[1 August 2013]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
“I invented swag,” Jay-Z asserts during the first verse on “Otis”, his 2011 collaboration with Kanye West that sampled “Try a Little Tenderness”.
Nope. Sorry, but with all due respect, Mr. Carter, that innovation came decades before your little sample-happy luxury rap single hit record store shelves, when your song’s namesake emerged from the Stax/Volt family in the mid 1960s. Before the fashion forays, tabloid marriages, record company acquisitions and endless braggadocio, there was actually a dude who took that zeitgeist-invented term and gave it credence. There existed a man who understood what it meant to earn a reputation through live performances and exhausting schedules that had nothing to do with cellphone gimmicks or wearing only the color black. Indeed, far before blueprints or black albums or thrones, someone took that notion and made it his own even when he wasn’t aware that such a word would ever even exist.
That guy? His name was Otis Redding. And he was sooooo much more swag than you, me, your friends or anyone else with a Twitter account and the endless benefits of Protools. The man, in short, was a fucking legend.
And that’s why the latest three-disc box set, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection isn’t just imperative for any true fan of contemporary popular music to own—it’s a must for anybody who has ever as much as pretended to be an enthusiast of soul music. The stuff adds up to a doctorate-level crash course focused on what it once took to be a genuine star. To be a star who relied on talent far more than image. To be a star expected to work out on the road, hundreds of days a year, all sacrifices be damned. To be a star with substance. To be a star who sang every last note of every last song in a manner that suggested he never knew if he would ever be lucky enough to sing again.
Otis Redding, in all his glory, brought a very personalized fire to the perception of what it once was to be considered a star. His impassioned theatrics and guttural instinct set himself apart from just any soulful voice or hard-working musician. Hearing him sing is like listening to a pissed-off angel—all the glory and warmth is there, yet his transparent edge is what makes him so undeniable. Singles or not, you’d be hard pressed to find an Otis Redding tune that couldn’t both send chills of conflict through your veins and a relief of comfort up your spine. His genius came in his presentation. Everybody and their mother has at least once covered “My Girl”, yet no one shoves it through our soul quite like Redding does. It’s irresistible.
Such is what makes this 70-track set so impossibly addicting. Every 45 the King of Soul ever offered is here, featuring both the A and B-sides of the singles at hand. Some are predictable (”(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, “Respect”) while others are revelations (both Christmas songs sound fresh, even in the month of July). The Big O could take whatever song he wanted and make it his own; what set him apart from his peers, however, was the very true notion that he rarely, if ever, stumbled. One might believe it a plead for career suicide to try and upstage the Rolling Stones the same year they provided the universe with one of the most iconic pop singles music has ever seen, yet nearly 50 years later, Redding’s take on “Satisfaction” still leaps out of the speakers and into your conscious, taking specific hold of both your hips and legs.
But that’s what he did—he turned up the wattage on each performance, each take, each recording so much that nobody even bothered to question his intention or gull. He earned that right with his mesmerizing presence and sheer talent. The Complete Stax/Volt Singles does its best to chronicle the many sides of a guy someone once dubbed the Mad Man From Macon. There’s his softer persona that arguably worked best whenever it combined forces with Carla Thomas, such as it does a handful of times here. Sam and Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” still holds up as one of classic rhythm and blues’ best collaborations when presented by such a natural male/female tandem. Delicate but sincere, the two go together like aged red wine and freshly cut cheese, a combination that only accentuates the other’s strongest virtues. “Tell It Like It Is”, another lovelorn ballad, is the best example of how intimate the mere presence of both Redding and Thomas’s personalities can sound, a clear indication of how comfortable their voices feel when laid upon one another. Every lion’s roar needs to be offset by the chirp of a birdie somewhere in the circle of life, and that precise idiom allowed both singers to excel whenever they met. The tracks that make the cut in this instance are the best proof.
Then, of course, there was Redding’s fire, the aspect of his being that is profiled during the set’s most memorable moments. Six live performances pop up at various places in the collection and there isn’t one that disappoints. An angry-hot European performance of “Shake” is worth whatever price the entire box goes for as the interplay between the artist and his audience will cause the casual listener to shed a few pounds worth of sweat by the time the two minutes and thirty-six seconds are over. “Can’t Turn You Loose” narrowly ups the ante, though, as that iconic horn line provides the jet fuel needed for Redding and his voice to power their ways to abnormally tall heights. “I know you think I’m gonna stop now/Ain’t gonna stop/We goin’ one time/funky now/hit it, one!” he shouts as the music stops with about a minute and a half left. From there, the performance reaches pandemonium as Redding yells scats over that timeless groove. It all amounts to a breathtaking moment stolen from a career that ultimately was robbed of enough air to see this guy into his later years.
Actually, that’s the most obvious takeaway from this collection: For as short a time Otis Redding had on this earth, he created an unparalleled body of work that to this day goes down as one of the most affecting resumes a single voice could ever hope to have. And if you don’t believe these words, take a few minutes to discover the definitive version of “Hard to Handle”, a tune later made famous by the Black Crowes, or his subtle but brilliant attempt at “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”. Listening back through the songs that paint these three discs, it becomes increasingly hard to find an artist more meant to sing these things than the one who sits at the center of these 70 singles. The only real flaw of it all is its sparse packaging (for a box set, a little more reading material would have been nice to devour while digesting the sonic element of this sprawling release), but even with that in mind, it’s hard to squabble too loudly when considering how phenomenally well these tunes hold up, even when presented against one another.
Otis Ray Redding Jr. died almost three months to the day after his 26th birthday. On one hand, it’s comforting to know that he was never forced to grow so old that he would be reduced to singing duets with the singer from My Morning Jacket (no disrespect, Booker T. Jones, but hey …). On the other, it would have been so outlandishly exciting to see and hear how this man would have grown into another phase of greatness, another level of maturity, another definition of the word dominance. The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection is one of the most comprehensive reminders of how truly unique a talent Otis Redding actually was and for that it should be applauded.
He never really needed the benefit of high-selling singles to prove his brilliance, of course. But then again, he never really needed to define the word swag to prove that he embodied it, either.