Three historic nights spread out over six discs makes for an unprecedented, essential Otis Redding listening experience.
Had he lived, there is a very good chance the Godfather of Soul handle would not belong to the so-called hardest working man in show business, James Brown, but rather Otis Redding. As fiery and energetic and possessing a far superior instrument, Redding was and is the epitome of soul music. Having inherited the mantle from his late mentor, Sam Cooke, Redding made sure to make his mark and make it fast. Legend has it, his first single, "These Arms of Mine", was recorded in the final 20 minutes of a shortened session by Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, for whom Redding was then driving and occasionally singing. From there on out, the rest, as they say, is history. But what a tragically short history it was.
While he could trace his professional singing career all the way back to 1958, it wasn’t until 1962’s “These Arms of Mine” that he truly made a name for himself as a solo artist. Two years later, his debut album Pain in My Heart would be released by Stax Records, Redding having traded his native Macon, Georgia for a spiritual home in Memphis. Both 1965 and 1966 would see the release of two albums each year: The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads and Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul in 1965; and The Soul Album and Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul. It’s not for nothing the word “soul” appears prominently in the title of each; aside from Sam Cooke, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single artist to have had more influence than Redding in terms of soul music, how it’s performed, how it’s sung and how it is presented to a broadly open demographic.
Where many of his peers would find themselves relegated to the Chitlin’ Circuit in the South and their recorded output branded “race records". Redding set out to and managed to break out of the musical ghetto imposed upon black artists by an industry overseen by predominantly middle-aged white men in suits. By taking his music and, more importantly, the accompanying show to the people -- all people -- he was able to transcend many of the racial politics affecting black performers in the 1960s. The focus, it would seem, was solely on the music and ensuring it find the ears of the broadest audiences possible. With this in mind, it makes sense Redding would choose the famed Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip as his Los Angeles coming out party.
Known more for having launched the careers of nearly every prominent L.A.-based band of the mid-‘60s from the Byrds to the Doors and all points in between, it was far from the bastion of soul music. Given the genre’s recent secularization after years of toeing the line between sacred gospel belting and the worldlier concerns of the blues, it’s little surprise soul music as a whole had not broken out of race records status into simply records that appealed to anyone and everyone who heard them. But as Dylan noted, by 1966 the times were indeed changing and the pop music charts were becoming more and more multi-hued through the previously improbable rise of Motown to cultural dominance and, in the south, Stax and Atlantic’s ever-growing stable of soul artists.
So when it came time to present himself to the more rock-oriented audiences in 1966, the Whisky seemed a logical choice; the Strip was at its bacchanalian height and had not yet devolved into police brutality and chaos in the streets. Over three nights in April of that year, Otis Redding and his band set the stage alight, delivering seven powerhouse sets of dynamite soul. Collected here for the first time, the complete performances, including pre- and post-show stage patter from Al “Brisco” Clark encouraging the crowd to show their appreciation for the music as loudly as they could due to the entire run being recorded. From the first downbeat on over six discs, it becomes immediately clear they would require little to no prodding to show their appreciation. So explosively transcendent were Redding’s performances here that it seems just short of impossible that the entire club would not erupt without prompting.
What’s so fascinating about these complete performances is that they show the band working through and settling into their material and, most crucially, their surroundings. The first night of shows, April 8, 1966, suffers from what can only be a case of nerves on the part of the band; tempos lag, notes are flubbed and lyrics are forgotten. But there’s still a raw power in these performances, the majority of it coming from Redding himself. Throughout this first night, it’s as if he is constantly coaxing the band to boldly follow him into this new, uncharted territory. From the moment he opens his mouth to cry out “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” Redding exudes nothing but confidence. His stage patter reflects this not only in the studied words of thanks for the audience but also in the offhand, casual remarks that bring forth a laugh in a man who would brand himself “Mr. Pitiful".
Knowing his new, predominantly white audience, Redding delivers 10 different renditions of the Rolling Stones’ "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction". Ranging anywhere from four to nine minutes in length, each performance affords the band a chance to stretch out, allowing the groove to settle in and Redding to apply his distinctively raspy vocal cadence. Having been recently released as a single from the epochal Otis Blue album, his reading of the Stones’ hit obliterates the original in every way imaginable. So profound is his reworking that it renders the original practically obsolete. Charging through the song, filling it with his own words and phrasing, Redding truly makes the song his own, much in the same manner used by Aretha Franklin when she did the same with Redding’s “Respect” the following year.
It’s not all rock covers, however. Given his undeniable skills as a writer, hearing the energy and enthusiasm behind each original in a live setting is simply thrilling. “I Can’t Turn You Loose” is a runaway freight train tearing through the heart of the Sunset Strip, Redding its unhinged conductor shouting to be heard over the engine’s roar. Having hit their stride by the second night, disc four -- containing the second and third sets from that Saturday night -- is an indisputable high point, both the band and Redding firing on all cylinders. Even the ballad “Chained and Bound” burns with a searing intensity rarely heard when the tempo drops to a slow shuffle. This particular feeling, palpable throughout, is the direct result of Redding’s iconic soul shouting; it is here he lays the groundwork for all those who would follow, attempting and failing to surpass his utterly unique and undeniably soulful vocal presence.
And yet by December of 1967 he would be gone, his life cut short in a plane crash outside Madison, Wisconsin. While tragic, his legacy continues unabated, influencing and inspiring countless generations of musicians and listeners with his infectiously energetic performances. One only need to check out his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 to see the thrill he brought out in audiences of all shades. And who can blame them? Anyone with a pulse would be hard-pressed not to feel infused with the same energy; like an electric current it demands the body to dance as the rhythm and the pure passion of Redding’s voice surges through to the very soul of the listener. James Brown may be considered the Godfather of Soul, but Otis Redding is and always will be its king. For further proof, look no further than these exceptional, historically invaluable recordings showing 24-year-old Otis Redding fully in command of the music, the stage and, most crucially for 1966, the audience.
While 1968’s posthumously released In Person at the Whisky a Go Go cherry-picked some of the highlights from the run, Live at the Whisky a Go Go: The Complete Recordings affords 21st century listeners the chance to experience the whole of each night in real time, warts and all. He may be nearly half a century gone, but the music of Otis Redding remains in 2016 as thrillingly vital and perfect as the moment in which the words first left his lips. Live at the Whisky a Go Go is a testament to his brilliance and status as the King of Soul and is thus, in a word, essential.