Often cited as the finest album ever made in Memphis. Otis Redding didn’t hold back when he stepped into a studio.
He was backed by Booker T & The MG’s (Booker T Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and Al Jackson Jr), plus young pianist Isaac Hayes and the Memphis Horns.
High-voltage vocals aside, Redding’s craft as an interpreter was second to none. He wrote his own super-difficult horn lines in the studio and, such was his commitment, famously lost pounds in weight while recording his music.
His choice of songs on Complete & Unbelievable was unparalleled. He took old Tin Pan Alley standard Try A Little Tenderness (updating both the Aretha Franklin gospel version and Sam Cooke’s supper-club treatment) and Tennessee Waltz, a hokey country standard popularised by Patti Page, and sat them next to an electrifying version of The Beatles’ Day Tripper without missing a beat.
The first example of modern soul, Complete & Unbelievable inspired Redding’s protégé Arthur Conley, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder – and paved the way for the new cosmic R&B. Although it was not his biggest-selling album (that accolade belonged to 1965’s Otis Blue), it enhanced Redding’s reputation to the extent that he was soon recognised as one of the greatest singers on the planet.
Redding’s appeal was also far reaching: white rock audiences revered his records (his appearance at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival was as pivotal as Hendrix’s) and the Rolling Stones and The Beatles frequently cited him as a hero. Paul McCartney was particularly impressed by Redding’s Day Tripper, and his future wife, Linda Eastman, photographed the singer playing acoustic guitar and pulling an Elvis Presley pose.
Redding was a native of Macon, Georgia, and one of the reasons why the Allman Brothers relocated there. They too were smitten by Complete & Unbelievable and played it non-stop while making their 1967 debut under the name The Hour Glass.
The rock and soul axis became the norm thereafter. Both the Grateful Dead and, later, the Black Crowes covered Redding’s 1968 hit Hard To Handle; he was name-checked by The Doors in Runnin’ Blue; Steely Dan called Otis ‘the king of soul’ on Hey Nineteen; Talking Heads borrowed Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song) for their new wave Stax-Volt homage Psycho Killer.
Redding was a force of nature, whose sheer presence shone throughout. The album’s producer, Jim Stewart, summed him up like so: “Otis was like a magic potion. When he walked in, the studio lit up and all the worries and problems just vanished. You knew something good was going to happen. He was totally creative. Everybody wanted to be there when Otis walked in. It was like magic.”