Charles said he got the idea for this song from "The sweet sounds of love."
The call-and-response style was inspired by church music Charles grew up with. When the preacher said something, the congregation shouted it back. "What'd I Say" stands as the epitome of call-and-response in secular music.
Charles improvised this onstage at a club in Brownsville, Pennsylvania in December 1958 after he played every song he knew and still had 12 minutes to fill. He simply asked his band to follow his lead... which they did. He told his backing singers (The Raeletts) to simply repeat whatever he said. The singer remembered: "I had sung everything I could think of. So I said to the guys, 'Look, I'm going to start this thing off, I don't know where I'm going, so y'all just follow me.' And I said to the girls, 'Whatever I say, just repeat after me.'"
The story goes that at the end, the club-goers gathered at Charles' feet, begging for the tune's title so they could buy the record. Predictably, the song was recorded with all due haste.
Although he first made his mark with "I Got a Woman," this established Charles as a front-line star. Its success at the end of his contract with Atlantic Records enabled him to sign a lucrative one with ABC-Paramount. The hits came quickly and furiously soon afterwards.
Along with "Be-Bop-a-Lula" by Gene Vincent, this is mentioned in the first line of the Dire Straits song, "Walk Of Life
." The line is: "Here comes Johnny singing oldies goldies, Be-Bop-a-Lula baby What'd I Say."
When Charles recorded this, it was a very long song until engineer Tom Dowd edited it down to 6 1/2 minutes. Dowd eventually became a very well-respected producer, working with The Allman Brothers, Derek and the Dominos, Aretha Franklin and many others.
In 1975, John Belushi did a skit on Saturday Night Live where he plays Beethoven at a piano, but ends up rocking out to this. He was a big fan of soul music, and performed as The Blues Brothers with with fellow cast member Dan Aykroyd.
Charles released a new version on his 2002 album Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again that incorporated hip-hop elements and synthesizers. This rendition met with resistance: the Chicago Tribune called it a "dead, depressing version" in their review of the album.
In the early '60s, many acts incorporated this song into their live shows, including Gene Vincent, Adam Faith, John Leyton and Brenda Lee. In 1964, Elvis Presley performed it in the movie Viva Las Vegas - this version was released as a single. Here are the charting covers in the US for "What'd I Say":
1961, #30 Jerry Lee Lewis
1962, #24 Bobby Darin
1963, #113 Kenny Burrell & Jimmy Smith
1964, #21 Elvis Presley
1972, #61 Rare Earth