Counterbalance No. 61: ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’

Otis Redding
Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul

Mendelsohn: Listening to Otis Redding makes me sad, Klinger. It’s not a real heavy sadness, but more of a hypothetical sadness. In reality his music always puts a smile on my face because it’s hard not to smile when he breaks in with that amazing voice full of grit and electricity, backed by crack musicians who had just as much appreciation for soul standards as they did for the up-and-coming rock and roll. But then I catch myself thinking about the great things the Redding might have achieved had he not been killed. From there it’s all conjecture, endless what-ifs and what-might-have-beens, but listening to Otis Blue it’s hard not to wonder. There is so much potential, so many untapped resources that Redding just hints at as he runs through a tight set of soul standards, blues and rock covers, Motown hits, and original material. He takes it all in, pours himself into it, makes it his own, and then turns it loose upon the world. It’s amazing, Klinger, but through my amazement there is always that creeping sadness.

Klinger: While I share your vague sense of sadness, I have to say that I’m a little surprised that your emotions are getting the better of you this time. After all, this is hardly the first time that we’ve covered a pop star who has shuffled off the mortal coil. In fact, just about half of the albums we’ve covered so far have at least one member who’s currently playing the great gig in the sky.

It’s true that Redding is one of those artists who seemed to be on the verge of taking his music in a bold new direction. His performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967 had made him the hippies’ soul man of choice, and the posthumous single “Dock of the Bay” was a movement toward something beyond the conventions of soul music. Given all that, it’s almost hard to see why so much emphasis has been placed on Otis Blue—almost to the exclusion of the rest of his output. (According to the Great List, we won’t be covering another Otis Redding LP for nearly 15 years.) So, Mendelsohn, what’s your take? Why Otis Blue?

Mendelsohn: I’ve always felt that Redding was still a little rough around the edges, like an uncut diamond. Given time and polish he could have been able to refine his sound into something more, something awe-inspiring and beautiful. We get slight hints of the possibilities on Otis Blue, and “Dock of the Bay” showed that he was reaching new heights with his songwriting before his untimely death brought down the curtain on a very promising musical career. I’m more saddened by his death than say, Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison or Ian Curtis or Marvin Gaye, simply because I never got the sense that Redding had hit his stride.

I think that roughness is a big part of the reason that Otis Blue is the only Redding we’ll be talking about for a while. Music critics can’t ignore the importance Redding helped play in breaking soul to the hippie movement and a larger listening populace. But as good as Otis Blue is, as great as the potential that can be gleaned from these tracks, Redding was still a work in progress, especially when it comes to his limited songwriting and his ability to get just close enough to hitting that pop sweet spot. Otis Blue belongs in the upper reaches of the list, but I think it has to do more with respect from Redding as an artist as a whole than it does for the overall quality of this album and his overall output up until his death.

Klinger: That may be true, but Otis Blue also comes along at a pivotal time in the evolution of soul music. To me, that’s evident in the fact that Redding covers three songs by Sam Cooke: “Shake”, “A Change Is Gonna Come”, and “Wonderful World”. Now it’s true that Cooke had been killed just a few months before recording of this album began, so it’s understandable that paying tribute to the fallen king would be de rigeur, but Redding’s approach sounds almost purposeful in demonstrating that the torch had indeed been passed. “Shake” was already grittier than most of Cooke’s output, so it was tailor-made for Redding. And his treatment of “A Change Is Gonna Come” strips the original of its mournful quality and uncovers an earthiness that presages the shift in the civil rights movement that was on the horizon. (It somehow strikes me as telling that he doesn’t sing Cooke’s verse about going to the movies.)

But Redding’s version of “Wonderful World” is a revelation. This is, at its core, a very silly song. It has some pretty funny lines (“Don’t know what a slide rule is for” gets me every time), but it was basically written as a malt shop number for the Clearasil set. Redding digs into this tune, punching away at the rhythm, adding words here and there (“Don’t know much about the good French I took”), bobbing and weaving around the melody, stretching out syllables and teasing his way through to the end. It’s hard to think of another singer who did so much with the phrasing and rhythms of a song—it turns out that Capitol-era Sinatra is a surprisingly close analogy. The year after Otis Blue, Redding would use a thermonuclear upgrade of this technique on an old 1930s crooner ditty called “Try a Little Tenderness”, but the roots of that are right here.

Mendelsohn: You make an excellent point. Redding’s overhaul of the soul genre helped it keep pace in the rough and tumble music industry. I can’t argue with the number he does on Cooke’s work (I love Cooke as well, but Redding certainly does it better) and the cover of “Satisfaction” rocks just as hard when played next to the Rolling Stones’ original.

When you put the covers together with Redding’s original material, a scant three songs on this release—although he shows off impressive song-writing chops with “Respect” and “Ole Man Trouble”—you get a solid slice of unmatched soul. The problem is, he doesn’t show much growth as his following albums followed much the same formula as Otis Blue. It’s not until “Dock of the Bay” that we see Redding beginning to understand how far he can take his music.

As good as Redding’s body of work is, and it is, there just isn’t the type of exploration that would draw the critics into more of his records. Now, might he have eventually expanded his repertoire? I can’t say. Is it unfair that he never got the chance? Most definitely.

Klinger: Well now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind, though, Mendelsohn. First, Otis was cranking out albums every six months, in between touring and television appearances and hippie-wowing. In the scant four years that he was recording, I don’t know that he had much time to even think about how he wanted his music to evolve—it was largely doing so under its own power.

It’s also important to note that outside of rock music, the album was a basically untapped medium. LPs were almost an afterthought, with a couple of recent hit singles and enough filler to justify the $2.98 cost. The fact that “filler” on an Otis Redding album consisted of forward thinking tracks like “Satisfaction” or reinventions like his butt-kicking rendition of “My Girl” may be little more than a happy accident—but it’s still testament to his power as an interpreter.

Mendelsohn: I think that succinctly answers why Otis Blue is on the Great List in the first place (great “filler”) but also why his other records are lost in the middle regions of the list (just a couple of singles and some not-so-great “filler”). But that was just the way a lot of the music industry was still operating at the time. You record a couple of singles, you go on tour, and while you’re gone, somebody puts out a LP with those singles and whatever other scraps they had laying around. When Otis Blue came out in 1965, the world was still a year away from Pet Sounds and Revolver —the two albums that arguably helped cement the idea of the LP as the preferred medium for the release of truly great music.

Klinger: True enough, although I’m going to have make a case for Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, which not only features “Try a Little Tenderness” (a song so great that neither Jon Cryer nor a singing donkey could ruin it), but also a clutch of Redding originals that stand up well against anything on Otis Blue (unfortunate cover notwithstanding, mind you). Of course, that was 1966, and Redding was sure to have noticed that the tide was turning all around him.

Mendelsohn: Redding just ran out of time. He never got the chance to look at his music through the framework of the LP. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band came out in June 1967 and was said to have had a huge influence on Redding in the months before he was killed. It would take another four years for soul to catch up with the release of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On—a truly great soul LP. And that’s sad, Klinger. Otis Redding was right there, right on the cusp of something extraordinary.