Classic Music Review: The Very Best of Otis Redding, Volume 1

2012-7-30-otis_redding_best_of_album_cover

After two months of reviewing broads, I needed a man. A real man. A submissive man.

Otis Redding was my kind of man.

Otis Redding never went in for machismo like most guys. His songs consistently demonstrated the desire to serve women and make them happy. What a wonderful orientation to life! All he wanted was a little respect, and I can appreciate that. While guys who ridiculously strut their belief in the ludicrous myth of male superiority are near the bottom of my possible fuck list, the guy in last place is one who hires a professional dominatrix who makes him clean the toilet with his tongue. Yuck! I loathe wimps of either gender, especially the ones who crave debasement. I want devotion, not subjugation, and a submissive who lacks the self-respect gene is worthless (which I suppose is what they want to feel in the first place). Otis Redding had self-respect and respect for women: perfect internal chemistry.

Alas, I have to put the issue of sexual compatibility aside and will give Otis no credit for what I perceive to be his innate erotic tendencies. This is a music blog, and I can only judge a man for what he brings to the studio or the stage, not into the boudoir.

On that score, Otis Redding is off the charts. In addition to his obvious gift in interpreting tender ballads, what I notice most about Otis Redding’s music is that he rocked harder than any soul singer I know, a direct result of adopting Little Richard as his role model in this teens. That ability to drive a song comes through in everything he does, giving depth to ballads that another vocalist would turn into the aural manifestation of cotton candy and a texture of soul-level grittiness. Whether he was interpreting another composer’s work or singing his own superb material, he always approached a song with full commitment and subtextual understanding. At the time of his death, he was beginning to explore other musical forms and influences, and one can only dream what he would have achieved had he lived just a little while longer. He also shared one of my most fervent beliefs concerning music, that there is magic in the minimal:

Basically, I like any music that remains simple and I feel this is the formula that makes ‘soul music’ successful. When any music form becomes cluttered and/or complicated you lose the average listener’s ear. There is nothing more beautiful than a simple blues tune. There is beauty in simplicity whether you are talking about architecture, art or music. (“The Flame That Died,” Peter Labrie, Negro Digest, April 1968).

The album most people associate with Otis Redding is Otis Blue, which many consider his best work. I thought of reviewing that album, but the postwar record industry belief that you had to put pretty white girls on the cover of albums by black artists or they wouldn’t sell—very common in jazz until Miles Davis said, “Fuck that shit”—is a major turnoff for me, since I do display album covers. Reviewing this compilation allows us to consider the entirety of his career, which is only fitting since Otis Redding was one of America’s greatest musical artists in any genre.

“These Arms of Mine”: Otis barely cracked the charts with this song, and the only explanation I can come up with for that despicable statistic is that the American people were too busy learning The Twist and The Loco-motion to pay attention to truly beautiful music. I will grant you that the song was far ahead of its time in terms of its non-standard structure (A-A-B-A-A-B-C) and a chorus free of the song’s title, but jeez maneez, were 1962 people so dense that they couldn’t handle a little non-conformity from time-to-time? The melody is trance-inducing, and Otis caresses the melody like he would a beautiful, precious woman. Otis Redding had a quality in his voice that I’ve heard in very few artists: when he sings, you can visualize him closing his eyes and conjuring up the scene he is attempting to describe through words, and what comes out is more than the words—you hear the sights, sounds, scents, taste and touch of the experience he is reliving in his head. One of the most erotic-romantic songs I have ever heard, “These Arms of Mine” is also one of my favorite post-fuck slow dance numbers . . . and a song has to be fucking great to make that list.

The video below is an award-winning tribute to this truly magical song:

“Pain in My Heart”: This is a tune with a very odd history indeed. Written by Allen Toussaint under one of his pseudonyms (Naomi Neville), it was originally recorded by the terribly under-appreciated Irma Thomas as “Ruler of My Heart.” Otis covered it with the revised title, which somehow led to copyright issues, but The Stones covered his version on The Rolling Stones No. 2. Otis’ release was one of those B-sides that turn out to be more popular with the DJ’s than the A-side (in this case, “That’s What My Heart Needs”), and wound up serving as the title track to his first album. Got all that? While I love the classic Stax horns on Otis’ rendition, I think Irma’s original wins hands-down over both Otis and Mick Jagger.

“That’s How Strong My Love Is”: Roosevelt Jamison’s classic soul number was first covered by another tragically unrecognized artist, O. V. Wright. O. V.’s version is fucking fabulous, as he croons with passionate power over a slick horn-and-guitar arrangement with a good strong groove. The difference in the two interpretations is attitudinal: O. V. sings like the man in charge while Otis sings like a man on his knees. Given my strong preference for men who defer to female power, I find Otis’ version more stimulating, but I have to say that O. V. is the kind of guy who presents a delightful challenge for the dominant female. The arrangement supporting Otis is rougher and has more punch, but really, both versions are outstanding.

“Mr. Pitiful”: A disk jockey tagged Otis with this moniker, accusing him of sounding pitiful in his early ballads. Otis decided to roll with it, enlisting Steve Cropper to help him write this response. This would be the first of several fruitful collaborations between Otis and the guitarist—hell,  jack-of-all-trades—for Booker T. and the M. G.’s. Otis presents a spirited, upbeat defense of his emotional honesty in believing that losing a woman is losing everything. Damn straight! With “That’s How Strong My Love Is” serving as the B-side, a case can be made that this was one of the best soul singles ever released.

“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”: Co-written with soul great Jerry Butler, this is probably the clearest manifestation of the depth of Otis’ devotion to women. The woman in question is rethinking the relationship but Otis doesn’t want the most wonderful experience of his life to end. What’s remarkable is that not once does he accuse her of sluttiness, flightiness or any of the other classic tags attached to women who think there might be a more satisfying fuck available in the free agent market. His sincerity is so intense that he almost talked me into taking him back! I confess that I’m an absolute whore for displays of male vulnerability. This is one of his smoother vocals, and in both the Isaac Hayes version and the Booker T. version, Otis is on top of his game.

“Respect”: I covered Aretha Franklin’s version in my review of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, so it’s nice to do the original. Otis’ version has far less attitude than Aretha’s, expressed both in his plaintive voice and in the more fluid Steve Cropper arrangement. There are no sharp cuts or stops in Otis’ version: the sucker moves like he’s building up confidence as he becomes more and more certain that his demand for respect is a valid request. Steve Cropper’s arrangement features tight horns with great harmonic moments, and I have to give special kudos to Donald “Duck” Dunn for driving the rhythm with solid bass guitar support and some help from the energetic Al Jackson Jr. on the kit.

“I Can’t Turn You Loose”: Otis leaves Mr. Pitiful in the closet to take center stage on this hot soul rocker. I can’t believe this was only the B-side of the relatively pedestrian “Just One More Day,” but the historical record clearly indicates that the crime occurred. Even more than “Respect,” this song revealed Otis Redding’s ability to sing the more driving soul numbers with the same levels of excellence and intensity he brought to ballads. “Duck” Dunn rocks again, and Cropper’s horn arrangement takes care of the rest. Another oft-covered song, I was surprised to learn that the Philadelphia Phillies play this song over the stadium loudspeakers after any home victory. I probably didn’t know that because I don’t think I’ve seen any Phillies home victories since I bought my subscription to MLB.tv.

“Satisfaction”: Turnabout is fair play, and as The Stones had covered several Otis Redding compositions, it made sense that Otis would return the favor. Choosing to record their greatest hit to date was a ballsy move, but Otis had the right idea from the get-go: he had to make the song his, and paid little attention to the original: “I use a lot of words different than the Stones’ version,” Redding noted. “That’s because I made them up.” Steve Cropper remembered, “I set down to a record player and copied down what I thought the lyrics were and I handed Otis a piece of paper and before we got through with the cut, he threw the paper on the floor and that was it.” This curious approach allows Otis to focus on the feeling and the groove, expressing the essence of dissatisfaction without worrying about the details. As we all know from our experience in this wonderfully dysfunctional world, dissatisfaction is more of a vague gestalt than a litany of woes. His exasperated cry, “I have tried!” and the flurry of scat and line fragments capture the essence of modern confusion, frustration and helplessness. Kudos again to Steve Cropper for changing the classic riff from the straight notes to the harmonies, and to the horn section who played that riff for giving it a snappy verve.

“My Lover’s Prayer”: Goddamn, I love the sound of Stax horns. The horn fills and the building harmonies on the later verses are so . . . cool! Otis sings this song about a woman too stubborn to work things out with his usual sincerity and a slight touch of astonishment that someone would let pride take precedence over love. It’s another peach of a slow dance number, and despite the reference to prayer in the title, there’s not a whiff of Christianity in the lyrics. This is erotic love, not that abstract kind peddled by the preachers.

“Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”: This is a playful Redding-Cropper song that pokes fun at Otis’ method of giving vocal instructions on how he wanted the horns to sound in a given arrangement. The call-and-response between Otis’ gibberish and the horn section give this song a light and happy feeling in contrast to the parenthetical phrase in the title. As in “Mr. Pitiful,” Otis acknowledges the stereotype as well as his passion for songs that attempt to heal broken or unrealized relationships. Otis Redding had no problem laughing at his alleged weaknesses, a sure sign of a man who possessed a strong sense of self-awareness.

“Try a Little Tenderness”: For one of his signature songs, Otis Redding and Steve Cropper deconstructed a hit from Depression-era America (hence the “shabby dress” reference in the original). I listened to six covers of that original, including those by Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Mel Tormé, Ruth Etting, The Ray Conniff Singers and Frank Sinatra. The message of the song in the context of the times was along the same lines as “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” reminding a population fucked by the eternal greed of Wall Street financiers to smile, smile, smile. Perhaps it was also a gentle reminder to men stripped of their sense of masculinity by sudden unemployment to avoid resorting to domestic violence and give the little woman a little smooch every now and then instead of slapping her around.

Otis Redding’s version shifts the rhythm from bouncy to bluesy, and Isaac Hayes organizes the arrangement into highly precise and discrete contributions from piano, organ and horn sections, slowly building up the groove until Otis launches into an extended sermon of the power of physical love to advance the healing process in a damaged relationship. Amen, brother! Otis was blessed to work with Hayes and Booker T. and the M. G.’s, but great singers shine when surrounded by great musicians, as we saw with Billie Holiday.

“Shake”: Sam Cooke’s classic has been ruined by quite a few well-meaning vocalists, and fortunately, Otis Redding was not one of them. A devoted admirer of Cooke who covered several of his songs, Otis had an intuitive feel for Cooke’s exuberant-rythmic numbers. While most other covers of this song try to turn it into a crowd-pleaser, Otis’s approach is “Hey, I feel like shaking my body, and if y’all wanna join, that’s your business.” He sounds almost entranced by the groove, grunting and twisting as he probes the music for that strong beat.

“The Happy Song (Dum Dum)”: The bookend to “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” is a rather tame little tune saved by a great horn section and Otis Redding’s genuine laugh when he describes how his baby “grins, grins, grins” when he comes home from work. The reason she’s grinning is explained in the second verse:

On a cold rainy, windy night
She shut all the doors, she cut off the lights
She holds me and squeezes me tight
She tells me Big O everything’s all right

That’s a woman who means fucking business.

“Tramp”: Duets were very popular in soul music during the 1960’s and I despise most of them. “It Takes Two” in particular drives me up a fucking wall with its hideous cuteness. Not so with “Tramp,” the Otis Redding-Carla Thomas rendition of rough, big-voiced Lowell Fulson’s blues number. Otis allows himself to be the object of derision as the country boy from the Georgia woods, and Carla Thomas lets him have it, leaving her English major life behind for a moment to engage in good old-fashioned trash-talking. Otis defends himself with the quality most essential to his identity: he’s a lover. The flowing groove, punctuated with stop-time moments for the pair to engage in prosecution-and-defense banter, transforms this song from a novelty number into a keeper. A hoot!

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”: Most of the people around him tried to discourage him from releasing this song, believing it was too “pop” and that the music was all wrong for him. Wow. Otis had recently completed his well-received performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and was doing some gigs at The Fillmore while staying on a houseboat across the bay in Sausalito when he started scratching out the lyrics to the first verse. According to my father, Sausalito was still in transition from whorehouse mecca to unbelievably overpriced yuppieville, giving the down-on-his-luck story in the song solid credibility. Steve Cropper finished the lyrics, later commenting, “If you listen to the songs I wrote with Otis, most of the lyrics are about him. He didn’t usually write about himself, but I did.” Growing up in a place and era demanding that the black man show humility probably had something to do with his aversion to sing about himself, but it should be noted that Otis turned that forced humility into positive humility as he grew as a person and an artist.

“The Dock of the Bay” is one of those rare moments of musical perfection. Steve Cropper’s counterpoint guitar is one of the most beautiful supporting contributions I’ve ever heard, subtly reinforcing melody and mood without distracting from the vocal. The relatively rare appearances of the horn section are exactly what the song needs and no more. Unlike many songs from that era, the sound effects of waves and seagulls actually work very well in the mix. In the end, though, it’s Otis Redding’s wistful, melancholy vocal that takes this song to the highest level. The expression of dispirited ennui in the first verse as he watches the boats roll in and out, the choked-cry tone of the second verse as he recalls his home in Georgia and the emptiness of his new surroundings, the frustration of a man trapped by his own poor choices during the bridge, and the last verse when he elongates the “o” on that word “loneliness” with a voice that comes from deep in his soul—every word, every syllable is a masterpiece of the vocal art and an expression of genuine human experience. The fading whistle multiplies the impact of the lyrics a hundredfold, and no matter how many times I hear this song, I can’t help but tear up at the end.

And when you consider that the recording was finished only a few days before his death, the experience becomes deeply heartbreaking.

“I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”: The collection ends with one of his sadder songs, one of the few recorded with backing singers. All I will say that I wish the collection had ended with “The Dock of the Bay” so we can dream about what Otis Redding’s musical future might have been.

Otis Redding’s combination of musical talent, genuine humility and creative restlessness was a very rare combination indeed. The quiet confidence he displayed in his masculinity was equally rare: compare him to a loser like Tom Jones and you’ll get some idea of the contrast I have in mind. Even in our allegedly liberated world, men have a hard time giving it up and showing real vulnerability, whether at work or play. Because protective, insecure masculinity ranks right up there with religion as a primary cause of human violence and degradation, it’s really something that needs to change before humanity falls to the final coup de grace. Otis Redding remains a fabulous role model for men looking for a way out of the testosterone trap.

Potential social value aside, Otis Redding should be remembered as one of the great contributors to American music, a man who left behind a vibrant catalog of compositions and performances that express the best tendencies in the American soul: kindness, playfulness and genuine concern for one’s fellows of either gender. Although the cliché is as trite as they come, Otis Redding put heart and soul into everything he did, and the spirit with which he infused his music will live forever.

8 responses

  1. Woah! That image of Otis licking the toilet is not leaving anytime soon…

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    1. That’s not Otis! That’s a sick puppy! Otis had devotion, not self-debasement!

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  2. My wife and I danced at our wedding to “That’s How Strong My Love Is.”

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    1. That would have been sweet. I’ll have to get married someday so I can experience that!

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      1. You will. Underneath that leatherclad, smoking, stilleto exterior is an incurable romantic. I know this because I see you smiling when I say that my wife and I stop whatever we are doing whenever that song comes on to slow dance.

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  3. Great job on Dock of the Bay. That is truly one of the great songs of the 60’s. I’d like to believe it would have been as big of a hit if Otis hadn’t died, but it surely is a great song for all of the reasons you mentioned and for its correct use of seagulls. You are right about the whistling – truly heartbreaking given the song before and the fate of the singer. There is a link in my mind (and my heart) between Otis Redding and Buddy Holly in human terms if not musical.

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    1. I feel that link, too. Neither man should have died so young.

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  4. […] I made them up.” Musician and producer Steve Cropper later explained how that happened, saying, “I set down to a record player and copied down what I thought the lyrics were and I handed […]

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