[Here it is, at long last: The Graduate’s conclusion to the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Otis Redding. I’ll be doing next week’s Guide, unless I get a better offer from one of you. I hope you guys have enjoyed reading this as much as I have. Oh, and by the way, I don’t enjoy Curtis Stigers’ music. Taking the piss, indeed… -j]
Hello again, boys, girls, and androgynous creatures of the night. It’s your friend The Graduate, doing Jefito’s job for him; abandoning these felicitous pleasantries, let’s dip into Otis Redding’s posthumous/live record output.
Live in Europe (1967)
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The first of Otis’ full-length live albums, this was collected from the Stax/Volt Revue tour of Europe in March 1967 with Booker T and the MG’s taking over for the Mar-Kays on the band duties. Overall, it’s a solid album, ranging from his early ballads straight from his bucolic heart of Georgian Oak, such as “These Arms of Mine,” to slick grooves allowing the band to flex their considerable musical muscle, including the exceptional “Can’t Turn You Loose” (download) which is otherwise unavailable on his studio albums.
“Can’t Turn You Loose” is probably best known in the public conscience as the theme for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers band, which of course featured several old Stax musicians, including Steve Cropper and the MGs bassist, Donald “Duckâ? Dunn, who is the raging catalyst of the piece with Al Jackson pitching in with his erratic pulsing beat. Despite all this, Otis is once again the highlight when at the false ending he shouts “Think I’m gonna stop now, ain’t gonna stop, we goin’ one time, workin’ now, 3-4!!!â? before the song rockets off into the stratosphere again. The man was just a force of pure charisma; a claim which is further supported by his performance on the Otis Blue songs “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” (download) and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (download). If you thought that the studio versions were good then wait ’til you hear these with the Stones’ number pushed to an even higher tempo with its lyrical subject pushed away from middle class malaise to the search for a good lover (with a sufficiently crazed sing-along to accompany it).
The Immortal Otis Redding (1968)
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And yet again, we have a fabulous collection of posthumously released recordings from the Big O, compromising nine originals, a Ray Charles cover, and the traditional “Amen” (which I would have made available if it weren’t for the sheer quality of the other three; seek it out now). It kicks off with the favourite song of Steve Cropper, Otis’s friend and collaborator, the haunting “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” (download). The song initially has a similar arrangement to earlier ballads such as “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “These Arms of Mine” with its naked instrumentation consisting of Otis’s lonely keen, Cropper’s maudlin arpeggios, Jackson’s hi-hat, and Dunn’s occasional bass pluck. Yet, as the song reaches the minute mark, something that’s never happened before in a Redding song occurs: female backing singers arrive to support him in these three and a quarter minutes of longing. By now, Booker T has come out of hibernation, with his organ taking on a religious funereal tone and the horns are adding their usual say, finally working to a slow crescendo. It’s a gorgeous arrangement that shows how Otis’s sound was maturing to something altogether more full-bodied, yet still lovingly primitive. The song echoes around the tale of a man who finds out that his partner is cheating on him, but cannot resign himself to the far worse fate of losing her, resulting in an irresolvable form of dialectic. As the singer reaches this crossroads, so had Otis: he was clearly wishing to push his ballads beyond their tried and tested framework without giving up the rawness that such a structure encompassed. That’s what you call a “song as unintentional metaphorâ?, people.
“Hard to Handle” (download), yet again, is probably best known for The Black Crowes’ rather successful cover in the early ’90s. Of course, the Crowes shook it up a little with feedback, guitars, and Chris Robinson pulling on his tightest white briefs for a loose game of strip Baccarat. Redding’s version is by far the superior, with the band working the groove to the hilt and the man himself in fine form, keeping the balance between enunciation and power. It’s all in the vocal control, with little tics and flourishes used as a tool to enhance the lyrical power rather than just bellowing like the filthy bastard you are.
“The Happy Song (Dum-Dum)” (download) is both a continuation of the “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” tradition of singing the musician’s parts for them (this time it’s the bassist that gets the treatment rather than the horn section) and a reversal of “Mr Pitiful,” with Otis stating that his baby is why he’s “singing these happy songs.â? Perfect to end a mix tape with, if you’re ever in need of a joyous happy ending.
The Dock of the Bay (1968)
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Yes, we’ve all heard the title track (download), and any discussion of its brilliance would just be adding unwarranted inches to this article. If you haven’t listened to it in some time then do so, and rediscover the unadulterated joy it provides.
The album from which it is taken includes the aforementioned tracks, seven other unreleased tracks, and three that can be found elsewhere: “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (The Soul Album), “Tramp” (King and Queen), and “Ole Man Trouble” (Otis Blue). Of the seven unreleased numbers, the Booker T Jones/Eddie Floyd composition “I Love You More Than Words Can Say” (download), and the Chicago hustle of “Let Me Come On Home” (download) are of the most interest. The former hangs its toes off the jetty to dangle over the sea of Spector and Goffin/King, along with Otis on a particularly brilliant high. Otis with strings is a very pleasant surprise, and when you take into account the fresh quality of the piano and guitar sounds, you have an underrated classic that not only proves that (a) Eddie Floyd is as good a writer as I made out in Part One, and (b) there’s just not enough Otis Redding in this world.
“Let Me Come On Home” is a rockier beast, with the fuzzy guitar licks of steel grating against the other musical components. The horns hold their ground, though, against the snapping jaws of the beast kicking out a chunky hook to hold on to. It really wouldn’t be misplaced on Nuggets, getting as close to psychedelica as Otis would ever get, along with a little bit of country thrown in for good luck. So with three magnificent hit singles, two songs of key interest to those looking to go beyond the surface in regards to Redding’s output, and some other excellent numbers, Dock of the Bay can’t be termed anything but essential (despite the fact that Tell the Truth and The Immortal Otis Redding are arguably superior).
In Person at the Whiskey A Go Go (1968)
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The first of two volumes which recorded Otis’ performances at the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles (the second, entitled Good to Me, was released in 1993), this set consists of Otis’ performance at the venue in April 1966. This album is seen as a rawer recording than both Live in Europe and Otis’ legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, because it is recorded with his usual backing band, the Mar-Kays, of whom four would perish with Otis in the plane crash of December 10. Several songs from the Live in Europe set are repeated here, including “Respect,” “Satisfaction,” “Can’t Turn You Loose,” and “These Arms of Mine.” However, this album is still essential, if not for the differing performances played by Otis in context to both the limitations of his band and the relative size of the venue, but for his recording of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” (download). Otis never resorts to any attempt to mimic Brown’s paint stripper vocals, keeping with clear-as-cotton tones, and the band keeps a steady groove that sounds sparse without Booker T’s chunky pieces of organ. It’s not the best version of the song you’ll ever hear, due to its downright reverence to the source material; Otis, no doubt, was overly shy at the prospect ripping the song to shreds as he obviously dearly wanted to. You can hear the ghost of what may have been in the final minute, as Otis begins a mumbled mantra of the various body parts where he can hear the music ebb.
It’s just interesting to think what would have happened if the Big O had managed to get to grips with Brown as well as he did with Sam Cooke and The Beatles. Otis Redding’s Psychedelic Soul, produced by Norman Whitfield? Nah, never would have happened.
“Any Ole Way” (download) can originally be found on The Soul Album, and this version is a delightful Cooke pastiche showing that “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” wasn’t the only magnificent fruit of Cropper and Redding’s song writing partnership. Redding’s voice is giving out by the end, from his sincere proclamations de l’amour, but that just adds to the beauty of it all.
Love Man (1969)
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This is probably the best known of the posthumously released Redding material, due to the inclusion of the superlative “Love Man,” the jazzy piano strut of “I’m a Changed Man,” the back-to-basics ballad “Free Me,” and the funky wash of “Direct Me.” It’s also probably the weakest; “Free Me” never gets within touching distance of “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” and “Direct Me” just never quite pushes beyond a solid R n’ B number.
Yet “Love Man” (download) and “I’m a Changed Man” (download) are both so good that they lift the quality of the album just enough for me to recommend it. “Love Man” is the song that is playing the first time that Jennifer Grey steps into the murky and secretive world of Patrick Swayze’s sexualized tango with only a couple of watermelons to protect her in that ’80s classic Dirty Dancing. As a result, the song came into the public consciousness as one of the greatest soul songs of all time and was re-released, becoming number 1 in over forty countries worldwide. Err, wait a minute, no it didn’t. Yes, all we got out of that stinker were immature laughs at Jerry Orbach not being Detective Briscoe, Jennifer Grey’s nose job, and “She’s Like the Wind.”
Nonetheless, it is a wonderful song; Otis finally seeks to play James Brown at his own game, cooing and winking as he goes. Only 19 seconds in and he’s stating “6′ 1â?, weighing 210, long hair, real fair skin, a long legs and I’m outta sight!’ The boy knew how to sell himself, going on with his brazen shout of “Which one of you girls want me to hold you? Which one of you girls want me to kiss you?” and then after that it gets shockingly filthy (by Otis’ standards) so I’ll leave you to find out what he says next.
Even by his own high standards, his vocal track on “Love Man” has to be in my Big O top five. He’d finally taken on Brown at his own game and won. “I’m a Changed Man,” on the other hand, plays out like Ramsey Lewis with an overdubbed vocal track, with its muted horns, jazz piano licks, and Al Jackson having an absolute whale of a time. The song is often seen as a companion piece to “Amen,” as to Otis’s new found religiosity with his declaration that he’s been baptised and has now become a “brand new guyâ? as a result. He’s so pleased about it that even starts a strangely reserved scat. It’s a very different song than what you’d normally expect from Otis and, as a result, is a nice breath of fresh air (not that his output could ever be seen to stagnate).
Tell the Truth (1969)
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Probably a close contender, along with The Immortal Otis Redding, as the best posthumous release by Redding, due to its inclusion of Redding’s dynamite cover of his hero Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’” (download) the mariachi funk of “Johnny’s Heartbreak,” the superbly strained delivery (and Jackson’s roughhousing of the cymbal on the 4 beat) of “A Little Time,” and one of Redding’s finest recordings, “The Match Game” (download). “Match Game” is a song very much within the style of Sam and Dave; its loud and steady horns descend into smooth soul, with Dunn and Booker T the key workers behind the groove (Jones’s piano playing here is just impeccable). It’s a singular tune, not only for the almost constant horn motif, but the existence of a bridge; the middle eight was never really a string in Otis’s bow, as he often liked to work around strict rules in favour of his wonderful adlibs.
“Johnny’s Heartbreak” (download) begins with a Latin chorus of horns before yet another melting pot of Sam Cooke/Southern Soul documenting the fable of a guy who pretends to be your friend but only really wants your woman. It wouldn’t look out of place on “A Man and His Music”; yes, it’s that fantastic, with its maraca shake and Fats Domino shuffle. “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” on the other hand, is a clear indication of how far Otis had come from “Hey Hey Baby” in such a short space of time, delivering such a fierce vocal performance one doubts that Miss Melinda could do anything but surrender to his charms.
You Left the Water Running (1976)
I’m going to hand this one over to the Aristotle of US rock journalism, Dave Marsh, in this excerpt from his fabulous book, “The Heart of Rock n’ Soul”:
In late 1976, while I was Rolling Stone’s record reviews editor, a new Otis Redding single crossed my desk. Poorly pressed and recorded (Otis’s voice distorts badly on the count-off) and on an ugly red an black label I’d never heard of, it was still a fantastic version of Maurice and Mac’s “You Left the Water Running” (download). The B side was an anonymous instrumental “The Otis Jam” by the Memphis Studio Band, who was certainly not Booker T and the MGs. That side, but not the local, gave a production credit to John Fred, familiar to me as the leader of John Fred and the Playboy Band, who had scored a weird psychedelic-swamp-bubblegum hit, “Judy in Disguise With Glasses,” in 1967.
Finding a new Otis track, let alone one this good, constituted a major thrill, and I spent quite a bit of time on the phone trying to track down the story. I happened to mention the track to my lawyer at the time, Mike Mayer, who represented Atlantic Records and, though I didn’t know it, the Otis Redding estate. A day or so later, Mayer asked me to show him the record. Shortly thereafter, the damn thing was pulled out of circulation, since nobody to clear the release with Otis’s widow, Zelma.
This was a drag but also an opportunity. I called the distributor, Big O Records in Memphis, and asked what they were doing with the stock they had on hand, which was only a couple of hundred copies. Nothing they could do but destroy them, they told me. So I called Mayer and asked if he’d mind if I bought them up and gave them away to friends. I wouldn’t sell them, just hand them out to friends and record collectors I knew. So I spent fifty or a hundred bucks and mailed out most of the stock, keeping perhaps a half dozen copies for myself. Over the years, those have dwindled down to the single one that I still own. Proving, I guess, that I’m a lousy record collector.
But it doesn’t matter so much now, because anybody can hear Otis sing “You Left the Water Running” by picking up Atlantic’s The Otis Redding Story, which features not only the music but an explanation of how Redding came to record the track. Seems that while Redding was visiting Muscle Shoals in the fall of 1966, Rick Hall, owner of Fame Studios, asked him to cut “You Left the Water Running” as a demo for Wilson Pickett, who was due to record there soon. Hall drummed on a box, Walden shook a tambourine. Otis sang and overdubbed a couple of background parts. Everything else was added later, the liner notes say, though by whom they don’t mention. And indeed, Pickett’s version (on The Wicked Pickett) does resemble Otis’s gentle, soothing way with the tune, rather than Wilson’s more predictable leather lunged style.
Thanks Dave. We love you despite the rather horrible taste in modern music captured by your new “Spin the Black Circle” preface. “Fields of Gold”? Back to the faded vinyl with you before I cut you a switch!
Remember Me (1992)
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Remember Me is simply a blessed cornucopia of alternate takes, rarities, and unreleased tracks which cannot be recommended enough for those who have sampled the hits and dipped into the studio albums and posthumous material. Of the unreleased tracks, two are of special interest: my favourite Otis Redding track (though probably not the best) “Pounds and Hundreds,” and “Stay in School” (download). “School” was originally released on the Stax promo-only album Stay in School: Don’t Be A Dropout, and consists simply of just Otis, his acoustic guitar and some horns (how could you not?). It’s here because it includes such pearls as Otis singing “If you don’t go back to school, you’re really not groovyâ? and “Without an education, you could only be a tramp: just plain ol’ country.â? A guilty pleasure, but boy is it fine to listen to the man preaching his gospel.
“Pounds and Hundreds” (download) refers to an Otis-specific measurement of love resulting in him “loving by the pound.â? Otis manages to put his demeanour perfectly into words with his statement “I’ve got some love and I can’t control it/it’s running like a hot wire down a pole, babyâ? capturing the kinetic energy that just sparks off what would otherwise be a good, but undistinguished, chunk of boogie soul. The euphoric chorus and the fact that the terminology the man uses is both colloquial and somehow also universal (Steve Cropper has admitted that he still uses it to this day) is just so irresistibly charming that you’ll be humming it to yourself for weeks on end.
Well, that’s that. I had fun and I hope that you guys have learned something. Come visit me at Adventures sometime although, at the moment, it’s a little out of control as I’ve started a joke that I’ve forgotten the punch line to. Hopefully, it will be resolved by the time that you lot read this. May we meet again!
P.S. Thanks Jefito for the opportunity to educate your fanbase. You’re welcome to tell my lot all about the wonders of Marc Cohn and Curtis Stigers whenever you want.