John Lennon Traced 2 Beatles Songs Back to Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’

When speaking about the influences on The Beatles‘ music, John Lennon was always ready to pay tribute to the great musicians who came before him. Speaking about the early hit “Please Please Me,” John said it began as his crack at a Roy Orbison song.

In other cases, he might take an Elvis Presley line and run with it. Or he’d take a Beethoven piano lick and play it backwards to come up with a new theme (as on “Because“). When it came to the 1961 Bobby Parker track “Watch Your Step,” John acknowledged its influence on multiple Beatles songs. And he called it a direct descendant of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”

On “I Feel Fine,” the 1964 single that topped the Billboard charts, John followed Parker’s lead with a riff he played in nearly the same tempo. Meanwhile, the rhythm Ringo Starr laid down also traces back to Charles’ groundbreaking 1959 track via Parker.

John Lennon cited the ‘Son of What’d I Say’ as a direct influence on ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘I Feel Fine’

Ray Charles live
Entertainer and pianist Ray Charles performs onstage in 1960. | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In a 1974 interview with WNEW’s Dennis Elsas, John wanted to talk about the roots of both “I Feel Fine” and “Day Tripper.” And he brought along his personal copy of Parker’s “Watch Your Step” to get the conversation going. “It’s one of my favorite records,” he said before playing it for WNEW listeners.

“I call it ‘Son of What’d I Say,'” John explained. “There was the great record ‘What’d I Say’ by Ray Charles, which was the first electric piano I ever heard on tape. Then, shortly after, this was the next move after ‘What’d I Say,’ which was ‘Watch Your Step.'”

“You’ll recognize the [‘Watch Your Step’] lick,” John continued, “because I’ve used it — or The Beatles have used it — in various forms.” After “Watch Your Step,” Elsas dropped the needle on “Day Tripper,” which features John’s slower, more subtle take on Parker’s classic riff.

As for the connection to Charles’ ’59 hit, you might hear it most closely in the drum part of “I Feel Fine.” That Ringo part reflected the influence of both “Watch Your Step” and its predecessor, “What’d I Say.”

Bobby Parker cited the influence of Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles on ‘Watch Your Step’

Beatles on stage in 1965
The Beatles performing at the Circus Krone-Bau in Munich on June 24, 1966. | Bettmann

In a 2007 post on his One Note Ahead blog, Shaheen Dibai included a quote of Parker acknowledging his own debts to musicians he admired when writing “Watch Your Step.” For starters, he said he worked out his classic riff as a variation on the 1947 Dizzy Gillespie hit “Manteca.”

“I started playing [‘Manteca’] on my guitar and decided to make a blues out of it,” Parker recalled. Considering “What’d I Say” had such an impact on the music of the period, no one will be surprised that Parker said that track influenced the writing of “Watch Your Step” as well.

So that might get you wondering how Gillespie got to the theme of “Manteca.” His co-writer, the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, actually came up with the haunting riff. Gillespie contributed the more straight-bebop bridge to “Manteca.” Some 15 years later, that spirit made its way into two Beatles songs via Parker. Nothing comes from nothing.