacious, dedicated, and passionate – qualities that stand out to anyone who crosses his path. Not your stereotypical rock star, Zoro is a positive role model whose example of hard work and clean living has served as an inspiration to generations.

Don’t miss Zoro’s artist feature, including clips from his performance at the 2005 Modern Drummer Festival and our exclusive video interview!

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About “The Commandments of R&B Drumming” Series:

Available from Alfred Music Publishing, “The Commandments of R&B Drumming” series is a historical and in-depth study of R&B drumming, from the early years of rhythm and blues of the 1940s to soul to funk to hip-hop. Here are the products in this highly acclaimed series:

Loaded with history, photos, graphics, exercises and transcriptions, “The Commandments of Early Rhythm & Blues Drumming” brings to live a little-known, but highly influential, period of drumming history that paved the way for all the modern styles heard on the airwaves today – and includes the most comprehensive guide to shuffle playing ever written! Winner of the 2009 Book of the Year in Drum! magazine’s reader’s poll.


The original book in the series, The Commandments of R&B Drumming” is an in-depth, historical study of early soul, funk and rock ‘n roll – from the late 1950s through the beginnings of hip-hop in the 1990s. With 160 pages, Zoro covers every imaginable angle, nook and cranny of R&B drumming. Voted the #1 educational drum book in the world by Modern Drummer Magazine’s reader’s poll.


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