Goodbye...and thanks for all the sex
Otis Redding is the king of making sex with your woman music. Forget Barry White. Barry White's for, just exactly that...white people. White people who are so deadened from the waist down they need an inhumanly deep voice and porno music to get it on with their wives or girlfriends. No, man...the real shit is the true deep soul - Al Green, Marvin Gaye, maybe a little Curtis. And Otis Redding...oh yeah, the Georgian with the huge belting voice, the pleading, atomic love ballads - the one who stole the stage at Monterrey from both the Who and from Hendrix, reminding everyone that you can grow your hair to your knees and gobble acid tabs like Tic-tacs, and you still ain't gonna satisfy your woman or your achin' heart until you take in a little bit o' soul. Soul is deep, it's the mud, it's the humidity, and it's the heat of lovin', and never have I heard a singer capture pure, rough, uncut soul like Mr. Otis Redding. In his short career - just three years worth of album releases from 1964 until his death in late 1967 - the man created not just a dictionary, but an encyclopedia of soul music. He was one of the few of the major early soul singers to sing primarily his own songs, without relying on the house songwriting team or outside hired guns like so many of Motown's stars were required to do. His early career was marked by a preponderance of the sorts of pleading love ballads that make females melt into little frothy puddles of tears and other various bodily lubricants, but later on, as the gulf between the white and black audiences began to shrink he spun off into harder-rocking material ('Shake') and cheesy, goofball duets ('Tramp'). Just before the man was killed in a plane crash, he had begun to dip himself into deeper, more introspective themes that would mark the beginning of his maturity as a songwriter. This culminated in the 1968 hit '(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay', still one of the most hauntingly well-articulated songs about the fractionation of the late 60's ever written.
But Otis up and died, and we'll never know what internal walls he'd have busted through in the next few momentous years. Somebody could write the whole book and then a book report about his challenging field of endeavour in music. The simple fact that Otis was the showcase talent on the hugely influential but less 'safe' Stax label gave him the freedom to sing louder and more 'black' than he'd have ever been allowed to under the champagne-and-tuxedos guise of Motown, to play with a funkier, harder-rocking band (Booker T and the MG's, Stax Volt's top-line house band, also known for 'Green Onions' and backing up the Blues Brothers), and to play his own material. The MG's were also an integrated band, which for the time was still enough to make buttered grits boil right out of a racist redneck's ears. The truth is, and this is one of the most important thing about both Otis and a few other major black artists in the early 60's (James Brown, Wilson Pickett) - these guys never had to tone down their blackness in an attempt to cross over to a white audience, and as such retained a strong thread of honesty and truth in their music. It's uncut. Not watered down.. Pure soul.
I'd also like to extend a sincere thanks to Otis and Booker T. and the MG's for helping immensely in the gestation stages of my romance with my wife. Your Ultimate Otis Redding compilation, along with the second disc of Marvin Gaye's Anthology, were instrumental in getting my superhot future wife to forget the fact that she was making out in a malodorous, seedy, and poorly lit dormroom with a goofy ex-longhair with a CD fetish and tendency to drink himself into complete redundancy and, you know, fall in love and stuff. Though at the time I'd probably have thought Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation was a perfectly viable option in terms of seductive background music, I knew in my heart that only Otis and Marvin could make things right. Nowadays, ten years and two kids later, my wife is still hotter than a two-dollar revolver and Otis still sounds sweet as a Georgia peach. Anyway...thanks for all the great sex, boys.
Okay, right now I'll say it - all of Otis's albums, at least the ones released while he was still alive, and even a few of the ones directly following his death, are great, full-wheeling deeply warm greatness. If that's enough for you to stop right now and order at least three of his records, find a willing male or female counterpart with all the requisite appendages and orifices, and go to town with a bottle of chilled Riunite and a can of Crisco, then I've done my job and I can go home now. If not, or you're just one of those fools who likes what I blather out twice a week - here ya go - As a soul record, Pain In My Heart delivers spectacularly - the MG's are as woodily tight as ever, lying in a glorious balance halfway between a classy swing outfit and a gutbucket Chicago blues combo, and so effortless in their easy backbeat as to shame the bands that originally recorded most of these covers. Never has 'Stand By Me' been more stately or sweet as when Cropper begins to comp across the top of those well-worn Ben King chords, or has 'Louie Louie' sounded...so....goddamn soulful. I mean, the Kingsmen didn't even try for soulful when they tore the barn apart on their garagebucket version, but Booker T. and company somehow wring out the backbeat and come out with a sort of patchwork funk tradeoff on the classic riff. If anything, it's Otis who doesn't sound quite on when playing these covers - I'm not sure how happy he ever was playing some song made famous by a band of non-singing, non-swinging white punks (see his version of 'Satisfaction' for more on that tip), and it shows here. Oh, his 'Stand By Me' is breathtaking, but he sounds about as relaxed on 'Louie' as James Brown singing a Charmin toilet paper jingle. 'Lucille' is strong but meters a little high on the ol' over-familiarity gauge, and Rufus Thomas's 'The Dog' is nothing more than a Chubby Checker-y dance track, no doubt intended to make the gimmick-crazed dancers weaned on the 'Twist', the 'Swim' and the 'Mashed Potatoes' get down on the ground, sniff heartily around each other's sweaty asscracks, roll around in their own solid waste products, eat their own vomit, and finally go gang-fuck one of the bitches out on the front lawn of the Sock Hop. I have absolutely no doubt about this, and honestly cannot think of a better song to perform those activities to. I'm sure Little Richard has.
Otis, as all young black singers did in the early 60's, worshipped Sam Cooke and his silky trademark 'Oh-whoa-owa-whoa-whoa' joy-slides (later co-opted by Steve Perry, who cannot really be blamed for the theft because the poor man has a nose the size of a beer delivery truck and needed something to call attention away from it. I mean, he could just as easily taken up juggling while singing his leads, I guess, but he chose Cooke instead.). Redding would go on to cover several of his tracks, but 'You Send Me' was Cooke's biggest hit. This time, instead of half-contemptuously phoning in his performance, Redding walks on eggshells, as if he sang to his full passion he'd bust the song apart like Oprah Winfrey demolishing her pantry looking for her emergency box of Snackwell's. Otis would soon learn to use restraint as a very effective tool in his box of talents, but here he's just scared, apparently, to offend Mr. Cooke by tracking muddy footprints across his big hit song. Otis shouldn't be afraid of nobody, dig?
The originals and lesser-known covers are where the meat of this particular pastrami sandwich lies, and though Otis would soon be making these first efforts look anemic in the near future, these are still some manically great songs in here. As songs, in terms of chords and lyrics, 'These Arms of Mine', 'That's What My Heart Needs', and 'Hey Hey Baby' are elementary school - Cropper doesn't do anything more than pluck arpeggios, Booker pounds quiet eighth notes, and hell, they can't even figure out anything interesting to do with the Mar-Key horn section most of the time. But Otis makes these tracks something. More than just something - he makes them alive. 'These Arms of Mine', for example, simply thrives through the way he syncopates the line 'Come on...come on, baby, just be my little woman, just be my lover.' He doesn't care if he redlines the tape into distortion, or drops down to a whisper - it's a living, breathing performance. 'Security' points the way a little further into the future, as he sings a sort of thematic cousin of Lennon's 'Help' - he has 'all of these things', but lacks the basis that 'a little love' will give him. It was a rare soul belter in 1964 who would show the vulnerability that Otis shows here, and it wouldn't be the last time he did it. He performs similar magic on the other originals and obscurities, all great soul tracks of their own, making this a completely worthwhile album despite the fact that some of the covers are as poorly matched as a Mohawk on Montgomery Burns.
Capn's Final Word: Otis is, really, a monster talent, but it's not quite to the point where he could sing anything and make it his own.
The Great Otis
Redding Sings Soul Ballads
- Stax 1965
For a particular purpose, and I think everyone here of a certain age who is not a Mormon knows what that purpose is, this album is nearly nonparallel, and even though it still doesn't show off the true extent of Otis's. The title says it all - Otis is not singing soul dance songs. He is not singing soul shouters. And he is most definitely not singing Famous Goat Calls of the Highland Scots. He says right fucking there on the cover that he is going to be singing soul ballads, and then he goes and very goddamn well does it. He ballads his way through the hearts and crotches of any warmblooded woman within earshot, seducing the very walls of the studio around him. Otis's love man act is so effective, I wouldn't be surprised if Donald 'Duck' Dunn had needed to change his pants before the end of the day. Sure, they begin to shake it up slightly later on with some beatier tracks, culminating in the hopping signature 'Mr. Pitiful', but by that time the pants are off and you've ridden the slow, meaty crescendo of 'Your Love and Only Man' and the sleazzzzzy saxxxophone of the raunchy bedroom blues 'Nothing Can Change This Love' and the rest of these audial equivalents of satin sheets into the night. I mean, some albums are for partyin', some albums are for drinkin', and some albums are for drinkin' alone. This album's for lovin'. However...it's for lovin' by people who can respect just how solid the MG's play these slower tempos, and how Cropper's leads bounce back and forth between the rhythm section and the vocals on 'That's How Strong My Love Is', one of the most convincing of Redding's early tracks.
You know? There's really not much to say other than to repeat the title, since that's the most important part of the whole thing: The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads. Otis Redding is great, and this time around, depending on your point of view, he's either keeping it safe or he's sticking with his strengths. As for the first point, there's definitely no 'Louie Louie' teenybopper missteps here - in fact, this is most definitely not an album for hornball teenagers whatsoever. You wouldn't give a recovering alcoholic a bottle of Scotch for Christmas, you wouldn't give Billy Joel the keys to your car, and you sure as fuck wouldn't trust your 16-year old son with Otis Redding, a hot-to-trot flute player from the marching band, an empty house, and this album, you know? Otis isn't really shaking up the idea of the soul ballad any (most of these songs are fairly formulaic), and I guess in many contexts this album would sound pretty boring and repetitive, but for the service of making the sign of the two-humped buffalo on a rainy Saturday night, there are few elixirs more persuasive than an album like this one.
Capn's Final Word: Marvelous for the lovin' times. Maybe a little slow for when you bring out the 30-foot beer bong.
Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul
- Stax 1965
Partially an homage to the recently deceased Sam Cooke, partially a sideways nod to the short scruffy British guys who had begun to popularize his songs, and partially Otis beginning the process of thinking outside the strict definitions of soul music, Otis Blue is something of a different beast from either the somewhat unsure Pain in My Heart (oh how I wanted to write Pain in My Ass, but my respect for Otis just didn't let me) or the effective but strict The Great Otis Redding Sings the Panties Right Off Your Sexy Girlfriend (that one I just couldn't resist, mostly because that's exactly what he had in mind when he recorded it). Otis Blue, despite its smoky jazz club name, is a much more upbeat, funkier record than either of those. Oh yeah, he's still pledging his everlasting love even more sweatily than he ever did on tracks like 'You Don't Miss Your Water' or 'I've Been Loving You Too Long', and his version of 'Rock Me Baby' leers like an unmarried middle aged high school co-ed gym teacher. It's just that after the humpfest of Great Otis Redding, it's a little jarring to hear Otis singing about stuff like the civil rights movement (Cooke's masterful 'A Change Is Gonna Come', one of the most stately and dignified political anthems of the whole era) and exhorting people to 'Shake' it in a lively but not particularly brainy dance song. Still, in spite of and perhaps due to all the covers, Otis Blue feels a lot more like a 'real album' from the perspective of a rock listener than either of his first two, at least one who's well-versed in the Brit Invasion album formula of the day. Otis Blue SOUNDS like an important album, even though Otis's own contributions take a back seat to the covers a lot of the time. He takes the interesting but unnecessary step of covering the Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction' in a hornulific tent-revival version that bears more resemblance to the Ike and Tina chaos of 'Shake' than the hard blues of 'Rock Me Baby'. Hell, Otis even has to compete with a later version of his own song (Aretha's cover of 'Respect') that has become so prescient in our society that it almost seems like a second national anthem at times and, along with 'My Girl' (also covered here), one of the most overfamiliar soul songs of all time. Still, hearing Redding's mannish pound through a lockstep unfunky 'Respect' is quite a different effect than Aretha's gospel feminist roll, and is interesting for those who haven't ever heard it.
My favorite tracks on Blue are still the ones that I would call hardcore Otis soul, rather than the poppier takes, dance songs, and rock covers. 'Old Man Trouble' is about as deep as hoodoo blues ballads get, with Cropper's leads and the dextrous horns creating an almost religious experience. 'Down in the Valley' and 'Rock Me Baby' are delicious old school funk, and Cropper pulls off a surprising lead solo on the latter. The Cooke material is all absolutely fantastic (and a lot less hesitant than 'You Send Me' on Pain in My Heart), making clear how much Otis really loved and respected the man, but also that he'd grown enough to make these songs his own rather than simply borrowed from his idol. Plus, the two love ballads are simply two of Otis's best, despite one of them being covered by a lichen as deplorable as Mr. Michael Bolton (aka Michael Bolotin, aka Beelzebub, aka The Dark Prince, aka Destroyer of Worlds, Unmaker of Men, aka 'Pubehead') in one of those thinly veiled attempts by white people to commit psychological terrorism on black people that became so common in the early Nineties. I mean, hearing this walking radioactive spill smugly disgrace something as seemingly uncorruptable as 'I've Been Loving You Too Long' is enough to make a man swear off soul music for good and become a Riot Grrl fan. Luckily, Bolton has been vanquished to playing Shreveport casinos and high school auditoriums, and Otis Redding is a saint looking down upon us all, basking us in the glory of his classics.
As a weirdo pinko revolutionary, I'm not as satisfied by Otis Blue as I was by the last one, but as a critic and a rock fan I have to admit that most people ought to try something like this before they backflip headlong into a hardcore no-apologies soul album like Sings Soul Ballads. Otis was obviously refining himself in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, and if that meant including less of what, in my opinion, made him REALLY special, that's what had to happen. Otis was smart and talented enough to begin absorbing these new influences rather than simply reflecting them in cover versions, as his next few albums would show. Plus, the band has only gotten better, which now makes them simply scary good.
Capn's Final Word: The Otis album for everybody, even if that means less actual Otis.
This one probably should've been called Otis Blue. This is the bluesiest and most pleading of Redding's albums so far, another excellent, if slightly unexciting batch of the same patented soul that seems to come rolling down the mountain every Spring bringing with it hot lovin', sweet horn charts, and a mighty organic funk that cleanses the mind and frees the booty. Redding hit a roll following the breakthrough of Otis Blue, seemingly spouting out a new album of fantastic high-quality soul branded with his unique strengths every few months until his death in 1967, maintaining a constant presence on the charts and continuing to make inroads into the white audience base that hadn't really been too keen on a shouter as rough and powerful as him before. In terms of real growth, however, the astounding bounds and flying leaps Otis had taken from album to album up to this point began to calm down a bit. The Soul Album bases its appeal on the ease at which it rolls along - if you ever wanted to hear 'Old Man Trouble' expanded out to album length, this one's the way to go. If there was ever an effortless Otis Redding album, a man and band at the top of their respective games playing it out for fun and profit, it's this one. Soul Album takes fewer chances (or makes fewer compromises, depending on the angle of your dangle) than Blue did, but I feel like it stays very close to what a soul connoisseur really loves about Otis Redding - he sings like a titan and doesn't bet the farm playing teenybopper cover songs - rather, he relies on a swath of highly respectable, and not necessarily well-known soul covers to pad out the album.
Otis has never sounded quite this introspective before - on a track like Eddie Floyd's 'Everybody Makes A Mistake', his turmoil comes through in a spookily quiet reserve, not hysterical shrieks of pain like many less confident singers might pull out to chew on. And not just anyone could sing the line 'Sitting on my butt...waiting for her to come' and not burst out in tears of laughter. I guess there's a flipside to all this romantic singing business, eh? Heh heh. God, I'm a letch. Even the traditional 'my woman's gone' songs ('Just One More Day') seem more like odes to loneliness than horniness with no outlet. This one has few, if any bad tracks, which can't be said of Dictionary of Soul, and doesn't waste time with covers of tracks we're already way too familiar with, like Otis Blue. This, I suppose, is the thinking man's Sings Soul Ballads, or the true soul fan's Otis Blue, and could probably be considered his best-ever work with the inclusion of just one more clincher single. This one's got craploads of great album tracks, but no real ringer. The downside of this is that none of these songs ever end up on his compilations, but the upside is that unless you're a soul addict, you've never heard most of these before (with the exception of Sam Cooke's 'Chain Gang', which has been so radically altered you may not recognize it anyway, and 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out', which is rightfully a standard). Still, come on...it's the world's best soul singer at his peak ability. Singles be damned. As it is, let's call it solid, solid as a rock.
Capn's Final Word: Otis pauses in his ballistic rise to make damn sure everyone knows he's the unequalled King Brother of Soul, as if we needed the reminder.
The Otis Redding
Dictionary of Soul -
This is the first Otis Redding album that, as great as it is, really doesn't add too much spice to the man's gumbo. I wouldn't call it an entrenchment or anything - there's definitely no ground given up on this record - but instead of being an all-inclusive soulfood buffet of stylistic goodness as the title suggests, it's just some fairly standard restatements of his now familiar approach. After Otis Blue, which took some chances and, most of all, sounded important, and the watertight Soul Album, Dictionary of Soul seems a little flat and shallow in comparison. I've never been a superfan of the hit 'Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)' (you figure out if I have enough 'Fas' in there, I ain't gonna lose sleep over it if I don't), especially the somewhat contrived call-and-response part, more than a little ridiculous considering there's no audience to call and respond to. Plus, it doesn't really sound much like a sad song to me, not with the upbeat horn lines and all. It sounds more like Otis, even in his classic voice, is more bored than sad. For me, the feeling is infectious, and not in a good way. I guess 'reasonably dull song' wouldn't make much of a good parenthetical, though. Fillerish all the way, this shouldn't have been the opener, f'r sure.
The other major misstep is a completely bizarre go-go cover of 'Day Tripper' in which every note is so staccato it sounds like the record is skipping. While 'Satisfaction' was strong but unnecessary, this particular Brit Invasion cover, no doubt included to usurp some popularity, is embarrassing. Listen, Otis doesn't need to cover nobody, and this kind of pandering is really shameful to me. I mean, whose idea was this? Why this song? Man, do 'Yesterday' and blow the fucking doors off of it with your voice, not this stomping, no-melody grunt thing!
Otherwise, several of the dancey comp tracks sound like not-quite-there attempts at replicating a James Brown groove, and the ballads just don't pack quite the punch that they should. A song like 'Ton of Joy', by any measurable normal human being standard, is a great tune. Otis's voice and the snaptight backing band are undeniably talented and there's just no escaping that deep, soulful vibe that sticks to everything like Aunt Jemimas on a stack of Belgian waffles, but for Otis, so much of this album is forgettable. A groove is never really established, and some of the recordings even feel a little bit slapdash - a bum note here, a badly mixed overdub there. None of the offenses are so bad to spoil this egg salad, but it's just not as fresh as we've come to expect.
That said, 'Try a Little Tenderness' is a minor miracle, from the Dixieland funeral intro to the insistent high hat that pushes as far ahead of the beat as Otis lays back behind it, the gospel organ cries, the spewmatic crescendo, the sloppy panties, the window-pane rattling moans of pure female pleasure - this is probably one of Otis's best moments in terms of laying out the universal love anthems, making it, in turn, one of the best love songs ever recorded. Again, outside 'Day Tripper', there aren't any rotten moments here, so what the fuck do I know about partying or anything else? Alls I know is reading the Dictionary ain't as fun as getting down and blue with the sweet, sweet soul ballads.
Capn's Final Word: Perhaps the rushed pace has caught up with Otis slightly. Still magic, but the china has some chips.
Live in Europe
- Stax 1967
Otis, as a live performer, was frigging electrifying. He made 'soulsters' like Van Morrison or Eric Burdon look like schoolboys out after curfew, and had a voice that would make most Motowners hop back on the tour bus and hightail it back to D-town. Up on the stage, in full regalia on a hoppin' track with a fast beat, he heats it up until he sounds like a frigging revival preacher, up there exhorting the congregation to 'Shake' it for the Lord, healing all the women's lovin' ills and bringing the goodness of soul to everyone in the audience. I'm sure for many of these people it was a religious experience to hear this kind of performer, backed by his best band, in a place where Dave Clark was considered acceptably soulful. Bullshit. Damn near everyone else, black or white, is simply an amateur next to Otis. The man is able to whip a crowd like no one in soul outside of James Brown. And though Otis (with the MG's) and James (with the JB's) (though getting in your MG after some J&B might just land yer ass in the ICU) both had bands of gargantuan talent levels, Brown mesmerized his audience with the unbelievable tightness of his band on some jarringly complex charts, Otis takes the bastard by the tail with just his own Big Brown Voice which makes up for in power what it lacks in versatility or subtlety. Live in Europe is an amazing performance, but as a concert it's kinda predictable. Line up any half dozen of the multitude of cheapo 10-song Otis Redding hits collections next to Live in Europe and you can just about guaran-fucking-tee yourself an 80% overlap rate. 'Try a Little Tenderness', 'Shake', 'Respect', 'Satisfaction'...blah blah blah...it's all about as shocking as a rejected episode of Matlock. If you've heard the albums, you coulda picked this setlist with both eyes closed, a pair of spider monkeys mating on your head, and a half dozen Xanaxes in your gut. The only two 'surprises' are 'My Girl' (which I pretty much lump in with 'Happy Birthday' and the Pledge of Allegiance in terms of rote overfamiliarity) and a much improved, though still repulsive 'Day Tripper', complete with a poorly placed 'Tenderness'/'Shake' style orgasm raveup section. Some of the songs are a tad ragged, with some clunky endings or cracked trumpet notes, and Otis sounds a bit more husky and phlegmy than he probably should, but considering how demanding these songs are (hitting upper-octave stabs on the trumpet like that all night long is an absolute killer, of which I speak from swollen-lip fish-face experience from high school jazz ensemble), and how cheerleader-tight most of the charts are, I have no problem with the berks that are here. It proves they're human beings working up a literal sweat up there, and that things could, in fact, train wreck into oblivion at any time. Of course they don't, but in this age of total software emulation and built-in 'humanization parameters' (i.e., an automated 'fuck up' algorithm), hearing a band play without a net (and apparently, without many overdubs) is still exhilarating.
The concerts from which Live in Europe was culled had an atomic blast effect on the music scene at the time. I know Rod Stewart, at least, remembers the London concert as being one of the turning points in his life (at least right up there with the times he discovered the hair dryer, snorted his first line of coke, and train-sucked that entire 20-man Scottish football team). I mean, before tours like Otis's, Brits had to take their soul music how they could get it - through rare, imported records and slapped-together 10-minutes-per-act Motown package tours that came around about as often as Strom Thurmond at the Black Panther Headquarters. They couldn't just stop off in Chicago or Memphis and catch Muddy Waters or B.B. King working out a Friday night gig. Otis came light a combination ray of light and haymaker right - he taught what stage presence was really about.
Capn's Final Word: Not the most thrilling of setlists, and maybe not the tightest of performances, but a so-so night for Otis Redding and the MG's is a career night for almost anyone else.
Dock of the
Otis's first release as a dead man (but not his last...no, with dead rock stars, the first posthumous release is never his last), Dock was, in a sad and sick turn of events only really equaled in perversion by Watergate and the introduction of Pepsi Clear (and Janis Joplin's career) as it finally gave Otis the crossover smash hit he'd been looking for ever since Otis Blue, only he was not alive enough to enjoy it. This one, like the rest of his albums from here on out, was compiled by guitarist Steve Cropper out of the seemingly bottomless pit of unused vault recordings Otis had stored up during his lifetime. These records are, for the most part, surprisingly strong, especially when you figure that Otis's outtakes beat most people's best work like a redneck on a Mexican migrant farmer. The recording quality is just as good as any of his other releases, and these are full-fledged songs, not the sketchy scratch-vocal-and-no-overdubs slop that most people release after they've croaked. I suppose, considering Stax's biggest star had just been lost, the MG's had nothing to do except for sit around and re-record backing tracks for old Redding vocals, so the vintage character of these releases may be questionable, but I don't give a living fuck. You can keep your historical accuracy as long as I get to keep digging up greatness like the eight new songs on this album.
Dock of the Bay is part compilation ('Tramp', 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out', and 'Old Man Trouble' are all repeated from previous releases, somewhat inexplicably considering the quantity of great Otis material still waiting in the can) and partly what sounds like the majority of an uncompleted followup to Dictionary of Soul, one that shows Otis breaking into a more sedate, more subtle form of songwriting that, in retrospect, feels pretty much inevitable. Theres only so many times you can winkingly promise your great big throbbing black love to a girl until youre going to find yourself broke-dick depressed on a bayfront somewhere wishing you were dead. But if theres someone that can make finding yourself at a point of no return feel like redemption, its Otis on his biggest, and best hit Dock of the Bay, a tune thats as gorgeous as it is downtrodden as the MGs play quick hits of oceanic light funk behind one of the most spare lead vocals in memory. If theres going to be one song that defines a talent as great as Otis Reddings, Im happy its this one. I mean, sheeit people coulda just as easily have fallen for Shake or something dumb like that.
Do I need to go ahead and tell you how great the other tracks are? Hed only really top this string of originals on the even-more-inexplicable miraculous Immortal Otis Redding. The understated brilliance of Dock of the Bay carries on through the series of complex ballads and soul-funk numbers that clean up the rest of the originals. He seems to have learned some gospel by way of Aretha on the gently orchestrated heart attack ballad I Love You More than Words Can Say, and digs into a sort of Credence-style soul funk on Let Me Come On Home. But all the songs are well they sound like someones beaten the crap out of Otiss ego. Simply by the fact of never oversinging when he may have previously blasted us out of the Barcalounger with some of his pyrotechnics, he makes these tracks hit even harder than they otherwise would have. Open The Door, Dont Mess With Cupid, and the heartstopping Glory of Love all follow this same sort of busted sense of beauty by way of a mannered vocal performance. Only the awful Hucklebuck and a stinking confusion of hearing Tramp in such a criminally misguided setting bring this album down from being as solid as an aerobics instructors inner thighs and nearly as sweet. In terms of real consistency of feel, hes still never topped Sings Soul Ballads, but as for statements that feel every bit genuine, its hard to top this one.
Capn's Final Word: Otis learns salvation through understatement. I cant emphasize that enough.
In Person at the Whisky-a-Go-Go - Stax 1968
Lawdy lawdy. If Live in Europe often had the feel of being 'merely' a good Otis Redding concert, what with the uninteresting tick-tock setlist and somewhat desultory atmosphere, Whisky-a-Go-Go is an absolute ballbuster of redemption by means of sweaty soul meltdown. Not only is this recording one of the most vibrant, put-you-in-the-middle-of-the-stage mixes I've ever heard, the performances on this album are so manic, so tight, and so revelatory that I can't see this as anything less than one of the best live albums I've ever heard. Unlike a lot of performers for whom the road can turn into a rote grind, Otis was able to make any performance an event, and in listening to this album in locations as varied and uninspiring as my office at work and on headphones while washing the wife's car, and I never failed to get a 50,000 volt charge from the motherfucker. The band, Otiss own touring group rather than the more polished but less risk-taking MGs, bears more resemblance to a sort of garage-punk Famous Flames than the well-mannered Stax house band that was featured on Europe. These guys played fast and loud, especially the superhuman horn section, and with all this energy crackling through the atmosphere like Rice Krispies in Sandra Day OConnors Underalls, Otis is swept along to some blistery highs. One doesnt need to tell the man twice, as he barrels through I Cant Turn You Loose, shouting out soul! like hes receiving some sort of spirit download from the Deity himself. But though it starts and returns periodically to the same sort of manic raving up, Otis can also keep the females simmering with some raw and alive versions of classic turn-ons like Pain In My Heart, Just One More Day, and These Arms of Mine. In contrast to the superbly professional MGs, Otiss band is looser and more elastic. If the MGs hang behind the beat, they do it with a spot-on precision that is soul-metronomic. When Otiss band plays, its like the walls are breathing. Tempos are more suggestions than scripture, but the band never strays from itself (or Otis, for that matter). And let me suggest that not only is Otiss band better suited to cover Satisfaction (that horn section knows how to get nasty, nastier than a marathoners panty liner, a damn sight better than the other guys), the MGs would also be dreadfully unsuited to cover James Browns Papas Got A Brand New Bag. Hell, I like the way-back yonder backbeat on this version better than James himself. Otis stabs at the lyrics with a nearly violent sting on that tune, but then backs off to a completely different tack altogether on a proud, confident Respect to close things off.
Man, this album does it to me and does it good. Not only is the performance one for the ages, the mix puts you smack dab in the midst of all this sweat and blood and glorious, glorious soul. Its been some time since Ive heard an artist captured like this on something as lowly as a cheapo posthumous live album.
Capn's Final Word: With Otis and his no-name personal band dropping bombs like this, it makes we think maybe the MGs shoulda stayed back in the studio more often. This isnt a master plying his craft or any of that pretentious nonsense. This is Otis having the time of his life.
Immortal Otis Redding
Take Dock of the Bay, remove the sweet little blues song in Number One smash disguise, and replace all the old rehashes and ridiculous dance songs with more excellent new/old stuff culled from the Stax vaults, stuff thats just as deep and devastating as anything youve yet heard from Otis Redding, and youve got the inexplicable greatness of Immortal Otis Redding. Immortal is goddamn right this guy made as many classics after he died than he did when he was up and walking around and beating the women away from his dressing room with a stick. The man mines much of the same heartbroken territory he did on Dock, but hes never been quite as devastating as he is on the opening Dreams to Remember, featuring the gutpunch couplet you said he was just a friend/but I saw him kiss you again and again. As slight and vulgar as that might sound typed out on the page in black and white (or, well, silvery-grey, anyway), hearing Otis come around to it again and again belies the fact that the man knows what its like to have his love torn from his chest like that priest in Indiana Jones and the One Where They Eat the Monkey Brains and Walk On A Bunch of Crunchy Bugs Because Steven Spielberg Was Going Through A Spate of Infantilism. The song moves seamlessly into Think About It, where the immediate pain moves into that macho space of hey bitch! Remember how good I was to you?, where you get all blustery and self-delusional about your abilities as a man, which is really just a defense mechanism to keep you from quivering in the foetal position like a lukewarm lime Jell-o mold for too long. So does the snap-change into the marvelously syrupy funkstep beat about 40 seconds before the end, which once again segues into the next song, a similarly beaty, meaty You Made A Man Out Of Me, wherein thus endeth the breakup depression. Man is just too upbeat for me to continue this segue charade any further. Still, it struck me hard how the first three tracks on this album mesh together as well as they do. And its not like they flow together because theyre predictable, run-of-the-mill filler hell no. You expect that beat to come flying into Think About It like it does? The fuck you did. I expected that like I expect a squirrel monkey to come springing out of my Special K box on Sunday morning.
Damn, this album is amazing, even by Otiss standards. A Waste of Time is just as sexy and liberating as anything on Sings Soul Ballads (he asks what a new lovers name is, then decides against wasting the time taken to learn it now thats some hot bubblin cauldron of buttery love, huh?). Nobodys Fault But Mine, later ever-so-slightly ripped off by Led Zeppelin (the breakdown before the chorus yup, even a smack-ass junkie like Jimmy Page 76 could figure out that was a good think to swipe) is Sly Stand! funky, and rolls heavy and confident like a Kenworth semi. Hell, at first I thought Champagne and Wine might actually be the first lesser track on this record until I realized it was one of the most charming, itself a slight Curtis Mayfield rip (perhaps thats why it was never released), but if Curtis was the conscience of the soul movement, Otis was the heart, and he makes this into an extremely resilient representation of ongoing love.
Hard to Handle? Hell, it helped my stupid soul/folk outfit win the talent show at my high school senior year (not to mention a hundred bucks, which I probably promptly spent on CDs and a stupid date with my jealous then-girlfriend, who probably would rather have me not have a decent band before she did), and thats because its one of the most freaking wild-ass come ons in the history of rock music. Throwin it on ya? Drug store lovin? Great experence? Hells, yeah. We aint talking about a stolen kiss at the barn dance, yunderstand. Wes talking bout fucking torn waistbands, fumbled-keys, sweaty-ass, headboard-thumping good sex, and Otis delivers on the promise. As much as I respect the Black Crowes for doing a highly respectable Stones-y cover of the tune, aint nobody could get the eternal sex of the song across like Otis could.
The album ends on a more sedate but just as genuinely brilliant string of songs. Thousand Miles Away stings hard, as my own wife and kids are away in Russia and Im stuck in whats gone from a slightly cramped, noisy kid-dominated house to a cavernous, cold den of loneliness. Again, I feel like Otis knows what it feels like, and is able to get that feeling across in case youve either forgotten or somehow have never been so far away from your lover as to feel like they may, in fact, really not exist anymore except in your imagination. As much as Hard to Handle gets across that lusting swagger of a man who knows hes gonna make this girl sooner rather than later, Thousand Miles Away strikes its own target between the eyes.
Finally, Id like to give a lot of respect to Amen, the old spiritual This Little Light given a sort of how-to arrangement thats as perfect as it is simple. Otis never really struck me as someone who needed a lot of church (he seems to have been filled with so much soul and understanding as to be as close to being a preacher as a heretofore strictly secular singer can be), but he can bring that feeling down with effortless economy. Oh, and The Happy Song is just that. Listen on a sunny day after a beer and a spontaneous smile from a pretty example of the opposite sex and the effect is squared. Trust me.
Capn's Final Word: Alright, I feel Im square with Cropper by giving this album a pure, heartfelt perfect grade. I forgive him for expecting to score this kind of home run three times in a row, even if Im not so hot on him trying (and failing) twice to do it.
A rather weak B+ that is, for sure, but I continue to be impressed by the amount of great material Steve Cropper and the boys have been able to milk out of their leftover tapes, fed to the public to satisfy the oddly unquenchable demand for new Otis Redding product. Each of the last two post-mortems scored chart hits (though Immortal Otis Redding hit better on the R&B charts than on the skuzzy pop one), and the boys at Stax reached back in and mixed 12 more 1967-era unheard-of semi-winners that wouldn't have sounded out of place on one of his other releases in any way. This time around, though, there's way more dancey, goofy pelviswiggle material than that deepdown body soul that gave Dock of the Bay and Immortal such peanut buttery smooth feel to 'em. Cropper also put a whole lot less thought into trying to put together any sort of lyrical or thematic thread on these tracks like he did with the jaw-dropping opening sequence to Immortal. Of course, by now he's got a lot less to work with, so instead of ballad into ballad that accelerates into strong funk into strong funk, he's got sloppy gospel ('I'm A Changed Man') into sloppy groove ('Groovin' Time') into wildly upbeat go-go tune (a cover of Jackie Wilson's 'Higher and Higher'). From here the jarring sequencing continues on all the way to the end. The main effect of all this is that no mood is ever able to establish itself. It's like trying to make love listening to the radio. First there's a nice sweaty ballad, then there's some fucktard screeching about how he's a 'Dollar Menu Guy', then there's the weather report, then the DJ talks for five minutes in a voice fit to make speedfreaks yawn, then there's maybe another nice ballad. Love Man simply loses out where so many of Otis's other records score - it feels like a lower quality release simply because it never really establishes itself as anything. It's just a bunch of pretty good songs, but I wouldn't fuck to it.
Man, coming out here claiming that this stuff is weak is like arguing which afternoon talk show host you'd least hate to be locked overnight in a stuck elevator with. Again, it's all relative - Otis is still in excellent voice, his band is as flat-out brilliant as ever, and there's songs on here that definitely deserved to be chart hits (the 'Soul Man'-sounding 'That's a Good Idea' was criminally forgotten, and 'Direct Me' might've been a monster of a live track). But a lot of it does feel like maybe the last decent peach in the basket, and at any time you might start to hear the scratch vocal tracks, missed notes, and skeletal arrangements that usually mark vault material. It never quite happens, but a general feel of second ratedness doesn't help me want to choose Love Man over either of it's two monumental predecessors.
Capn's Final Word: Looking more and more like a collection of leftovers, but leftovers prepared by the best chef in town. The vault finally gets thin here.
Okay. Jesus. This man was a massive talent, and was frighteningly consistent, and considering he's already released a boxed-set's worth of reasonably high quality leftovers from a career that lasted about four years all told, this is far better than what any reasonable Sam Donaldson could expect. Still, though, there's only so much a dead man can do, and the law of diminishing returns is working here with an increasing vengeance. If Dock of the Bay was probably a mostly finished product rushed out to release with single filler, Immortal Otis Redding representing the very best of the rest, and Love Man the middling tunes, Tell the Truth would be considered roadfill even under the best of circumstances. The arrangements on this one can still be viewed as worthy of a final product, but the songs themselves are frequently as simplistic and underdeveloped as George Bush's Philosophy 101 final. And the lack of chemistry that was first notable on Love Man is now a striking dullness of tone. Love Man was disappointing because it jarred you all over the bench seat, flying from gospel to jump tracks to ballads with no rhyme and little reason. Tell the Truth just finds its measly little mid-tempo rut and stays there. If you've heard the title track, you can predict how 75% of the rest of the album is going to go. These feel like the songs that Otis came into the studio with just to throw down to see if they'd kick anyone in the pants of not, given a quick rehearsal and an even quicker recording take, and then forgotten. Little development or interest is apparent on the part of the players (who oftentimes sound like they're sightreading everything off charts, especially on the galling version of 'Out of Sight' they fumble through here), and the only thing that saves the situation is their absolute professionalism. Otis always sounds good, even when he's putting down what sounds like a first take vocal, and the rhythm section is always at least somewhere in the general vicinity of keeping the tempo locked on and funky. But this has to be the last Otis material you attempt to track down, and even then make damn sure you really want to spend money on more marginally decent outtake material. I mean, how addicted to a man's voice can you be? Besides Pat O'Brien's coked up panting, anyway.
Capn's Final Word: For a long while, the last dregs of the vault. Sure, it's better than 75% of the soul music released in the 1970's, but it's the worst thing under the Otis name.
It looks like nobody remembered this bizarrely late-coming set of even more vault scrapings, because I can't find a copy of this that fits into the ol' Family Truckster budget. Keep in touch, yo. But not that close. I don't like the pressure.