October 15 marked the 55th anniversary of the wonderfully titled Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul. As the last solo album released in his lifetime (a duets album with Carla Thomas, a live album, and a compilation all appeared in 1967, prior to Otis Redding‘s passing), Dictionary of Soul contains everything that had made Redding brilliant up to that point, with hints of what might follow. Dictionary of Soul is a landmark of American soul music, which automatically makes it a landmark of American culture.
Thinking about Otis Redding often reminds me, at least for a moment, of Peter Gabriel. A critically acclaimed singer, musician, and activist, Gabriel has made some music that I love, but there is only one thing about Gabriel’s life that I envy. Peter Gabriel saw Otis Redding perform live.
In the book that accompanies the 1993 box set, Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding, Gabriel notes, “In 1967, when I was still a teenager, I went to see Otis Redding play the Ram Jam club in Brixton. I descended the steps into a hot, dark jam-packed room and saw the best gig I ever witnessed. The warmth and passion that exuded from Otis were truly inspiring. His rapport with the audience left an incredible impression as something to aim for, and to this day, he remains my favourite singer.”
Though Gabriel placed the Ram Jam show in 1967, he is probably referring to 18 September 1966. According to an old newspaper ad, that is the night that Redding “and his 14-piece all-American showband” played two shows at the legendary Brixton club. That was just a month before Redding released Dictionary of Soul.
September 1966 was prime time to see Otis Redding live. Peter Gabriel was there, and I, a 15-month-old living with my parents just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was not. Redding played some Philly dates, including what appears to have been a ten-night stand at the Uptown Theatre from the week of 19-28 November 1965; a date at a mystery location on 29 October 1966; and finally at the Ebony Soul concert (headliner: Dionne Warwick) that happened on 23 April 1967. I missed them all.
Then, on 10 December 1967, Redding was suddenly gone at 26 years old. He left behind his wife Zelma and their children and a growing legion of fans and future fans, like me.
Despite missing my chances to see Otis Redding live due to being a baby/toddler, it wasn’t long before I first encountered Redding. It was in the form of an original 45 rpm record of his posthumous hit “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, passed on to me by an aunt. I remember listening to this single on a toy record player, probably before six years old. I have played that record, which I still own, many times since. “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” is my all-time favorite song and has been for decades.
As I grew older, my love for Otis Redding extended beyond my “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” single. I began to seek out anthologies of his work, advancing from a two-record greatest hits collection in the early 1980s to the ’93 Otis! Box set and beyond, to other box sets that celebrate his singles output for Stax/Volt and his electrifying charisma as a live performer. These compilations succeed in highlighting aspects of Redding’s work, but each of them has an unavoidable past tense built into them: Otis as a late great soul legend, lost decades ago.
Listening to Dictionary of Soul and the other four albums Redding released when he was alive gives listeners their best chance to experience Redding the way his original fans did. It feels good going back to the source.
The 12 songs on Dictionary of Soul can be roughly divided into three categories: the two hit singles, the widely-anthologized non-singles, and the deep album tracks that have escaped the box sets. Taken together, the songs present a well-rounded portrait of Otis Redding as a living, breathing human being in 1966.
Let’s start with the two big hits. Dictionary of Soul opens with “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”, which was also the first single to be released. Like Redding’s earlier song, “Mr. Pitiful”, “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” humorously plays off of Redding’s reputation as a singer of sad songs. Over a laidback groove, Redding opens with a bunch of the titular “fa-fa’s”, before noting “I keep singing them sad, sad songs, now / Sad songs is all I know.” Musically, the track introduces not just Redding but the rest of the personnel who play on the album: Booker T. and the MG’s (Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Al Jackson Jr.); pianist Isaac Hayes; and horn players Wayne Jackson, Andrew Love, Joe Arnold, and Floyd Newman.
“Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” peaked at #29 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #12 on the magazine’s R&B chart. Redding and the song’s co-writer, Steve Cropper, returned to the track as the inspiration for “The Happy Song (Dum-Dum-De-De-De-Dum-Dum)”, released after Redding’s death. Finally, the song also left an impression on a young listener named David Byrne, whose “fa-fa-fa’s” in Talking Heads’ early classic, “Psycho Killer”, allegedly inspired by Redding.
“Try a Little Tenderness” was the second single released from Dictionary of Soul. This song was already more than 30 years old in 1966. First recorded in 1932 by the Ray Noble Orchestra, the song was subsequently recorded by Bing Crosby and many others through the decades. Redding knew the song via Sam Cooke’s version on his 1964 Sam Cooke at the Copa album.
While Redding and the band are in great form throughout Dictionary of Soul, “Try a Little Tenderness” is where everyone on the album shines the brightest. The horn section (including Gil Caple on tenor sax) opens the song, leading to Redding’s intonation of “Oh, she may be weary…” The organ (Booker T.)/piano (Isaac Hayes) sets in, with Cropper providing gentle guitar chords as the rhythm section (Dunn and Al Jackson Jr.) anchors the song. It takes two full minutes for the intensity to begin to build, leading to the electrifying climax. No one had previously played/sang “Try a Little Tenderness” quite the way Redding and the band did, but nearly everyone has tried to play/sing it Redding’s way since.
The song was a significant R&B hit for Redding, reaching #4 on that Billboard chart. While the song only hit #25 on the Hot 100, “Try a Little Tenderness” has had the greatest cultural impact of any Otis Redding song, even “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”. Consider some of the places where you can hear “Try a Little Tenderness”:
- Ducky (played by Jon Cryer) famously lip-synced “Try a Little Tenderness” in Pretty in Pink (1986), in a performance that is still discussed by scholars of John Hughes movies.
- The titular band plays a passionate version of the song in The Commitments (1991).
- Eddie Murphy’s Donkey character uses a few lines of the song to provide romantic advice to Shrek (2001), then notes “Chicks love that romantic crap.”
- “Otis”, a major hit from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne is built on a series of samples from “Tenderness”, with Jay-Z correctly asking the seriously rhetorical question, “Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?” Well, duh, Jay-Z.
“Try a Little Tenderness” would become a highlight of Redding’s live shows for the rest of his life. Every video you can find of Otis singing the song, from Norway to Monterey, is worth watching. The Norway performance is especially outstanding: make sure to catch the brief interaction between Redding and Duck Dunn towards the end of the song – the expression on Dunn’s face radiates joy.
Clearly, though, Dictionary of Soul wasn’t just about the two hits, which leads us to the next tier of songs: the oft-anthologized tunes, “I’m Sick Y’All”, “Sweet Lorene”, “Day Tripper”, and “My Lover’s Prayer”. The last of those is a heartfelt ballad written by Redding. It’s wonderful, though, within the context of this record, any ballad is bound to pale in comparison to the mighty “Try a Little Tenderness.”
“I’m Sick Y’all” is a swaggering tune in which Redding seems to be complaining of heartbreak and weather problems that are causing a hell of a headache. “Sweet Lorene” is an infectious barnburner that later served as the b-side for the “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” single, which would make it the second Redding song I heard back as a six-year-old with a toy record player.
Side one closes with Redding’s take on the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”, a showcase, not just for his barked vocals, but for the entire band. Jones’ organ blasts and the horns that drive the song at a frenetic pace are particularly fun.
The remaining six songs on Dictionary of Soul have rarely if ever found places on posthumous Redding collections. That might create the impression that these songs were the filler that so often padded pop, rock, and R&B albums from the 1960s, but instead, these songs provide some additional insight into where Redding was as a 25-year-old singing star. “You’re Still My Baby” is a ballad with a country lilt, with the Southern rural vibe also echoed in Redding’s cover of the old classic “Tennessee Waltz”.
“She Put the Hurt on Me”, “Ton of Joy”, and the blues-drenched “Hawg for You” are all lustful celebrations that livened up the original side two of Dictionary of Soul. These songs might be considered minor entries in the Redding catalog these days, but all of them tap into a side of Redding’s persona that isn’t as apparent in his more famous songs.
Dictionary of Soul ends with “Love Have Mercy”, an up-tempo tune that musically invokes the Coasters’ “Along Came Jones” (in Cropper’s guitar intro) and a gospel mood with Jones’ organ and Hayes’ rollicking piano. “Love Have Mercy” finds Redding hoping that he won’t be made to suffer too much for his romantic mistakes in the past. But rather than being a mournful ballad, the song is a driving tune with a bit of a hard edge, pointing subtly in the direction of his posthumous “Hard to Handle”.
And thus, we reach the end of Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul. I will continue to envy Peter Gabriel, but I am happy that he had the transcendent experience that led to this insight: “the warmth and passion that exuded from Otis Redding were truly inspiring.” Warmth and passion are two of the most important words in this Dictionary.