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King & Queen: When Otis Redding And Carla Thomas Took The Crown
In Depth

King & Queen: When Otis Redding And Carla Thomas Took The Crown

Pairing Otis Redding’s belting voice with Carla Thomas’ classy poise, ‘King & Queen’ was a stroke of genius from Stax Records.

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Not so much the King and Queen as they were two complementary aces in Stax’s pack, this superb and endlessly entertaining album from Otis Redding and Carla Thomas reminds us of the soulful side of a year often assumed by rock historians to be all about psychedelia. Yes, we’re talking 1967, and while Otis had a hand in helping to make the hippie era so memorable, he was doing it with soul all the way – as King & Queen readily testifies.

Listen to King & Queen here.

A stroke of genius

Otis Redding was the big voice of Stax Records, the Memphis label gleefully putting Southern soul on the map. While he had been recording since the early 60s and was adored – practically worshipped – by many soul fans, he still hadn’t reached his full potential despite a steadily rising stack of Stax hits. His hoarse, heartbreaking voice and seemingly endless ability to write songs and transform other ditties that sometimes dated back decades had helped make his record label a force in soul music. Otis had come out of nowhere to find fame.

By contrast, Carla Thomas was no croaky soul shouter, nor a contender with little pedigree. Her tones were elegant and refined, and she’d always been around Stax because her papa was Rufus Thomas, one of the label’s foundation artists and an entertainer who had been a Memphis celebrity since before the war. While their styles were very different, it was a stroke of genius to match the label’s biggest male and female stars, with Carla’s classy poise proving the ideal foil for Otis’ overall-wearing, man-of-the-soil persona. The fact that, in reality, Carla was as sassy as they came, and Otis was actually as slick as any mohair-suited soulster was neither here nor there. Together their formula worked.

Mutual chemistry

The big hit from the King & Queen session was Tramp, a total reworking of Lowell Fulson’s funky blues tune that brought a smile to all that heard the sophisticated Carla ripping her musical partner to shreds while Otis good-naturedly attempts to defend himself and his romantic country ways. “You’re straight from the Georgia woods,” snarls Carla, only to be met with a shrugging, “That’s good.” With a swaggering brass section and a groove only a plank of wood wouldn’t dance to, Tramp was a floor-filler. But it’s by no means the only joyful track on King & Queen. There were smaller hits in a driving version of labelmate Eddie Floyd’s Knock On Wood and a punchy lick of Lovey Dovey, originally a hit for The Clovers in 1954. Rather more easily set up for a duet, It Takes Two is more R&B-powered than the original cut by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston, with glorious brass and rollicking piano straight out of a barroom party.

Ooh Carla, Ooh Otis is the sole original song on the album, penned by Otis and, like everything else on the album, sounding so natural that you imagine it just sprang from the singers’ mutual chemistry. Bert Berns’ Are You Lonely For Me Baby is rather more steady, but still awash with pheromones and gravy. While Otis rarely put a step wrong in the mid-60s, don’t assume he runs the show; Carla had the musical maturity to bring true woman-power to the album, and her vocals on the strutting Let Me Be Good To You and Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me add a heartfelt dimension that the big man could not have hoped to generate alone.

Magic only they could deliver

While the album was created in a matter of days and the tracklist is apparently randomly plucked from the R&B songbook, there’s a relaxed sincerity to King & Queen: everyone is enjoying themselves, and it’s genuinely touching to hear. One listen to the duo’s version of Aaron Neville’s hit Tell It Like It Is tells you just how comfortable the singers were together.

Otis would never be in such a relaxed studio situation again. In the summer of 1967, he stepped up his recording game, reaching for his new audience among the flower children who discovered him through his gigs during that pivotal season – a move that resulted in the artistic high-water mark of (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay. Issued on 16 March 1967, King & Queen was, tragically, the final studio album the great man would live to see released, and it proved to be the biggest-selling record of Carla’s career. It stands as a beautiful testament to two then-untroubled souls, singing their hearts out among musicians who were friends, conjuring up the magic only they could deliver. Soul royalty, indeed.

Discover how Otis Redding became The King Of Soul

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