#74 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
When you remove the gospel from gospel music, you get soul music. When you remove the soul from soul music, you get a handful of artists who had an incredible sense of passion and an ear for accessibility, artists who knew how to convert the devotional style of gospel music for a diverse audience of listeners. The accessibility is something all great pop artists have, that ability to reach inside and pull out something familiar and endearing. The passion is what separates soul from other types of music. The passion inspired artists, both black and white, to howl and swoon like hungry, love struck children. The original liner notes for Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul
affirmed these perceptions of soul music, noting soul as “something that can’t be feigned.” “Either you have it or you don’t,” journalist and musical mainstay Bob Rolontz remarked. “Otis Redding has it.”
Hindsight in mind, saying Otis Redding has soul is probably an understatement. To devotees, his presence defines soul as much as any other artist. Otis Redding sounds like the American south that spawned the genre, gritty and tough, yet at the drop of a dime, comforting and hospitable. His voice is undeniably remarkable, informed by both the virile shouts of Little Richard and the smooth croon of Sam Cooke. But while his expressive vocals usually hit the listener first, his gift for song writing and arranging is easily overlooked. It’s this balance of creativity and natural ability that makes his tragic and premature death even more bitter. Otis Blue
features a small taste of Redding’s song writing talent; only three songs on the album are Redding originals. A cynic might be tempted to write off the album immediately in this light, however, one listen to Otis Redding’s versions dispels any such notion. The tracks are as definitive, gripping and stylish as the originals in all cases.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Redding’s take on the Rolling Stones classic is a return shot back across the Atlantic to the Stones who had already done remakes of Redding tunes. Mick Jagger’s lusty grind is replaced by Redding’s potent vocals which make Jagger sound like a little boy. ‘Hey-hey-hey’s’ and ‘ou-yea’s’ abound (see The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul
for exact translation) and traditional deep soul embellishments come in the form of the blaring horns, a staple of the Stax/Volt Records sound. The sound of The Rolling Stones was/is highly influenced by the brand of r&b that Redding and others defined, so the cover is in no way a fish out of water among the soul standards.
The standards Redding takes are from an interesting selection of artists as well. A few are classics penned by the aforementioned Sam Cooke, who’s own rise mirrored Redding’s, emphatically cut short by tragedy. “Shake” is the epitome of a soul rave up, the raucous horn section clamors over a big, groovy beat as Redding sings instruction: “You shake it like a bowl of soup/Let your body loop de loop/Put your hands up on your hip/Come on an’ let your back bone slip!” It’s a completely carefree up tempo song meant to get you moving, and it, among many other songs on the album will have you bobbing or tapping something. Redding does Smokey Robinson right on “My Girl,” remaking the Motown classic. His arrangement retains the southern soul prototype and his swoon at 1:23 sweeps your feet away.
Of all the covers, however, two stand out especially strong: another Cooke tune, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.” Inspired by burgeoning social tensions, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” relates the fierce social tensions of the racially inflamed south. Cooke’s version, equally worthy of a listen as Redding’s, is full of impassioned strings whereas Redding’s has a more earthy bounce, yet retains all the dramatics of Cooke’s. The words, which relate the struggle and hopes towards equality as well as all personal struggles to overcome, are essentially an attempt to answer to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which inspired Cooke and a many other song writers in a time of much confusion and societal turmoil. Absolutely gorgeous, a must hear song.
“Rock Me Baby,” is blues in all it’s glory, featuring Booker T and the MGs guitarist, Steve Cropper. Cropper completely rips the song apart with King’s classic blue licks and performs the only spotlight-coup from Redding’s voice on the album. Redding cries “have mercy!” and “don’t do that to me!” in the background as Cropper takes lead and does his thing. Redding’s session crew, made up of Booker T’s crew as well as other Stax/Volt artists, is absolutely phenomenal on Otis Blue
and back Redding with unfailing talent.
In a lot of ways, even the Redding originals on Otis Blue
are completely about the cover take. The most recognizable original on the album, “Respect,” is overshadowed a cover; Aretha Franklin’s version is the take most people think of when the song is mentioned, however Redding’s version has just as much power, although lacking the statement of feminine independence Lady Soul exposed. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” another classic Redding original, has been covered up and down by a bevy of artists as well, although few if any have managed to capture the same emotion Redding expels here. “You were tired, and you want to be free/My love is growing stronger as you become a habit to me,” Redding remarks regretfully, pleading for something he’s addicted to but can’t have. The tune is simple, a trickling piano plinks through each verse behind Redding while Cropper injects and Donald “Duck” Dunn rocks a plaintive bass and the horn section rises and recedes appropriately.
There’s not a cut on Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul
that a fan of the genre can consider a weak track. However, there are probably better compilations of Redding’s own originals that include the three here and there are also larger and more complete collections of his work as an artist interpreting the work of others. As such, despite the relative perfection of just about every song, it isn’t an completely essential album statement, something that Redding’s abbreviated career denied. It is, nonetheless, an excellent, cohesive starting point to the works of Redding as both an original and interpretive artist. Besides, Otis Redding could sing just about anything and make it sound good.