Tag Archives: Booker T & the MG’s

Albert King – King of the Blues Guitar – Classic Music Review

Look. I’m a shitty guitar player and I know it. I have two guitars: one acoustic and one electric. I suck at both.

You may wonder why I have two instruments that serve to remind me of my incompetence every time I pick them up. I bought an electric guitar so I could make noise. All you need to create soul-satisfying noise with even the shittiest electric guitar is a distortion pedal, a crummy little amp and a knowledge of power chords (find the root, find the fifth and rock the fuck out). I have an acoustic guitar because a.) it’s easier to use a guitar to figure out the chords to rock songs since most are written on guitar and b.) with an acoustic, I don’t have to plug into an amp to identify various chord voicings (which are clearer on an acoustic guitar anyway).

I know exactly why I suck at guitar, and no, it isn’t because I’m a girl and girls simply must have long, manicured fingernails to complete whatever fashion statement they’re trying to make. I’ve never had long fingernails because they interfere with piano playing—when my fingernails are too long, it sounds like I’ve hired a castanets player to provide accompaniment. Long fingernails also screw up my flute playing because they make me think my fingers are longer than they really are and I wind up failing to press the keys with the necessary accuracy and pressure.

No, I suck at guitar for two reasons. First, I think standard guitar tuning is stupid and confusing. Violins, cellos and mandolins are all tuned to fifths so it’s easy to figure out where you are on the neck. Guitars are tuned to fourths with one interval tuned to a major third (the G-B transition). When I’m trying to identify the notes in a simple lead solo, that major third short-circuits my brain every time. Those little dots on top of the neck don’t help at all.

The second reason probably involves a recessive gene thing: I have a terrible time with guitar picks. I have trouble holding on to a pick when I’m trying to pluck individual strings, as in an arpeggio. It’s really a drag on the acoustic guitar because I usually drop a dozen or so down the soundhole in between string changes; I’ve tried all kinds of picks and they all wind up inside the body of my guitar. Playing on a solid-body Strat negates that problem, but even when the picks aren’t tumbling to the floor I can’t play anything beyond a two-note arpeggio on a power chord to save my life. It’s frustrating because I can play beautiful arpeggios on the piano and flute, but on a guitar all those damned strings get in my way. I suck on the downstroke, I suck on the upstroke. For years I believed I was doomed to remain a chords-only strummer, banished permanently from the realm of guitar heroes.

Recently I sought help for my disability. A friend in the States sent me a guest pass to Master Class, an online video training site with loads of courses on everything from self-help to cooking to music. I immediately honed in on two guitar classes, one with Carlos Santana and the other with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fame. I should have known that Carlos would take a New Age approach to the topic, so his advice on how to locate my “feel” and get in touch with my inner spirit didn’t really scratch my particular itch. Tom was infinitely more helpful in terms of providing useful techniques and I’ve been using his ideas from the module on increasing speed to improve my arpeggio picking. I can now pick the legendary intro to “Supersonic” with an accuracy rate of 50% if I play it at half-speed and don’t breathe.

That’s an improvement over my usual accuracy rate of 20% at no speed peppered with lots of “fuck!s.”

A couple of weeks after my last lesson with Tom, I took another look at my review plan for 2021. Nothing really grabbed me, so I started scrolling through my music library and found King of the Blues Guitar. My first reaction was, “Haven’t I already done this one?” but a quick check of my posts told me I’d missed it. “Yay!” I said to no one in particular. “I love that album!” I loved it even more after I began my research and learned more about Albert King’s bizarre approach to the guitar:

  • Because he was left-handed, he played right-handed guitars upside-down—but rather than restringing the guitar, he left it as is, with the high E string on top.
  • He used a variety of dropped open tunings to allow for more emphatic bends and to get around the limitations of standard tuning: C#-G#-B-E-G#-C#, open E-minor, F major and (when he moved to Stax) a C-B-E-F#-B-E pattern.
  • Since he never used the 6th string, I don’t know why he bothered to tune it, but whatever.
  • Most importantly, he rarely used a friggin’ pick! Albert King was a thumb-and-fingers kind of guy.

Lights flashing frantically in my little blonde brain, heart beating madly with hope and anticipation while desperately trying to avoid flagellating myself for not having thought of it sooner, I picked up my acoustic guitar, picks-in-the-hole rattling away, and tried to pluck “Supersonic” with my thumb. I nailed it within five minutes. Searching my memory for another arpeggio, I thought of the recently-departed Hilton Valentine and his guitar on “House of the Rising Sun,” and within fifteen minutes I had it down pat.

Albert King is my man!

*****

Historical contradictions abound in blues biographies, and Albert King’s is no exception. The man we know as Albert King was born Albert Nelson in 1923, and could have been born in any one of three places in Mississippi: Indianola, Arcola or Aberdeen (most likely the latter). His father may have abandoned the family when Albert was five; it’s likely that Albert moved with his mother and two of his sisters to the area surrounding Forrest City, Arkansas when he was eight (I have no idea where the other ten siblings wound up). The only thing we know for sure is that Albert spent his youth on plantations picking cotton and manning a bulldozer in an area of the country where white supremacy was a cherished and strongly-protected institution (and in many ways still is).

Whether it was his father’s influence (unlikely, given his early departure) or an encounter with some itinerant picker on the plantation, Albert developed a fascination with the guitar, progressing from a self-made diddley bow to a self-made cigar box guitar to a real acoustic guitar that he purchased for $1.25. Eventually he was good enough to join a band, and spent several years traversing the Delta, picking up tips from guitarists like Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk.

Throughout the ’40s and early ’50s he was known as Albert Nelson, but once we get to 1953 things get a little weird. He changed his name to Albert King and told people he was the half-brother of the more famous B.B. King, offering B.B.’s father’s name (Albert) as “evidence.” Though he had identified (and misspelled) Aberdeen as his birthplace on his Social Security application, he now claimed he was born in Indianola, shrewdly relocating his roots from the Alabama border to the Mississippi Delta. He even named his guitar “Lucy” in line with B.B.’s christening of “Lucille.” These little white lies apparently increased his drawing power, and though B.B. was rather miffed about it at first, he let go of his irritation after meeting Albert. “He wasn’t my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in blues.”

To achieve that kind of acknowledgment from B.B. King was remarkable, given that nothing came easy for Albert King. One fundamental difficulty involved his physique: Albert King was a big, strong southpaw, somewhere between 6’4″ and 6’7″ and weighing in at about 250 pounds. With those big hands and fingers, he was unlikely to dazzle an audience with nimble, high-speed picking, so he had no choice but to break the rules and come up with other ways to create an authentic blues sound. All those alternate tunings loosened the strings to enable broader string-bending, but Albert still had to face the challenge of left-handedness in a right-handed universe. He solved that problem by teaching himself to pull the strings from on high instead of the standard bending technique of pushing from below, using his strength to bend multiple strings at the same time. As Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns would later observe, “Albert’s guitar was always out of tune with everything else, but he was such a strong man he would just bend the notes back in!”

For the next decade and a bit longer, Albert toiled in relative obscurity, playing the club circuits in the midwest and south and making a few records that were largely ignored. His career remained in hit-or-miss mode for a few more years, but during that period an Arkansas disk jockey by the name of Al Bell became quite the fan of Albert’s inimitable style. The magical threads of the universe finally came together when Bell became a promotions man at Stax Records in Memphis and sweet-talked Albert into signing with the label. It certainly didn’t hurt Albert’s prospects that his new backing musicians were Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns, imbuing his music with the signature Stax sound, strengthening his connection to R&B and adding touches of funk and soul to his music. Stax released several singles that eventually formed the bulk of the 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign, and though the album itself did not chart (R&B albums rarely charted during that period), three of the singles did—and Albert King finally started drawing serious attention within the music world at the age of forty-four. Later that year, Albert King found himself playing at Fillmore West; a year later, Cream covered “Born Under a Bad Sign” on Wheels of Fire; a year after that, Albert King was a featured soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The original version of King of the Blues Guitar was released in 1969 and consisted of eleven tracks. The version I chose to review is the 1989 reissue that contains all eleven tracks from  Born Under a Bad Sign and six more Stax recordings released on 45’s, including two instrumentals that showcase Albert’s distinctive guitar stylings. The Born Under a Bad Sign tracks are marked with an asterisk because I’m an anal bitch and I like to keep things straight.

*****

“Laundromat Blues”*: This clever little pun-filled number from Stax songwriter and session musician Sandy Jones Jr. tells the tale of a babe so horny that she can’t wait to compile a full load of laundry before heading down to the laundromat to receive a full load from the guy she keeps on the side. Exactly where these two lovebirds consummate their relationship is unclear, but I hope that the laundromat is just the rendezvous point and that she doesn’t get banged with her head in a clothes dryer while pretending to look for that missing sock. Unlike most men who pride themselves on their obliviousness, Albert is “gettin’ madder every day” and issues two warnings: “I don’t want you to get so clean, baby/You just might wash your life away” and  “The laundry’s gonna trap you, darlin,'” a line that indicates that Sandy did some field research and knew his way around a lint trap.

The interplay between Albert’s voice and guitar is fascinating. First, he never plays while he’s singing, making a clear distinction between vocal lines and guitar fills, giving both more prominence. I’ll let Mike Bloomfield explain the more complex levels of interaction:

. . . And he approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player I ever heard in my life; he plays exactly like a singer. As a matter of fact, his guitar playing has almost more of a vocal range than his voice does—which is unusual, because if you look at B.B. or Freddie King or Buddy Guy, their singing is almost equal to their guitar playing. They sing real high falsetto notes, then drop down into the mid-register. Albert just sings in one sort of very mellifluous but monotonous register, with a crooner’s vibrato, almost like a lounge singer, but his guitar playing is just as vocal as possible . . . He makes the guitar talk.

That “crooner vibrato” melds beautifully with the smooth sound of the Memphis Horns and would serve Albert well as he expanded the range of his song selection to include R&B and soul. Those deep bends on the solo express both his outrage and a firm resolve that his baby’s got to stop this shit right now—a communication much more effective than his linguistic threats.

“Overall Junction”: This is a nice little warm-up number credited to the man himself that opens with Steve Cropper supplying the classic three-chord blues riff in the key of E as the horns provide a countering rhythmic response. Albert’s contribution alternates between a single-string solo and a multi-string bend attack that sounds so sharp and clean that you’d swear he was using a pick if you didn’t know any better. I imagine that all those years of picking cotton and guitar must have resulted in some of the thickest callouses known to medical science, which may help to explain his rare mingling of power and ease.

“Oh, Pretty Woman”*: A.C. “Moohah” Williams was a high school biology teacher who made the leap to promotions director at WDIA Memphis when they switched from country to R&B in  1949. A. C. would stay with WDIA for over thirty years, serving as a disk jockey and program director while writing a few songs on the side, including his most famous number, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” This ode to the unattainable natural beauty who “Says all your cheap paint and powder ain’t gonna help you none” is a perfect foil for Albert’s understated, shy-guy vocal style, suitable for pleading but never coarse enough to cross the line into actionable threats. His guitar solo is appropriately understated, expressing sweet anguish in the bends but refusing to extend the emotional range to a point-of-no-return. When comparing and contrasting Albert’s approach to Mick Taylor’s version on the Bluesbreakers’ Crusade album, I have to give the edge to Albert for managing those boundaries—Mick comes across too strong, just what you’d expect from a younger man with excess testosterone and insufficient life experience.

“Funk Shun”: The second King-penned instrumental is an example of false advertising, as there isn’t anything funky about this straight-up slow blues number. Though the track features Albert’s longest solo, I don’t think it’s one of his best efforts as he seems to lose touch with the sense of economy that marks his best guitar work. The one spot where he recovers that discipline is in the stop-time passage about two-thirds of the way through the song. For the most part, I focus most of my attention on Donald Dunn’s always marvelous bass and the horn section.

“Crosscut Saw”*: OUCH! While I usually appreciate the double-entendre featured in dirty blues songs, I ain’t gonna let no man with a crosscut saw anywhere near my delicate privates! And I’m sorry, but “I’m a crosscut saw, just drag me ‘cross your log,” sounds like two guys attempting penis-to-penis sex, which I didn’t know was even a thing. Here I ignore the gruesome lyrics and just enjoy Booker T. and the MG’s as they nail the Afro-Cuban rhythms and Albert’s sprightly guitar work. I’d really like a demographic breakdown of this record’s purchasers, as I’d like to prove my hypothesis that the buyers who drove “Crosscut Saw” to #34 on the R&B charts were all men who like their women dry. DOUBLE OUCH!

“Down Don’t Bother Me”*: Albert is on top of his game in yet another of his own compositions that revives the classic there-ain’t-nothin’-I-can-do-to-please-this-woman-woe-is-me tale. Singing at the top of his narrow range with feeling that approaches the bursting point, he wisely leaves the bursting to his guitar fills, which follow the lines in unusually short order. The solo is a knockout call-and-response between Albert and the horn section that matches the intensity of the verses and anticipates the gloriously strong finish. It may be the shortest song in the collection, but as I’ve always told the insecure men I’ve bedded over the years, “It doesn’t matter how long it is—what matters is what you do with what you’ve got.”

“Born Under a Bad Sign”*: Listed as a songwriting collaboration between Stax R&B singer William Bell and Booker T. Jones, we must also give credit to Lightin’ Slim, whose “Bad Luck Blues” featured the key line, “Lord, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” as well as the astrological portents Bell referenced as a starting point for “his” creation. The song’s crossover potential involved replacing the standard 12-bar blues structure with 10 bars in an I-V-IV pattern and a sinuous minor blues scale rhythmic line that gives the song a rock/R&B tinge. I don’t know exactly why I feel this way, but this song cries “Memphis” more than any other song from the city that claims to be The Birthplace of Rock & Roll and Home of the Blues. It feels like a warm summer night on Beale Street with its moderately slow tempo, slick and sexy horns and plenty of sweet, soulful bends from Mr. King. His single-string solo is the epitome of simplicity and in an unintentional tribute to Peter Green, Albert lets out a little scream of appreciation in response to one bent note. The man is feeling it!

I’ll end any suspense right here and now and endorse the Jack Bruce-Clapton version as a more than credible cover, and while I’m into mini-appendixes, allow me to remind you that if you are lucky enough to be able to select the time, place and circumstances of your demise, there’s only one way to go:

You know, wine and women is all I crave
A big-legged woman is gonna carry me to my grave

Hopefully you will have pulled out before having your coronary.

“Personal Manager”*: The B-side to “Born Under a Bad Sign” was co-written with David Porter, one of music’s greatest, most-honored and least-known contributors. In addition to his prolific songwriting in multiple genres, Porter was the very young man who convinced a little record company in Memphis to start recording soul music and brought his buddy Booker T. into the fold as a recording artist for what would soon become Stax Records. At this point in his career, Porter was a songwriter for Stax and had just begun to work with another young songwriter named Isaac Hayes.

Albert King may have been born under a bad sign, but at this point in his career, he had arrived at the gates to musical heaven.

“Personal Manager” is a slow blues number that opens with Albert clipping off a few two-note chords before settling into his more comfortable one-note-at-a-time style. While the interplay between Albert and the horns isn’t as crisp as it was on the A-side, his solo validates the phrase in his Stax biography: “master of the single-string solo.” The lyrics are pretty much the old “Let me careth for thee, O sweet and fragile creature,” and though I’m intrigued to learn more about what he means by the offer “to be your milkman every morning/Your ice cream man when the days are through,” he loses me with a deal-sweetener that simply won’t cut it with a girl who has now experienced three lockdowns (with a fourth on the way):

I’ll take care of all of your business
So you can stay at home

No! No! Anything but that! Go ahead—whip out that crosscut saw but please let me out of the house!

“Kansas City”*: What the hell, everyone else has recorded this song, so why not Albert King? His voice is perfectly suited to the toned-down Wilbert Harrison approach and he’s got a first-rate rhythm band behind him, so why not? One could argue that Albert gives the horns too much room during his solo, but shit, they’re Stax horns and they sound good anywhere and everywhere. Donald Dunn is coming through nice and clear on my right . . . so yeah, I’m good with it.

“The Very Thought of You“*: What the hell? Well, this is certainly out of the . . . blue(s)! This song was first recorded in 1934 by the Ray Noble Orchestra featuring Al Bowlly on vocals, and proved to be something of a precursor to the British Invasion in that it was one of the few British recordings to become a #1 hit in the USA before all those scruffy guys showed up thirty years later. Ricky Nelson came out with a “rock ‘n’ roll” version (probably due to a suggestion from his cornball father), giving new meaning to the word “dreadful.” Little Willie John made some noise with a doo-wop version that’s probably the best of the lot, but this isn’t much of a lot.

Albert was apparently so obsessed with this song that he re-recorded it in 1978 on an album called (ironically) New Orleans Heat. Even the most powerful microwave oven in the universe couldn’t heat this sucker, so I’m not exactly why Albert found the song so appealing . . . though there may be something in Mike Bloomfield’s specific use of the world “crooner” in describing Albert’s vocal style. I will give Albert credit for a sincere and heartfelt performance—but any thoughts he had about becoming the next Billy Eckstine were seriously misplaced.

“The Hunter”*: Y’all know I have an absolute hatred of real guns, but I’m 100% cool with love guns. Etymologically speaking, I wonder which came first—“shoot” as in “shoot your wad” or “shoot” as in “shoot a gun?” Why do we “shoot” photos and golf and drugs and dice? And why is “shoot!” a polite substitute for “shit!?”

Stand by for my new website: altetymologychick.com.

Albert King never quite attained the levels of testosterone expressed in the work of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson, but he’s definitely “up” for this one. After a somewhat tentative opening featuring Albert plucking a single string over a duet of Booker T. on percussive piano and Steve Cropper on guitar (nice neck slides there), a snare hit cues those marvelous horns so we can get down to the serious business of displaying male bravado. Albert seems to particularly savor the descending notes that end the key line, “I’ve got you in the sights of my love gun,” pausing just a bit before he sings the words “love gun.” He delivers those two words as if he’s looking his babe straight in the eye with his big one forming a noticeable bulge in his trousers, and damn, is he proud of his reliable member or what?  He abandons all pretense of gentlemanly behavior when he almost-but-not-quite growls the line, “And when I pull the trigger, there will be no misses.” That’s my man! Leave it all in my playing field and don’t spill a drop on my sheets! He cools off a bit during his guitar solo but finishes strong with even more bravado. “I’m the big bad hunter baby,” he cries. “You ARE the MAN!” I reply, cleverly manipulating the male ego to inspire a second go-round. “How can I miss when I’ve got dead aim?” “You can’t, baby—now aim that thing right at my sweet spot.” The music fades, leaving the rest of my fantasy to your wicked imaginations.

“I Almost Lost My Mind”*: This Ivory Joe Hunter number is a perfect vehicle for Albert’s voice, with a melody comfortably within his vocal range and a narrative that demands a singer who knows what it’s like to feel the pain of loss. Everybody who’s anybody has covered this song—Nat King Cole, Eddy Arnold, Eddie Cochran, Bing Crosby, Fats Domino, Jerry Butler, Willie Nelson—and it speaks volumes about American culture that the most popular version came from Pat Boone, the paragon of white bread entertainment who absconded with many a song of black origins and made them palatable to the sexless masses. Of the versions I’ve listened to, the one that most resembles Albert’s is Solomon Burke’s, but Solomon doesn’t come close to matching Albert’s ability to express difficult emotions. I love the arrangement, especially the surprising inclusion of Joe Arnold’s flute, reinforcing the fleeting nature of romantic love.

“As the Years Go Passing By”*: Another perfect fit for Albert’s vocal talents, this Peppermint Harris minor blues was first recorded by Chicago blues guitarist Fenton Robinson back in 1959. The original featured a rather energetic piano counterpoint, replaced here by a more subtle but still remarkably nimble performance by Booker T, who gets a chance to show off both his R&B and classical training in support of Albert’s suitably lonesome vocal. Albert does some of his finest guitar work on this song, especially in the beautifully fluid solo, which contrasts nicely with the texture of the punctuating horns. My only complaint here involves track placement—surely the compilers could have separated the two of the saddest and best songs in the collection to reinforce the diversity of the album.

“Cold Feet”: Hmm. This sounds more like an advertisement for Stax artists than a real song, but it made the R&B Top 20 in ’68 as an A-side single, so what the hell do I know? If Peter, Paul & Mary could name-drop the Mamas and the Papas, Donovan and The Beatles and make the charts, I’m certainly not going to begrudge Albert King a little low-effort success.

“You Sure Drive a Hard Bargain”: The B-side of “Cold Feet” is a much stronger effort and clearly the better song. Written by Stax songwriter Bettey Crutcher and producer Allen Jones, the thrills in this song are found in the obvious confidence and heightened spirit of the post-Born Under a Bad Sign Albert King. His guitar playing is crisp, his voice strong and the interaction with the band is both tight and seemingly effortless.

“I Love Lucy”: This is a one-time-only joke with a weak punchline that only works if you don’t know that Lucy is Albert’s guitar.

On second thought, it doesn’t work either way.

“You’re Gonna Need Me”: Once again, the B-side trounces the A-side, making us forget all about Lucy. This King composition is a straightforward blues with some interesting chord variations and a far more intricate horn arrangement than you hear in any of the songs on Born Under a Bad Sign. Albert’s solo is loaded with bite and bend, and though you don’t notice it at first, the connection between the fills and his solo phrases feels more fluid—the man is now in full command of his faculties.

While I was working on this piece I remembered that this is Black History Month in the United States. I had to remember it because the French have yet to recognize that particular observance due to their belief in the doctrine of universalism, or “color-blindness.” The French would rather avoid the topic of race entirely and pretend that everything’s hunky-dory. It’s difficult to square that head-up-the-ass attitude with reality or with the historically documented Parisian embrace of African-American musicians, writers and artists, but the French are often a mystery to everyone except themselves.

So let’s place Albert King in the proper historical context, and we do that by admitting that our awareness of Albert King qualifies as pretty damned close to miraculous. Any black person born in the United States goes to bat with an 0-2 count while a hostile crowd screams for the strikeout. Though certain legal protections have been introduced in an attempt to mitigate those profound disadvantages, dealing with racism remains a daily reality for African-Americans to this day. Albert was also born dirt-poor, bereft of high-powered connections and had little in the way of formal education—traditional or musical. Though his demeanor was anything but threatening, nothing can trigger white fragility as effectively as a big, strapping black dude, so he was unlikely to find much in the way of assistance from the white power structure. Despite those enormous obstacles, once he fixated on the impossible dream of escaping the plantation via a musical career, he refused to let anything get in his way.

The essence of Albert King lies in a rare combination of self-assurance, ingenuity and an almost unfathomable optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. If you’re going to celebrate anyone during Black History Month, Albert King deserves your serious consideration.

 

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

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.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: