By the time a 24 year-old Otis Redding arrived in Los Angeles in 1966 for appearances that included a Hollywood Bowl show with Donovan, Sonny & Cher, and the Mamas & the Papas, and a four-night Easter weekend stand at the Whiskey A Go Go on the Sunset Strip, he was an established star in the Stax galaxy. What hadn’t happened for Redding yet was crossover success. That would take place a little more than a year later when he performed at the Monterey International Pop Festival. The good news was that there was still an opportunity to see him in a small club with his smoking hot ten-piece road band.
The new album Otis Redding: Live on the Sunset Strip (Stax Records/Concord Music Group) captures three full sets from that long ago weekend. While parts of the shows have been released before, this is the first time they have sequenced exactly as they happened, complete with introductions, and Redding’s breathless between song patter. It’s no wonder that he was breathless. His crack band (not yet the Bar-Kays. They didn’t start backing Redding until 1967) drives him inexorably forward at every opportunity, pushing the intensity level to the limit.
Many of the great Redding songs are here. He sets the bar for the soul ballad high on performances of “These Arms of Mine,” “Chained and Bound,” “Just One More Day,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now).” All three of the six minute-plus renditions of “I Can’t Turn You Loose” are simply off the hook with soul fury, and yes, they are most certainly all worth hearing. Of the 28 tracks, spread over three complete sets, are 17 songs. So there are several repeats. Key Redding songs like “Satisfaction,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” and “Chained and Bound” appear in all three sets. In fact, “Satisfaction” appears twice in one set alone.
Otis Redding went on to even greater success in the following months. He had more hits and appeared at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco, took part in the historic Stax/Volt Revue that barnstormed through Europe in March, 1967, and burned Monterey to the ground that summer. A few short months later, on December 9, 1967, he died along with most of the members of the Bar-Kays when his Beechcraft 18 crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, WI. As Ashley Kahn says in the essay that accompanies this set, “his death in an airplane crash … dramatically froze his star forever in its perfect, meteoric apogee.”
Given Otis Redding’s stature as a performer, and the classic nature of these songs, this package is well beyond the reach of any criticism. What you’re looking for in a release like this is crisp, clean sound, an intense and energetic performance, and a good job of curating by the people who chose the material. Check, check, check. The album was produced for release by Bob Belmont, mixed by Adam Munoz, and mastered by Joe Tarantino.
According to Taj Mahal, whose band the Rising Sons opened the Whiskey shows, “I’m still real clear about those shows. It was raw and unscripted. It was just the joy of music, you know. The joy of rhythm, the joy of energy.” Indeed.