Compared to What

"Compared to What" is a protest song, composed and with lyrics by Gene McDaniels.[2] 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.[2] The album was certified Gold in sales in the United States.[3] The song has been recorded by more than 270 artists, including Ray Charles[4] and Brian Auger.

"Compared to What"
Song by Les McCann and Eddie Harris
from the album Swiss Movement
RecordedJune 21, 1969
GenreSoul jazz
Songwriter(s)Gene McDaniels
Producer(s)Nesuhi Ertegun and Bob Emmer


"Compared to What" was copyrighted in 1966.[5] The lyrics contain a "topical rant" against the Vietnam War and the then President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson,[6] 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".[4] 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."[7]

Original versionEdit

The first recording appears to have been by Les McCann for his 1966 album Les McCann Plays the Hits.[8]

Cover versionsEdit

Roberta FlackEdit

Flack recorded the song in February 1969,[4][9] for her debut album First Take and "Compared to What" was her first single.[10] Flack's manager that year was McCann.[11] 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."[12] Flack's version was included in the 1997 film Boogie Nights and the 2015 film The Man from U.N.C.L.E.[13]

McCann–Harris versionEdit

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).[2] The song was the first of the McCann–Harris set and opens with McCann and Dean playing together.[2] Vinnegar joins in, forming a trio that states the theme.[2] Harris (tenor saxophone) then enters, complementing McCann's piano and vocals.[2] After four verses, Bailey has a solo, then the band plays together until the last verse.[2] This is followed by solos from McCann and Harris, ending the performance.[2] 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.[14] 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.[15]

The commercial success of the McCann–Harris version allowed McDaniels to stop singing in night clubs.[4] The song was later used in the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese's 1995 film Casino.[16]

Brian AugerEdit

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. 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."[17] 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).[18]


  1. ^ "Swiss Movement - Les McCann, Eddie Harris - Songs, Reviews, Credits - AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 5 October 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Mednick, Avram (2013) Got Live Album If You Want It: 100 Live Recordings to Consider. p. 128. iUniverse. ISBN 978-1-4917-1373-0.
  3. ^ "Swiss Movement". RIAA. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d Williams, Richard (August 15, 2011) "Gene McDaniels Obituary". The Guardian.
  5. ^ "Catalog of Copyright Entries: Third series" (July–December 1966). p. 1574.
  6. ^ Boraman, Greg (2004) "Les McCann & Eddie Harris Swiss Movement Review". BBC.
  7. ^ Cooper, B. Lee (May 1, 1976) "Oral History, Popular Music, and Les McCann". Social Studies. 67/3. p. 116.
  8. ^ Les McCann Plays the Hits – Listing at AllMusic. Retrieved March 8, 2016.
  9. ^ Nelson, Elizabeth (December 26, 2020). "Roberta Flack: First Take". Pitchfork. Retrieved April 9, 2021.
  10. ^ Calloway, Earl (March 16, 2002) "Vocalist Roberta Flack Is Star of Musical Mosaics at Park West". Chicago Defender. p. 41.
  11. ^ Casey, Phil (February 13, 1969) "A Joyous Performer". The Washington Post. p. B11.
  12. ^ West, Hollie I. (August 23, 1970) "Roberta Flack: Her Soothing Singing Style Is Leading Her to Stardom". The Washington Post. p. F1.
  13. ^ Retrieved Aug 17, 2015
  14. ^ Ertegun, Ahmet M. (2001) "What'd I Say?" – The Atlantic Story: 50 Years of Music. Welcome Rain. p. 538. ISBN 978-1-56649-048-1.
  15. ^ Cash Box Top 100 w/o 01-17-70 Retrieved September 13, 2015.
  16. ^ Kolker, Robert (2011) A Cinema of Loneliness (4th edition). Oxford University Press. p. 218. ISBN 978-0-19-973002-5.
  17. ^ "Brian Auger's Oblivion Express - Compared To What". Retrieved 4 March 2016.
  18. ^ "Brian Auger's Oblivion Express". Archived from the original on 29 March 2016. Retrieved 4 March 2016.

External linksEdit