To say the Stax Record label would not have existed without Otis Redding is to misrepresent history. After all, before him there were two of the most powerful soul backing groups acting in tandem as house band for the label: The Mar-Keys and Booker T. & The MGs. They had already amassed a solid roster of artists and probably would have survived the turbulent Sixties. But I think it ends there. There had been many, many small labels that had great artists on them, but these boutique ventures failed to have that anchorman that transcended the regionality most of these concerns represented. Motown had a handful of them: The Temptations, The Supremes, and The Miracles. From them came Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell, Stevie Wonder, and The Jackson 5ive. Hard to say where the label would have been without those first-stage rockets of artists.
That was what Otis was for Stax. He was their Smokey Robinson, but where Smokey was smooth and took his cues from the crooners of the ’40s and ’50s, Otis was a gospel man and he was on fire most of the time. In several interviews, his former compatriots at the label would both marvel and wince at his explosive energy. The awe was in seeing him go from zero to sixty before the mic, reaching down into some very low places to pull up the most heartfelt expression imaginable. That was the magic part. The infuriating part was keeping up with him, but the bands that backed him did so happily. They held on for dear life,Â but they knew Otis was that first rocket that would propel them all beyond that regional musical stratosphere.
So that is why Stax is “Stax” and not another Northern Soul backwater brand that, while blessed with talent, only is recalled by fans trading 45s on Ebay. That is why each page of the bookset Otis Redding: The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection, coming from Shout Factory, features a photo from musician Billy Vera’s personal collection of Redding’s 45s. That’s why this exhaustive set is so crucial for any fan of ’60s r&b and soul music, and why every modern r&b artist should be sat down with it and not allowed to leave the room until they “get it.” You can warble and ululate and holler as much as your poor larynx can stand it, but if it is an exercise in mimicry versus actually feeling something, you’re just messing around with yourself.
Otis didn’t mess around. Listen to that first single, “These Arms Of Mine,” or a later cut, his live performance at the Monterey Pop festival, backed by Booker T. and the MGs doing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Sure, on the latter track he goes slightly off-key reaching for that peak note, but it’s as real as it gets, and comes from the heart of someone who must have known the pain of love that is leaving, or is long gone. This comes from a real place, not a single note strangulated and shoved back in line with digital armaments.
The set is three discs at around 20, sometimes more, tracks per disc — a lot of value. The set is not, however, as exhaustively compiled as the booksets Rhino put out a couple years ago for Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge. Also, even with the pages that are devoted to the photos of those original Stax, Volt, and Atco singles, the book part feels a little thin. I wish there had been an essay or some background information added as liner notes. Admittedly, anyone inclined to buy this set already knows the legend and certainly has an idea of how Redding came to his untimely death. What doesn’t often get the coverage is what that loss meant to the Stax company, how it would face some dark days in the woods, and eventually recover and regain some of its power in the early 1970s. There is every belief that much of the miseries visited upon the company would have come to happen anyway; that the faults were systemic and the reaping was just the aftermath of a few hot years of sowing. We also have to take into account the racial unrest, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the effect it had on the previously harmonious mixed-race makeup of Stax, much of which came from Redding’s relationships with the MGs and the Mar-Keys. None of this gets chronicled in the book, as nice a coffee-table collection as it may be.
But having complained enough about a collection I’m ultimately thrilled and satisfied by, you get Redding’s biggest hits, live cuts, his work as a duo with Carla Thomas, and some of the more revelatory cover songs he performed both outside and inside his label’s firmament. Nothing will ever top the Temptations’ “My Girl,” but Redding imbues the song with his usual restless passion, showing exactly what it meant to all segments of the listening audience. That’s as good a symbol for what his work, and this collection, is after all. This is music for the people, all of them. I encourage you to enjoy it at will.
Oh, and if you need more proof, check out Popdose colleague Ken Shane who has devoted this week’s Soul Serenade column to Mr. Redding. Find his write-up by clicking here.