July 9, 1965, Stax Recording Studio, Memphis Tennessee.
Exactly two months before his 24th birthday, soul singer Otis Redding summoned a marvelous group of musicians for one of the most amazing sessions in the history of popular music. Surrounded by guitarist Steve Cropper, keyboardists Booker T. Jones and Isaac Hayes, bassist Donald Dunn, and drummer extraordinaire Al Jackson, Redding recorded ten tracks within a twenty-four hour span. The singer’s startling pace spoke volumes about his work ethic, his level of creativity, and his encyclopedic knowledge of his art form. Over the course of the day, Redding masterfully performed two of his most recent compositions, along with popular songs by B.B. King, Solomon Burke, the Temptations, the Rolling Stones, and his recently departed idol, Sam Cooke. On full display for those who gathered for this historic session was Redding’s uncanny ability to cover not only a wide range of sounds but human emotions. This quintessential blues man bore witness to existential pain, deep sorrow and regret, sensual joy, and romantic longings with the nuanced power of a gifted poet.
Out of these amazing performances emerged an album which would help transform the landscape of modern soul music: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul. Comprised of slow-grinders and up-tempos, originals and covers, Otis Blue/ was a melding of all the sonic forces presently shaping popular music: Motown pop, the blues, British rock, and Southern Soul. Simultaneously particularistic and universal, the album would climb to the top of the rhythm and blues album charts in 1965, as well as yield two radio smashes, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Respect”.
Thanks to Rhino’s recent release of an expanded edition of Redding’s Otis Blue, older and younger generations of music lovers can discover or reconnect with a soul masterpiece. This impressive two disc compilation includes mono and stereo mixes of the album, live performances of the recording’s most popular songs, and the B-singles “Any Ole Way” and “I’m Depending on You”.
Sequenced perfectly, the compilation opens with one of Redding’s most introspective compositions, “Ole Man Trouble”. Here, an emotional Redding tells the story of a man “down on his luck”, unable to escape the brutal realities of the blues. You’ve heard this tale a million times, but something about Redding’s delivery makes the familiar profound. Existential pain and anguish pervade the song; yet one also hears Redding’s efforts to transcend his current predicament. One of the singer’s most underrated performances, “Ole Man Trouble” was the B-side of the hugely popular, “Respect”. Now primarily associated with Lady Soul, Aretha Franklin, “Respect” was composed and recorded by Redding during his historic July session. His clarion call for a lover’s respect was bolstered by the propulsive rhythms of Al Jackson, whose drumming was indispensable to the Stax Sound (and a few years later, Al Green’s classic Hi albums).
Otis Redding - Respect
Finding considerable play on the airwaves, “Respect” climbed to #4 on the R&B charts; but the biggest hit off Otis Blue was the achingly soulful, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Why Otis Redding occupies such a privileged place in the pantheon of great soul singers is abundantly clear on this beautiful ballad. Signing with the passion of a hopeless lover who refuses to accept the reality of a love affair’s end, Redding confronts and embraces his vulnerability. Everything about the song, from Redding’s heart wrenching delivery to his declaration of unwavering devotion spells heartache. The spectacular “I’ve Been Loving You” provides the listener with a glimpse of Redding’s emotional depth, his impeccable timing, and his amazing restraint. Not one note, minute, or plaintive cry is wasted.
Thankfully, Rhino’s expanded edition includes two live versions of the soul classic. One version is taken from a 1966 show and the other from his 1967 Live in Europe release. Also available on this new compilation are live renditions of “Respect”, “Shake”, “Ole Man Trouble”, “My Girl”, and “Satisfaction”. While listening to the sheer intensity and passion Redding brings during his performances of “Shake” and “Satisfaction”, I was struck by the effortless way he fused soul, the blues, and rock ‘n’ roll into an integrative whole. “Is there anything this man couldn’t handle” was a question to which I frequently returned over the course of listening to these discs. Not too many artists could swing with ease from a gritty funk number like “Down in the Valley” to a sorrowful country blues like “You Don’t Miss Your Water”.
Why Redding excelled in so many situations had a great deal to do with both his connectedness to his roots and his cultural confidence. Here was a man who had studied closely the lessons of the South, and recognized that these cultural lessons had universal value and appeal. Covering Clarksdale-born Sam Cooke or rockers like the Rolling Stones was something he embraced, because he recognized that these pop icons had found sustenance from the same fertile soil which nurtured him.
The confidence Redding displayed on Otis Blue and its predecessors, The Soul Album and Otis Redding’s Dictionary of Soul is the type of boldness and audacity one finds in the work of Southern-rooted artists/thinkers (contemporary examples that immediately come to mind are singers Cassandra Wilson, Cee-lo Green, and Tim’m West, as well as music critic Kandia Crazy Horse)—who ignore conventional notions about racial, regional, and artistic boundaries.
A strong sense of who he was as a person also enabled Redding to masterfully play the role of Mr. Pitiful. Quite apparent upon listening to Otis Blue is Redding’s willingness to articulate pain and vulnerability. His sensitivity is not geared solely toward the fulfillment of his personal needs; instead his plaintive cries have a more pedagogical function. Tune in to his moving rendition of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, and you hear a man shedding light on the painful consequences of infidelity and neglect. What makes Redding so compelling on this and other songs is that he seems genuinely committed to bringing about greater human understanding and harmony.
Something was extremely special about Redding, and his uniqueness found perfect articulation in Otis Blue.
Was this his best recording? Not in my opinion. Surely many will disagree, but for me, that honor goes to Otis Redding’s Dictionary of Soul. However, why others consistently choose Otis Blue as their favorite is no mystery to me: it gave the world one of the most important songs (“Respect”) of any era, featured one of the most amazing soul performances (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”) in music history, and provided a blueprint followed by later soul singers.