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Best Otis Redding Songs: 20 Classics From The Giant Of Soul Music
© Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best Otis Redding Songs: 20 Classics From The Giant Of Soul Music

From storming dance anthems to tear-stained declarations of love, the best Otis Redding songs prove why the singer remains a soul music icon.

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He was the artist at the heart of Stax Records’ glory years, and fast becoming a hero for the hippie generation when fate intervened and a plane crash robbed the world of his talent at the end of 1967. Nonetheless, Otis Redding’s brief, beautiful life was highly productive, and this singer, songwriter, producer and riveting performer left us with heaps of classic records to admire, from tear-stained letters of lost love to declarations of civil rights, taking in relaxed, poppy tunes and storming dance anthems along the way. Whatever he chose to do, he did it brilliantly – as the best Otis Redding songs make clear. Here are just 20 standout tracks by one of the all-time giants of soul music… No, make that music, period…

Listen to the best of Otis Redding here, and check out our 20 best Otis Redding songs, below.

20: My Girl (from ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’, 1965)

The rivalry between Stax in the South and Motown in the North as the US’s leading purveyors of soulful sounds was acute, but that didn’t stop Stax’s vocal figurehead from dipping into Motown’s Smokey Robinson songbook for this brilliantly languid cut of My Girl, a UK No.11 hit in 1965. Which version was the more soulful: The Temptations’ (Motown, Detroit) or Otis’ (Memphis, Tennessee)? Only you can decide…

19: Mr Pitiful (from ‘The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads’, 1965)

Written when Stax axe star Steve Cropper heard a radio DJ call Otis “Mr Pitiful” because he presented such a soulfully wretched persona when singing of heartbreak, this single hit the charts across 1964 to ’65. It also appeared on the album The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads, but the irony is, considering the title and genesis of the song, it was not a ballad at all, but a more uptempo affair with a beat built for doing the jerk and the twine. Those dances may have died, but Mr Pitiful can still groove ya.

18: Pain In My Heart (from ‘Pain In My Heart’, 1964)

The title track of Otis’ 1964 debut album was a minor pop hit and a strong seller in the R&B chart. A powerful ballad, Pain In My Heart was adapted from Allen Toussaint’s composition for Irma Thomas, Ruler Of My Heart, but ended up becoming the better-known track – and one of the best Otis Redding songs – in the process. Could he really have only been 21 when he sang it? His voice revealed a level of experience far beyond his years…

17: Wonderful World (from ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’, 1965)

A Sam Cooke hit rendered in a relaxed, almost impressionistic manner, Otis fully inhabits Wonderful World’s story of youthful love. At this point – 1965 – the singer was so at ease with his talent that he could perform a song as well-known as this yet effortlessly make it his own, imbuing it with all the sweat and soul that drips from all of the best Otis Redding songs.

16: Ole Man Trouble (from ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’, 1965)

This rumbling growl of a song was not the most obvious track to open Otis’ most successful album to date. A particular hit in the UK, where mods snapped it up, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul was the work of a great singer singing great songs, and it didn’t seem to matter that it introduced itself with a slow, maudlin ballad such as this – hardly conforming to the 60s soul habit of sticking the hit at the start and building the record around it. Surrounded by wailing horns and Steve Cropper’s acrid guitar, Otis brings the blues – so soulfully.

15: (I’ve Got) Dreams To Remember (from ‘The Immortal Otis Redding’, 1968)

There is a heartbreaking irony at the heart of this tender ballad. (I’ve Got) Dreams To Remember began life as a poem written by Otis’s wife, Zelma. Otis’ sorrowful performance describes lost love and passion destroyed, and it became the lead track of The Immortal Otis Redding, released in 1968 – by which time Otis was no longer with us, and Zelma had just dreams to remember her remarkable husband by. So cruel.

14: Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song) (from ‘Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul’, 1966)

Though the horns that introduce it have a few teardrops in them, this gem from 1966 is no tale of woe. Holding its own among the best Otis Redding songs, it finds the singer delivering a line, the horns imitating him, and his Sad Song doing exactly what its lyrics say it will do: cheer you up.

12: The Happy Song (Dum-Dum-De-De-De-Dum-Dum) (from ‘The Immortal Otis Redding’, 1968)

Revel awhile in a mellow, contented Otis, who has found sexy and romantic bliss with his “baby”. A true head-nodder that was not released until 1968, after the singer’s passing, The Happy Song makes for a more upbeat entry among the best Otis Redding songs.

11: These Arms Of Mine (from ‘Pain In My Heart’, 1964)

Otis’ breakthrough record, released as a single in 1962, was a heartbroken ballad. The strength of the self-penned song was evident when he sang it during the interval at a gig by Johnny Jenkins, a guitarist who employed Redding as a driver. Stax’s house band, Booker T And The MGs, were also on the bill, and label boss Jim Stewart – also present – was riveted by the passion Otis brought to These Arms Of Mine. Released as a single, it was a slow-building hit, eventually shifting 800,000 copies. Otis had arrived.

10: You Don’t Miss Your Water (from ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’, 1965)

Written by Stax’s reliably empathetic tunesmith William Bell, You Don’t Miss Your Water combines a gospel-like metaphor with a bluesy feel, yet emerges as nothing but sweet soul music. No shortage of the best Otis Redding songs come from 1965 – a year in which the singer could not put a foot wrong.

9: Try A Little Tenderness (from ‘Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul’, 1966)

Otis had the ability to take songs from any era and transform them into sweet soul music. Try A Little Tenderness was written in 1932 and was recorded by various swing orchestras as well as crooner Bing Crosby. Otis drove all the schmaltz out of it and, with the help of arranger Isaac Hayes, turned it into a soulful tour de force, building from a gentle opening to a climactic finale that became a highlight of his stage show. It went Top 30 in the US in 1966; today it sounds like a soulful No.1.

8: Security (from ‘Pain In My Heart’, 1964)

Aside from a handful of singles released in a vocal style reminiscent of Little Richard, Otis hit the ground running. His debut album, Pain In My Heart, included this little firecracker – a Top 30 hit in 1964 and revealing remarkable maturity for a singer still taking toddler steps in the music game. It was covered in fine style by Etta James, and deserves to be even better known.

7: Hard To Handle (from ‘The Immortal Otis Redding’, 1968)

Here is Otis as the tough-talkin’ super-lover who knows he can “light your candle”. Shame, then, that Hard To Handle didn’t hit wax until 1968, after Otis’ death, when it was a small pop hit. It is, however, regarded as one of the best Otis Redding songs, and has been much-covered since.

6: A Change Is Gonna Come (from ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’, 1965)

Otis toyed with making a tribute album to Sam Cooke after the soul originator was shot dead in 1964, and he did cut a few of Cooke’s songs. Had he finished a full album, it would have been great, as A Change Is Gonna Come testifies. Cooke’s thoughtful civil-rights anthem gains extra soulful weight in Otis’ version, which was one of the pivotal tracks of 1965’s Otis Blue.

5: Tramp (with Carla Thomas) (from ‘King & Queen’, 1967)

This duet with Carla Thomas – making them Stax’s King and Queen, as their duet album put it – began life as a raw, funky blues by Lowell Fulsom. His version did OK, but the song’s potential for humour and soul was brought out by Otis and Carla. The pair compare lifestyles, with Otis playing the butt of Carla’s rebukes. At one point, Carla accuses him of being “country” and a wearer of overalls, and Otis couldn’t see any insult in such statements. Add The Bar-Kays’ swinging horns and a groove that just demands you dance, and you’ve got one of the greatest soul hits of the 60s.

4: I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (from ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’, 1965)

Another track from Otis Blue, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long proved there was room for soul ballads in the US chart; this was Otis’ second-best-selling single. He wrote it with Chicago soul’s iceman, Jerry Butler, and it’s a pity the pair didn’t collaborate further as the song suited both singers – though Otis’ rougher, more emotional version is the better-known cut. The way Otis holds and bends those notes squeezes every last drop of emotion from the song. Who else could have delivered it quite like him?

3: Respect (from ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’, 1965)

So you think Aretha Franklin’s version came first? Remarkable as her interpretation was, Otis was the originator of Respect, and the attitude of these two most famous versions of the song could not be more different. Otis is willing to put up with a little philandering from his partner as long as she is good to him in the flesh, while Aretha demands 100 per cent of his love and honour. Is his attitude pitiful, or is he simply not worried about what he cannot change? Either way, Otis’ version struck a chord in 1965 and instantly took its place among the best Otis Redding songs when it became a Billboard Top 40 hit. Respect due.

2: I Can’t Turn You Loose (single B-side, 1965)

A storming, driving, soul-shaking dance tune, I Can’t Turn You Loose is a stone-cold Otis classic, and proof – if it were needed – that Stax could deliver hard-edged floor-fillers as easily as Motown could. However, this mighty song was originally intended as a B-side; it was only the response of radio DJs across the US that told Stax they had a winner here, though it only made the R&B chart. Nonetheless, the song became central to Otis’ electrifying live act, and its energy remains palpable.

1: (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay (single A-side, 1968)

Otis’ only No.1 hit – which he never lived to see. The first of many records released after the great man’s tragic death was also the first to find him working in what was probably his intended direction – a mellower, folkier form of soul that would resonate way beyond the music’s usual audience. Topping our list of the best Otis Redding songs, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay remains a poignant song of struggle and reconciliation with life’s troubles. It took on a whole new tragic resonance when you realised it was to be both his biggest success and last testament.

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