Buyer's Guide: Otis Redding

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Just 26, when he died in 1967, Otis Redding packed a lifetime of work into just seven years of recording, and five at Stax, which resulted in a series of unimpeachable singles and albums that, steeped in gospel fervour and grits and groove, came to define the label’s sound and Memphis soul itself with 45s Mr Pitiful, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, My Girl, Try A Little Tenderness, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay and albums Otis Blue, Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul and Pain In My Heart.

Raised in Macon, Alabama, Redding’s first stabs at recording cast him as a Little Richard wannabe, although he was equally influenced by Sam Cooke – Otis Blue sees him make three of Cooke’s songs his own.

He arrived at Stax in 1962 by chance, having driven singer and bandleader Johnny Jenkins to the studio for a session – Redding was in Jenkins’ band. When it ended early, Redding sang These Arms Of Mine, a plaintive ballad he had written himself. Stax co-founder Jim Stewart was impressed, signed him and released These Arms Of Mine; it hit the US R&B No.20 – selling 800,000 copies – and was the first of 21 US R&B Top 30 hits for him in his lifetime.

Redding was equally impressive on stage. Working himself into a real sweat, he wowed audiences through Europe on the 1967 Stax Volt tour, and thrilled at the Monterey Pop Festival, where he took soul music to a white audience. Prior to the show he wrote with and produced Arthur Conley, which resulted in Sweet Soul Music, a US No.2 pop hit for Conley. Just after the festival, he wrote (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay with Steve Cropper, which was inspired by The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and looked set to take both Otis and soul music into a new direction. Tragically, he died in a plane crash on December 10, ’67 before the song was issued. When it was, in January 1968, it became his first and only No.1.

ESSENTIAL – The perfect introduction

Otis Blue
The stunning blueprint for southern soul.

Recorded at Stax Recording Studios over a 24-hour period with a six-hour gap to allow the musicians involved to play scheduled gigs, Otis plus engineer Tom Dowd, Booker T And The MGs, Isaac Hayes and The Mar-Keys horn section recorded Redding’s third album. A genuine, stone cold soul classic, Otis Blue captures the singer at his most accomplished and assured, begging, pleading and effusing the album’s impeccable 11 songs as if his very life depended on it.

Redding wrote three of those songs – the poignant Ole Man Trouble, a Paul Robeson styled spiritual blues; Respect, the relationship narrative that became a feminist anthem in Aretha’s hands; the masterful _I’ve Been Loving You _Too Long, which, co-written with Jerry Butler, features one of Redding’s most emotionally stirring vocal performances, the epitome of heartbreak soul.

The remainder is made up of covers; Redding paying tribute to his mentor Sam Cooke with sublime readings of _Change _Is Gonna Come, Shake and Wonderful World. Each one cast in his own image, and as such it marks the moment the pupil becomes teacher.

The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, meanwhile, becomes heart- palpitating rock’n’soul – Otis heard the song for the first time when Steve Cropper suggested he cover it at the session. The Temptations’ My Girl is soaked in deep blues – when issued in the UK as a single it hit No.11. Solomon Burke’s Down In The Valley and William Bell’s You Don’t Miss Your Water are taken to the river.

Issued in 1965, Otis Blue became Redding’s first album to hit the US R&B No.1 spot and the only one to do so in his lifetime; it also peaked at No.6 in the UK charts.

A deluxe edition was reissued in 2008 by Rhino; a double disc, it features both the mono and stereo versions of the album plus previously unissued alternate takes, single B-sides and live cuts.

SUPERIOR – The releases that built his reputation

Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul
Otis rewrites the standards.

His 1966 fifth and final solo studio album is ace from start to finish. Boundaries are pushed with covers of The Beatles’ Day Tripper and Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart’s Tennessee Waltz. Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song) and Try A Little Tenderness provide the hit singles. The latter, a Bing Crosby standard, becomes a masterclass in slow-burning intensity. Redding also brings the house down with the rock’n’soul of Love Have Mercy.

Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding
Mapping his entire career.

This superb four-disc selection of studio and live tracks spans his entire career from pre-Stax material for the Transworld, Alshire and Confederate labels through the defining hits (Respect, Hard To Handle), essential album tracks (Cigarettes And Coffee, I Love You More Than Words Can Say). The final disc cherry-picks live performances from the Apollo in ’63, Whiskey A Go Go in ’66, London and Paris in ’67 and the same year’s Monterey International Pop Festival. The only quibble: no studio version of My Girl.

Live On The Sunset Strip
Otis in a live setting.

Otis secured a residency at West Hollywood’s Whisky A Go Go in April 1966. Performances culled from the four shows have previously turned up on 1968’s In Person, 1982’s Recorded Live plus the latter’s extended repackaging as 1993’s Good To Me. What we have here, though, are three sets in their entirety. Redding’s 10-piece touring band rip it up and the excitable singer thrills with what now reads like a greatest hits; These Arms Of Mine, Satisfaction, I Can’t Turn You Loose, Respect, Mr Pitiful and a cover of Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.

GOOD – Worth a buther’s

Pain In My Heart
Otis arrives fully formed.

Redding’s 1964 debut album for Stax introduced a singular talent, one who had already hit his creative stride. As a singer on Pain In My Heart, a reconfiguring of Irma Thomas’ Ruler Of My Heart, he’s a balladeer with an aching, pleading delivery that throbs with grief and emotion. As a writer with 1962’s These Arms Of Mine and 1964 single Security he’s composing future soul classics. With tight backing from the Stax in-house band Booker T And The MGs plus a horn section, Pain In My Heart is quintessential Stax soul.

King & Queen
Boy meets girl: the perfect duet album.

Patterned on Marvin Gaye’s duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell at Motown, 1967’s King & Queen was the brainchild of Stax founder Jim Stewart. It captures Redding and Stax labelmate Carla Thomas on a series of covers including Knock On Wood and When Something Is Wrong With My Baby. The high point is their push- and-pull take on Lowell Fulson’s Tramp, where pitted against one another in a relationship battle, Redding and Thomas fizz as raw energy fuses with uptown sophistication.

AVOID – Like the plague

The Covers
Various Artists

Between 1960 when he began his recording career and 1967 when he died, Otis Redding never put a foot wrong. Others most certainly have, however, when covering the singer’s songs. Florence & The Machine completely wrecked Try A Little Tenderness in 2012; Harpers Bizarre ruined Hard To Handle in 1969; Sammy Hagar of Van Halen inexcusably massacred (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay in 1979, and nine years later Michael Bolton added insult to injury with his own horrific and vastly unloved version of the song.

ESSENTIAL PLAYLIST

Pain In My Heart (Pain In My Heart)
These Arms Of Mine (Pain In My Heart)
Security (Pain In My Heart)
That’s How Strong My Love Is (The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads)
Mr Pitiful (The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads)
Respect (Otis Blue)
A Change Is Gonna Come (Otis Blue)
I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (Otis Blue)
Rock Me Baby (Otis Blue)
Satisfaction (Otis Blue)
Shake (Otis Blue)
Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song) (The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul)
My Lover’s Prayer (The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul)
Try A Little Tenderness (The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul)
Tramp (King & Queen)
Hard To Handle (The Immortal Otis Redding)
(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay (The Dock Of The Bay)