[Note: I put out a call for guest Idiots a few weeks ago, and was quite pleased to get a response from one of my favorite bloggers (his comment about my “AOR leanings” notwithstanding — hmph). Getting an Otis Guide out of the bargain was just a whole bunch of extra icing on the cake. Enjoy! –j]
Hello there Jefitoblog minions, one and all. The Graduate from Adventures: here with A Complete Idiot’s Guide right off the presses for you to enjoy. Now it’s a change of pace from Jefito’s AOR leanings (how I love them, let me count the ways) but I hope that you’re all well mannered enough to sit through a lesson on the King of Southern Soul, “The Big O,Ã¢â‚¬? Otis Redding.
You’ll have to bear with me on the historical background to Redding’s music; it’s not something that I usually do, whilst Jefito usually pulls it off with aplomb. The fact that many labels at the time were focused on singles rather than albums (his albums were often knocked off over a weekend session during gaps in his touring schedule), accompanied by the fact that some of Redding’s best work was either posthumously released or a result of Otis’s ability to exhilaratingly refocus his arrangements in his live shows. The posthumous aspect of Redding’s catalogue can be seen from the fact that six of the albums that I offer you were released after the plane crash that took his life on December 10, 1967 at the age of 26.
Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding, the four-CD boxed set released by Rhino to honour the man’s work, includes an entire live CD entitled The Ultimate Otis Redding Show (from which all the live cuts involved in this retrospective are taken) which is a testament to the power of the man as a live performer. I once heard an anecdote that Sam and Dave, featured on the same bill as Otis during a soul revue, were referred to as being so powerful, it was said that even the Big O refused to follow them. This can be taken in two ways: either (a) Sam and Dave were a brilliant live act, or (b) before they came on the scene with their kinetic gospel revivalism live performances with soul music playing the part of exorcist, no-one ever believed that Redding could be touched in the live setting. Redding had become the paradigm of what a soul performer should be: emotive, gritty, earthy, and, ultimately, so goddamn powerful that he had the band, the audience and the seat ushers in the palm of his hand with just a bow of his head and an arch of his back.
All that one needs to know about Redding, in the form of background, is that no-one ever had a bad word to say about him, as a person or a performer. He would never suffer the public breaking down of a marriage as Marvin Gaye did, nor would he be so unable to keep his dick in his pants that it would be the death of him, as the fates would decree for Sam Cooke. Maybe, if he had lived, his voice might have faded; success might have left him. He may, as one critic once imagined, have become a cameo in the everyday pop world, or perhaps undergone a welcome rebirth, a la Solomon Burke and Al Green.
I just prefer to think of his final words to his loving wife Zelma before he hung up the phone on that December morning: “You be real good.Ã¢â‚¬? Always thinking of others was that Otis.
Pain in My Heart (1964)
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Following his brief forays with the Shooters (‘She’s All Right’) and The Pinetoppers (‘Shout Bamalama’ — an early mainstay of his Stax live act), he would be signed to Jim Stewart’s Stax Records on the insistence of Joe Galkin, Atlantic’s promotion man in the South during the early 60s, who is now credited as the driving force behind bringing Otis to the attention to the world. Stewart has said that when he first met Redding, Redding played two songs for him, “Hey Hey Baby” (a Redding original that is clearly indebted to his hero, Little Richard) and the ballad “These Arms of Mine.”
“Arms” is the first of many Redding ballads that contains the low, soulful Redding moan, asking for consolation as he no longer can no longer hold his lover in his arms. It even contains the spontaneous guttural yells that make his work so wonderfully earnest (“Just be my LOVER!Ã¢â‚¬?) Even at this early stage, Redding was hitting the mark consistently with both the mournful title track (download) and the uptempo kilter of “Security” (download) becoming future classics.
The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (1965)
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As with Pain in my Heart, The Great Otis: is a mixture of soul covers (including the requisite Sam Cooke number, a tradition which would extend to his first four albums) and Redding originals, with the Redding titles more than holding their own against “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and Jerry Butler’s “For Your Precious Love.” The album’s closer,”Mr Pitiful” (download), is probably the best known of the set, with its brilliant response to a DJ’s complaint that Otis always sounded so pitiful begging and moaning so much in his songs.
Redding was always searching for a primitive live sound in his studio recordings, and his attempts at studio alchemy often resulted in a certain immediacy. The horns on “Mr Pitiful” are vibrant, colourful splashes of sound working with Booker T’s brilliant work on the keys and Al Jackson’s mercurial stickwork to keep the song together. “Your One and Only Man” would become a live gem, pushing its slow shuffle up several notches to a Dexedrine fuelled floor scorcher, and “Chained and Bound” (download) is my personal favourite early Redding track, with Steve Cropper’s arpeggios carefully working with Otis and the horns section’s call and response to maximum effect. Maybe it’s just the way that he sings “Taller than the tallest pine,Ã¢â‚¬? where the word “pineÃ¢â‚¬? is somehow transformed into this indescribable hiccupping sigh, but I adore it.
Otis Blue (1965)
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And now we come to the big one, Otis Blue; the one album by Redding that everyone has either heard of or proudly keeps as close to the record player as possible.
Of the album’s eleven tracks, three are Otis originals (one, “I’ve Been Loving You A Little Too Long,Ã¢â‚¬? co-written with Jerry Butler); three are Sam Cooke covers; “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (download) is a superb cover of a song by labelmate (and famous backing singer on “Respect” [download]) William Bell; and another is the definitive take on The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Of the three Cooke covers, none are the definitive article. “Heresy!Ã¢â‚¬? you may cry, but I’ve always loved the lush arrangements on Cooke’s version of “Change Gonna Come” (download), and have always been surprised by how much I prefer the electric smoothness of his original performance on “Shake,” with the drums not stuttering so much nor the horns constantly fighting against the song’s natural melodic instincts. However, it’s undeniable that Redding’s take on these soul standards is fascinating with the band working together with Redding’s scatological script. His versions sound altogether more chaotic and earthy, because that’s how he was. Where Cooke looked for a clean, even arrangement, Otis threw such concerns out the window in order to incorporate his own vocal style.
His own idiosyncrasies were developing further in Otis Blue as to become concrete; the early transition period ended with this album, and a more mature and endearingly accessible Redding emerged in full force on the album’s highlight “Ole Man Trouble” (probably the finest work that Cropper would do with Redding — especially concerning his signature intro lick) (download).
The Soul Album (1966)
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If I were to recommend only one of these albums to you, then I believe The Soul Album would be in close competition with Tell the Truth.
From the gossamer threads spinning their subtle web in the album’s opener, “Just One More Day” (download), to the man’s eye-wateringly powerful holler of “I’ve got that will to tryÃ¢â‚¬? on the minimalist delight of “Good to Me,” it’s a delight from beginning to end.
Amusingly enough, the requisite Cooke cover, “Chain Gang,” hits the spot for me personally far more than Cooke’s original, due to the horn’s glorious British Invasion shout and that wonderful Redding adlib where he bluntly explains that his work on the chain gang is a necessary means so that he can get back for some good lovin’. It’s looser and sexier than Cooke’s relatively uptight construct, and this time it really works.
Due to self-imposed constraints, I can’t feature a lot of this treasure and I just have to let you listen to another Redding favourite of mine, “Cigarettes and Coffee” (download). Another Jerry Butler co-write, it manages to make a man who’s only smoked during tortuous post-relationship breakup malaise and can’t manage a small latte without sniffling like an allergic bunny rabbit find both oddly romantic. Kicking off with horns of pure melancholia and Cropper’s minimalist reverb, it’s full of what I like to simply term “moments”: The way Redding pronounces “particularlyÃ¢â‚¬? as if he’s trying to fit in the word “pickleÃ¢â‚¬?; the fact that when he sings “satisfiedÃ¢â‚¬? it makes more sense to me than a million other love songs possibly could dare; the referencing of Gary Bonds’ “Quarter to ThreeÃ¢â‚¬?; Al Jackson’s snapping of the snare on the beat in absolute reverence; the fact that Otis is so polite in his beautific demands (“I don’t need no cream and sugar ‘cos I got youÃ¢â‚¬?). It’s wonderful, plain and simple.
Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966)
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“Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” (download) stems from the fact that Redding used to imagine the horn arrangements of songs in his head and would then dictate them to the players through onomatopoeic representations. ‘Fa’ was obviously how he interpreted the cooing of his saxophones and, having realized how good it sounded, he decided to keep his guide vocals in for once. This would result in the brilliant interplay with the horns where he instructs them when it’s their turn to take over the chorus’ whimsical refrain.
You may all recognize the full-bodied kick of “My Lover’s Prayer” (download) from The Sopranos, but even if you don’t, you’re in for a real treat. As has often been mentioned, by this time, Stax were putting a little more into the recording of Redding albums, resulting in a better overall sound; Complete and Unbelievable:’s mixing suits Otis’ voice to a tee. The piano is allowed to breathe and spark against the flint of Redding’s vocal workout, The horns are far crisper, and Cropper continues to relish his role as the counterpoint, burying himself further in the mix only to emerge periodically with brief, subtle guitar flourishes. Listen to it up against Pain in My Heart and hear for yourself how Otis had developed as a talent; his shyness had been overcome so much that, rather than his voice being an extension of the music, the roles had reversed.
This music existed only whilst Otis was there to transform it. If you asked the players to re-enact these sessions with another singer, they just couldn’t do it. It would be flat and uninspired. Technically brilliant but still not that special (see Arthur Conley, Eddie Floyd, and perhaps even the infamous comment by Melody Maker after Michael Bolton covered “Sitting the Dock of the Bay”: and I quote, “If he hated Otis Redding so much, why didn’t he just break into his house and kill his wife and kids?Ã¢â‚¬?).
“Try A Little Tenderness” (download) is yet another example of Redding the soul auteur at work fighting against traditional structures. Building from that archetypal funereal organ pump march introduction, you can slowly hear the band come to life as Redding does, reacting against his every physical tic. When it finally reaches that crescendo, you will have undergone an experience bordering on the divine. It’s a remarkable song that is often neglected. Who’d have ever imagined that it was a cover? Not me, that’s for sure.
King & Queen (1967)
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Complete and Unbelievable: was Otis’ final solo studio recording before his untimely death. However, he did release an album beforehand with the Queen of Mephis Soul, Carla Thomas, daughter of the legendary Rufus Thomas. King and Queen would be the zenith of her career, and “Tramp” (download) would become one of Redding’s greatest recordings, fuelled by Thomas’ temerity to call him “country.Ã¢â‚¬? It just spurs the man to greater and greater heights. The part where the horns enter and Otis intones that he’s a lover in an unearthly vibrato is one of the greatest moments put onto vinyl. The list of possessions that he reels off is both hilarious and ridiculously poignant in all its improvised glory.
Having previously mentioned Eddie Floyd, I have to mention that I heard Otis’ version of Floyd’s hit “Knock on Wood” (download) before the original and literally couldn’t wait until I sampled some of Floyd’s output. Imagine the disappointment at how flat I found Floyd’s take on the song. The man could write a tune, but he just never had the ability to force those sounds filled of romance, envy, and sheer delight through his expectant lips. Redding, on the other hand, revels in it, especially the purposeful stutter of the chorus before the horn refrain comes down through the atmosphere. Thomas is a fantastic foil for Redding’s antics, keeping him on a firm leash so that he never makes the volatile melody drag to his cultured whims. Notice the way she keeps the traditional line as he scampers around her like an overexcited terrier.
“Lovey Dovey” (download) gives the listener further cause for lament; the fact that Otis and Carla never had the time to build a relationship of the likes of Gaye and Terrell is truly tragic, as that would have been an interesting dogfight. But, of course, that’s all wishful thinking. All that matters is that this is a fitting end to his studio career; content and on form.
Next week, if Jefito lets me out of my cage, I’ll give you the 411 on Otis’ posthumous/live recordings. The posthumous output is scattershot but it does also house his finest hour. And no, it isn’t “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” although that’s quite good too.