This raises a question that I have pondered recently. When asked to review a classic album, what is the job of the reviewer? Surely anyone who is taking the time to read a story about Otis Redding has heard this album, probably a number of times at that. No one needs me to tell them about this music. By now it’s tattooed on the on the eardrums of any true soul music fan. So what do we have left? Well, this is a “deluxe reissue,” which implies that it offers things that the original album did not. Let’s talk about that.
Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (Rhino Records) has 40 tracks spread over two CDs. The first 11 songs on each disc are different versions of the original album — one mono, one stereo. The first disc is augmented by six alternate versions, including three mono mixes of the original stereo album versions of the songs. (More on that later.) Rounding out the first disc are six songs recorded live at the Whiskey A Go-Go in April, 1966. In addition to the stereo version of the album, disc two includes an alternate version of “Respect,” and five live tracks recorded in Europe in March, 1967. Out of the 40 tracks, only the three mono mixes of the original stereo album tracks have not been previously released in some form. The booklet includes brand new liner notes by Rob Bowman, the author “Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records,” and the original liner notes by Bob Rolontz are there as well. Finally, it’s all wrapped up in a nice substantial package encased in a slipcover. The package itself features comments from Redding’s widow, Mrs. Zelma Redding.
By 1965, Stax/Volt was in business with Atlantic Records. Prior to that relationship, all of their releases had been in mono. Atlantic’s Chief Engineer, the legendary Tom Dowd, persuaded Stax owner Jim Stewart to install a two-track recorder. Stewart was concerned that some of the magic would be lost by moving to stereo. Dowd calmed his fears by offering to place the mono recorder at the end of the chain, and if Stewart still liked the mono version better, that would be his call. He did elicit a promise from Stewart not to erase the stereo version, though. Since each track was fed by by a four-input mixer, for the stereo version it was necessary to place any one instrument in one channel or another in the stereo mix. That’s how you wind up with the vocal, drums, and guitar in the right channel, and the keyboards, horns, and bass in the left. To these ears, the stereo version sounds cleaner, which makes sense given that the instruments are more separated, allowing for more space in the recording. That said, I have no hesitation in saying that I like the mono version much more. Call me old-fashioned, but it’s raw, it’s dirty, and it’s exactly how this music should sound.
In the world of black music in 1965, it was all about the 45. When a soul music artist was given a chance to record an album, it was usually a collection of two or three singles, B-sides, and cover versions. And that is true of this album. There are hit singles like the original version of “Respect” (written by Redding and covered by Aretha in case you’re wondering), and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” which Redding wrote with Jerry Butler, although Butler’s contribution was omitted from the original credits. Redding was intent on covering songs originally recorded by the recently murdered Sam Cooke, and he literally picks up the fallen king’s mantle with his versions of “Change Gonna Come,” “Shake,” and “Wonderful World.” Redding also covers “Satisfaction.” By all accounts he had never heard the Stones version when he recorded his take. He’s also covers B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby,” and The Temptations “My Girl.”
As I indicated at the outset, these tracks are the very definition of soul music. The flawless band is made up of Booker T. Jones and Isaac Hayes on keyboards, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Al Jackson, Jr. on drums, Steve Cropper on guitar, and the Mar-Key Horns, consisting of trumpeters Wayne Jackson and Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, tenor sax player Andrew Love, and baritone sax player Floyd Newman. Nearly everyone who has ever thought of making soul music has dreamed of playing with these guys. It’s interesting to compare the live tracks from L.A. in 1966 to the European tracks from the following year. The earlier recordings feature Redding’s road band, which tends to be a bit ragged, but still very right. The tracks from Europe feature much of the band that recorded this album, and their groove translates perfectly to the stage.
So the question is, do you need this album? If you are an Otis Redding fan, the answer is clear. The presence of the live tracks and B-sides, though previously released, makes this a must. The value you place on the stereo vs. mono thing is purely a personal choice. If you are new to the music of Otis Redding, or if you somehow missed this seminal album, the decision is up to you. You must have this music in some form, and this well-designed package is as good a place to get it as any.
I am going to present three versions of the same song for your consideration. This first version of “Respect” is the mono version that was a hit single, reaching number four on the R&B chart and number 35 on the pop chart. Next, there’s the previously unreleased mono mix of the original stereo album version of “Respect.” Finally, listen to the original stereo album version of “Respect.” I look forward to your comments on the differences and similarities that you hear, and which version your prefer.