"Compared to What" is a protest song, composed and with lyrics by Gene McDaniels. It was recorded by Roberta Flack in February 1969, but became better known following a performance by Les McCann (piano and vocals) and Eddie Harris (tenor saxophone) at the Montreux Jazz Festival in June of that year, which appeared as the opening track on their album Swiss Movement. The album was certified Gold in sales in the United States. The song has been recorded by more than 270 artists, including Ray Charles and Brian Auger.
|"Compared to What"|
|Song by Les McCann and Eddie Harris|
|from the album Swiss Movement|
|Recorded||June 21, 1969|
|Producer(s)||Nesuhi Ertegun and Bob Emmer|
"Compared to What" was copyrighted in 1966. The lyrics contain a "topical rant" against the Vietnam War and the then President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson, and include the lines: "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". In 1976, the popular American music critic B. Lee Cooper suggested that the song "of social criticism attacked a variety of social practices as being based on hypocritically 'unreal values'" and contrasted "the social myth of equality and the economic reality of poverty in the stratified American society."
Flack recorded the song in February 1969, for her debut album First Take and "Compared to What" was her first single. Flack's manager that year was McCann. A contemporary reviewer suggested that her singing was "in a fiery rhythmic way reminiscent of the throbbing motion heard during congregational singing at Southern Baptist churches." Flack's version was included in the 1997 film Boogie Nights and the 2015 film The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
McCann and Harris had performed earlier at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival and agreed to play together on June 21, 1969, with Benny Bailey (trumpet), Leroy Vinnegar (bass), and Donald Dean (drums). The song was the first of the McCann–Harris set and opens with McCann and Dean playing together. Vinnegar joins in, forming a trio that states the theme. Harris (tenor saxophone) then enters, complementing McCann's piano and vocals. After four verses, Bailey has a solo, then the band plays together until the last verse. This is followed by solos from McCann and Harris, ending the performance. Their version of the song appeared on the album Swiss Movement; the single sold over a million copies and reached No. 35 on Billboard's R&B chart. The single also appeared on the U.S. Cash Box Top 100 for two weeks in January 1970, with a peak position of No. 96.
In 1973, Brian Auger's Oblivion Express included a cover of the song on their album Closer To It. In 1975, the band performed the song, as their closing number, at San Francisco's Winterland, when the band opened for Fleetwood Mac. Pastemagazine.com describes the performance as a "foot-stomping, full blown funky jazz blowout" and adds: "Auger's bluesy Hammond organ licks have a timeless appeal and he and the group's offbeat humor are apparent throughout." The song was also included on the band's albums Live Oblivion (1975), Best of Brian Auger (1976), and Brian Auger's Oblivion Express – Live at the Baked Potato (2005).
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