Written by Gene McDaniels, this jazz-soul protest number takes a firm stance against the Vietnam War and puts US President Lyndon B. Johnson on blast with the searing lyrics:
The President, he's got his war
Folks don't know just what it's for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
Jazz pianist Les McCann first recorded the song as a ballad on his 1966 album Les McCann Plays the Hits. It was picked up by Roberta Flack as the opener for her 1969 debut, First Take, but the song exploded when McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris performed it at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland just one day after Flack's album hit the shelves. They were joined by trumpeter Benny Bailey and bassist Leroy Vinnegar on the extended jazz jam, which featured on the accompanying live album Swiss Movement.
McCann has connections to both McDaniels and Flack. McDaniels was a member of his trio in the '60s, and he discovered Flack at a Washington nightclub and secured her an audition with Atlantic Records. McDaniels also worked with Flack, writing her 1974 hit "Feel Like Makin' Love."
After his stint with the Les McCann Trio, McDaniels went on to record the hit singles "A Hundred Pounds of Clay" and "Tower Of Strength." By the mid-'60s, the Civil Rights Movement turned his focus to socially conscious tunes and he wrote "Compared To What," which was "inspired by the right-wing push toward globalization and privatization, etc., kind of acing out normal people in the world."
McDaniels had his old pal McCann on the brain when he wrote the song, but there was a problem. "He was in my mind to do this song, but the caveat is Les McCann and I were not speaking at the time," he explained. The pair had some bad blood between them after McDaniels departed from the trio. "His company wouldn't allow me to sing on record with him so we had a conundrum."
McDaniels apologized for his role in the feud and his former bandmate agreed to record the song, but he had no idea McCann was going to perform it at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. When he got a call telling him "Compared To What" was the #1 jazz tune in the world, he was astounded. He had been performing in nightclubs to stay afloat and hated the loud, smoky atmosphere and drunken disregard for the music, but the success of his protest song changed everything. "And from then on, my life has been fantastic because it's allowed me to continue writing, which is the most important part for me."
In an interview with Wax Poetics, Atlantic producer Joel Dorn recalled hearing the Montreaux gig. "They'd sent me the tapes of the performance," he recalled. "So I put them on- 'Compared to What?' and 'Cold Duck Time.' The air-conditioning at Atlantic was broken at the time, and the doors to the studio were open, and the place just went nuts! If you wanna talk about what jazz is - jazz is a bunch of guys gettin' together and clickin' at the same time. It made the festival, and it made Les and Eddie into an act. Then everybody started to record at Montreux. It became the new Newport. The record [Swiss Movement] was a smash. It went from jazz to R&B to pop. Everybody was playin' it!"
The McCann/Harris version sold more than a million copies and landed at #35 on the R&B chart. Swiss Movement peaked at #1 on the Jazz Albums chart, #2 on the R&B chart, and #29 on the US Albums chart.
More than 270 artists have recorded this, including Ray Charles, Della Reese, Brian Auger, Al Jarreau, and John Legend.
Flack's rendition was used in the 1997 movie Boogie Nights, starring Mark Wahlberg, and the 2015 spy flick The Man From U.N.C.L.E., starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. The McCann/Harris version was used in the 1995 Martin Scorsese film Casino and the "Lockdown" episode of Lost in 2006.