Eight years ago, Justin Timberlake massacred an Otis Redding song at The White House. I remember well how Mr President sat with such a pained expression as this two-bit popstar desecrated the music of America’s greatest soul singer, with the PBS special broadcast live for all the world to weep in synchrony. For those whose first experience of Redding was JT’s act of heresy, I hope that the following remarks and a rigorous listening of Otis Blue will go some way in altering your perception of one of Planet Earth’s most remarkable musicians.
Born in ’41, Redding’s natural musical aptitude was apparent from a young age, singing for the Vineville Baptist Church choir as a child and taking instrument lessons during his pre-pubescence. Familial illness forced Redding into breadwinning and the young Otis earned his keep by performing live-to-track songs at the local WIBB radio station (all of $6 a session), taking as his gospel the works of Little Richard & Sam Cooke. At age 15, Otis was enraptured by the performances of local Macon pianist Gladys Williams and, alongside his friend (and criminally neglected soul singer) Little Willie Jones, Redding became a regular attendee and participant at William’s Sunday concerts at the local social club. Redding’s victory at Georgian disk jockey Hamp Swain’s talent contest ‘The Teenage Party’ in ’58 resulted in his invitation to replace Willie Jones as Pat T. Cake and the Mighty Panthers’ frontman. Whilst Redding’s relocation to Los Angeles rendered this episode relatively brief, the near constant touring ignited label interest, with Otis signing a solo contract with Confederate Records in ’61. In early ’62, Confederate’s Phil Walden sold the contract to Joe Galkin of Atlantic Records (the distribution arm of the inimitable Stax) and Redding’s first charted single ‘These Arms of Mine’ (released in October ’62) was recorded in Memphis with Southern Soul resident’s Booker T. and the M.G.’s. Redding’s debut LP, Pain in My Heart, was released in March ’64 to positive critical reception, and his sophomore offering The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads included the Billboard 100 singles ‘Chained and Bound’ and ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’. Now established as one of the United States’ R&B lynchpins, Redding and his studio band began arranging songs for a new album and in the span of 24 hours (July 9-10 ’65) at Stax Recording Studio in Memphis, Otis Blue was cut.
Down drops the needle and the LP crackles to life. I’ve often argued that the manipulation of silence is the most salient feature of great popular music, and the brief exhibition of Redding’s sole penmanship at the beginning of Side A stands testament to ‘Weinstein’s dictum’. The introspective lyricism of ‘Ole Man Soul’ is suitably complemented by drummer Al Jackson Jr.’s spacious beat & the crisp staccatos of Steve Cropper, with The Hudson Horns providing a necessary melodic counterpoint to Redding’s pained timbre. But typical of contemporary LPs, covers dominate the menu; all cooked in country-fried sonics & served with healthy dashes of funk relish. Featured songwriters include The Glimmer Twins (‘Satisfaction’), The King of Blues (‘Rock Me Baby’) & Redding’s childhood hero Cooke (‘Shake’). Whilst Aretha Franklin’s reinterpretation of ‘Respect’ & Redding’s rendition of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ rendered his music one of the cultural cornerstones of the civil rights movement, sexual frustration is the conceptual bedrock of the LP. One need only briefly consider the effect of mid-twentieth century morality on southern adolescents’ libidos to understand the pertinence of Redding’s leitmotif to a generation of Dixie youth. And thus, for the modern listener, the album acts as a time capsule of sorts; a means through which cultural history can be understood and sculpted in the public imagination. Thanks in large part to the work of Shirli Gilbert, music has begun to be recognised as an illuminator of socio-cultural history & one can only hope that Otis Blue (alongside other contemporary records) will feature in future analyses of American counterculture.
In terms of production, the LP nears perfection and, as is so often the case in music, a happy accident is responsible. After relocating the Stax setup to Memphis’ Capitol Theatre in ’59, record executive and producer Jim Stewart had no remaining funds to level the floor of the new studio or control room. When it came to recording, Capitol’s uneven topography was found to be a surprisingly helpful aid in capturing the viscerality of Stax artists, and Otis Blue is no different. Play the mono version of the record on half-decent high-fidelity equipment (it must be the mono version, and it must be a record) and one feels like Otis, Booker T. and the resident musicians of Stax are but a touch away. No doubt this rawness is aided by the lean 24 hours allocated to the musicians to record the LP; a palpable sense of determination adds a frenetic, almost punk-like je ne sais quoi to the collective body of songs. In fact, Otis Blue is not a facsimile of a live performance; it is a performance in and of itself, embracing and retaining all the idiosyncrasies and quirks of a gig (something which the digital world of comping & endless overdubs has sadly eliminated).
Upon its release, Otis Blue attracted substantial praise, with critics lauding Redding’s unique synthesis of authentic soul with mainstream pop. With the LP and its three singles all charting highly in the US and UK, Redding’s newfound global fame led to tours in-and-around Europe, as well as a legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June ’67. Redding continued his prodigious studio output, with three further albums released after Otis Blue (all through the Stax subsidiary Volt). And then, at the height of Redding’s fame, tragedy struck; on 10 December ’67, Redding and all-but-one of his touring band The Bar Keys died in a horrific plane crash in Lake Monona, Wisconsin. Devastating, of course, but this was not the end for Redding; his single ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ (released 8 January ’68) became the first ever posthumous chart topper in the US, whilst the accompanying LP The Dock of the Bay topped the UK charts. Testament, perhaps, to the transcendental nature of Redding’s music.
Usually, I find cover records feeble endeavours; how can a singer or band understand the true nature of a song if they have not penned it? Doubtless Otis would disagree, and he would certainly be in possession of substantial evidence to support his assertions and convince the naysayers (of whom I was one before hearing this quite extraordinary LP). What excites me about Otis Blue is that this herculean exercise in musical recycling substantially improves the sonic aesthetic of already legitimate pop songs. ‘Satisfaction’ is consistently ranked one of the greatest tunes of all time, but to me, Redding’s version knocks spots off the Stones’ original; more rambunctious and sexier, with a superior instrumental arrangement to boot. But it is the LP as a composite whole which really astounds. To take a collection of covered compositions and repackage them in a completely fresh identity stands testament not only to Redding’s ability but to the entire Stax operation; resident musicians, executives and all. It is hard to imagine a culture of such musical innovation occurring in the present day, but I maintain cautious optimism going forward.
The ‘27 Club’ includes many musicians, artists and cultural icons who all departed this mortal realm too young. Otis Redding was 26 when Minerva’s owl took wing – a different age to the rest but in no way less seminal. As ever, listen to the record and make up your own mind. Famously, Redding once said “always think different from the next person”, but I hope that you, reader, and I, agree in all matters Otis Blue.
Dedicated to MH – my compadre in all matters musical and as great a fan of this record as I.
Otis Blue was recorded in July 1965 at Stax Recording Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, United States. Released 15 September 1965 on Volt Records in the United States and Atlantic Records in the United Kingdom.
Track Choice – ‘Satisfaction’
Word Choice – “Shake it like a bowl of soup; And make your body loop de loop; Put your hands on your hips; And kinda let your backbone slip; Move your body like a whip; And just shake!”.