Otis Redding – Tell the Truth Atco SD 33-333 (1970)
Another posthumous Redding album. But a fairly good one. It may not have a trio of songs as good as “I’m a Changed Man,” “Look at the Girl” and “Direct Me,” but on the whole it is better than the immediately prior vault-clearing album Love Man. The title track is still up there with Redding’s best. Some songs use an effective tactic of having the low-end bass and organ play slowly, while the vocals and guitar play at a faster tempo, giving the impression of being ahead of everything around them.
Otis was a truly unique pop singer. He largely avoided both vibrato and melisma. His style was southern soul. He took rural elements and made them palatable to urban audiences without undermining the gritty energy that gave his voice such power. If there is a comparison — pardon how far afield this seems — it might be the actor/dancer Gene Kelly. Both men had a kind of husky, athletic physical presence that they used in surprisingly nimble ways. They also both knew showman’s tricks, and were ready and able to dazzle audiences with routines that were entertaining without being condescending. What both did was also the kind of stuff that, theoretically, anybody could have done. Singing and dancing just take practice, right? Of course, they were each uncommonly talented. But it wasn’t just a raw talent. They both kind of found their niche. Which is to say that equal talents that were “out of time” and not in the right place at the right time (or of the “right” race, gender, etc.) would not be known to history like these men.
Otis Redding – The Immortal Otis Redding Atco SD 33-252 (1968)
Otis Redding died in a plane crash at the height of his career. Though his record label released a number of posthumous albums, Otis’ premature death meant that he left behind a significant amount of recordings that would have been released anyway had he lived. The Immortal Otis Redding actually manages to be one of Redding’s very best studio albums. If The Soul Album was an attempt to modernize Otis’ sound, but was only partly successful at doing so, then The Immortal Otis Redding returns to that approach, but finds more success. There is a more rich and smooth sound here, with fewer elements of raucous 1950s rock n/ roll and R&B. Otis’ voice blends well with the backing music. Side one is nearly perfect. Side two has more to like. In hindsight, though, this relatively short album could have been his single best album if it included some additional songs recorded in 1967 that were released elsewhere, “I’m A Changed Man,” “Direct Me,” “Look at the Girl,” “(“Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “Tell the Truth,” and maybe even the magnificent 1966 outtake “You Left the Water Running.” (If need be, “Champagne and Wine” and “A Waste of Time” might be dropped, though really there was plenty of room for more tracks on the original LP).
Otis Redding – Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul Volt S-412 (1965)
“When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.” – George Washington Carver
Otis Redding sang songs about the common things of life. He called up many sorts of feelings, but he always sang in response to common things and shared human experiences. What set Otis apart was his deep sympathy for all the good there could be in the world. His stuff, even with hard-times blues feelings, had positive emotion behind it. The context was familiar but Otis’ soul feeling had a romantic precision — quite the same exceptional insight found in the portraits Vermeer painted. He always located an incorruptible goodness at the foundation of every one of his songs.
Only three originals make the album, but they are each classics. “Ole Man Trouble” has the plodding organ of Booker T. Jones in the background with Steve Cropper’s guitar lacing its way around the melody. Aretha may have later taken “Respect” for her own, but Otis still belted out the original nicely.
Otis really grew out of the frenetic Little Richard school of R&B, but was a also great admirer of the smooth crooning of Sam Cooke. Here Otis unleashes three songs from his Cooke repertoire. “Change Gonna Come” has a muggy intimacy that swells around every aching hope. Al Jackson, Jr.’s drums add heart to the song’s soul. It’s a rendition that would have made Cooke proud.
The other covers Otis includes make sure the album is solid throughout. “My Girl” is a tough song to pull off with less than five Temptations, but Otis was up to the challenge. The Stones’ “Satisfaction” is a song practically written for Otis to sing. This gritty, driving take is one of the best on wax. Otis sings in a fervor that perfectly compliments the rumble from “Duck” Dunn’s bass. Solomon Burke’s “Down In the Valley” has The Memphis Horns dishing their whimsical best through some taught harmonies.
Southern soul out of Stax records in Memphis (Volt was a Stax imprint) had the do-it-yourself charm of letting the performers’ personalities come through. The point was to reach for what mattered. Few, if any, other soul singers could reach as deep as Otis. He knew how to pull out an exasperated cry whenever needed. Otis had instincts that can’t be taught. Being from an uncommon kind of talent, his singing on records like Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul still commands attention.