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‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’: Behind The Timeless Masterpiece
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In Depth

‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’: Behind The Timeless Masterpiece

Some albums are stuck in time. Some don’t fit any time. A few suit their era yet transcend it. Such is ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’.

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Released on Stax Records on 15 September 1965, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul was instantly acclaimed as one of the best soul albums ever recorded. This was the soul album you listened to as well as grooved to. It had heart, as almost all of Otis Redding’s work did, but it also had a mind, and it reflected its era of profound change.

Buy ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’ on clear vinyl at the Dig! store.

The recording: Redding was in a high-octane state

Perhaps that made sense: Otis Blue was made by Black and white musicians working together in a Southern US forced by the civil-rights movement to confront its prejudices. It’s quite a task for any record to reflect that, though Otis Blue somehow did, even if few of its songs were explicit about it. Rather, the album suggested the burgeoning freedom of a youth that would no longer accept the way things supposedly had to be. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about it was, Redding laid down ten of its 11 tracks in 24 hours, part of a day-and-a-half’s hiatus in his constant touring schedule.

Redding was Stax’s star performer. While other sessions could be treated more casually, everyone made a special effort for “The King Of Soul”; he was demanding, working out arrangements in his head then singing them to the hornsmen until they got it. Other singers were prepared to go with the flow – or were even intimidated by working with musicians who had delivered so many hits.

Having been on the road, Redding was in a high-octane state during the sessions for Otis Blue, which took place across 19 April before resuming on 9 and 10 July 1965. He was ready to work. Little wonder, then, that he got so much done in such a short space of time. The situation probably influenced the choice of material: Redding hadn’t had much time to write songs, and brought just three to the table, among them the moaning, groaning Ole Man Trouble – about as close to the blues as anything he wrote.

The songs: Astonishingly poignant. Definitive recordings

Choosing to open his new album with this slow wail, rather than the hit singles Respect or My Girl, was an audacious move. Indisputably one of the best soul singers of all time, Redding sometimes referred to himself as a blues singer, which explains the album’s two-part title: Otis Blue, because he felt bluesy; Otis Redding Sings Soul, so fans knew what they were getting.

The mournful I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, co-written in a hotel room in Buffalo, New York, with the mighty Chicago soul man Jerry Butler when they crossed paths on the road, was one of Redding’s greatest performances: listen to those amazing bent notes. Butler made his own version in 1968; The Rolling Stones played it live; Chris Farlowe, Sandy Posey and Dionne Warwick were among those who recorded it. But Redding posted the definitive cut on Otis Blue, and it still stands as one of the best Otis Redding songs of all time.

Speaking of the Stones… It wasn’t unusual for soul stars to adapt current hits, but to cover a song so strongly associated with one contemporary act was a little unlikely. Perhaps cutting (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction was payback for the number of songs the Britrock legends had copped from Redding and his labelmates. It had been Steve Cropper’s idea, and the backing track was ready when Redding came in to voice it. Unusually for a guitar player, Cropper had suggested shifting the tune’s fuzzbox riff to horns. Curiously, Keith Richards had initially envisaged that riff for horns. Even more curiously, Redding played Satisfaction at a show with the Stones in the wings. Offstage, Richards commented on the performance, and Redding told him it was a tune he’d just written. Perhaps he was winding the guitarist up. In a further connection, Otis Blue also featured a blues tune the Stones played live, BB King’s Rock Me Baby, which Redding emotes with lustful urgency.

My Girl, the delicate if passionate reworking of Smokey Robinson and Ronald White’s hit for The Temptations, formed part of Stax’s ongoing battle with its rivals up north in Detroit: Motown. So you think you’re soulful up there, huh? Well, out-soul this. Redding also tackles Down In The Valley, an ersatz, almost cheesy folk tune in Solomon Burke’s version, but played straight by Redding, like he really was marching down that valley: he was a country boy while Burke was a Philly city slicker.

The heart of Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul is three Sam Cooke songs. This soul pioneer had been shot dead in December 1964, and Redding considered cutting a tribute album to him. Here he serves up the dance tune Shake, the slightest track on the record, but still full of Memphis goodness. Perhaps Redding’s experience as someone who left school at 15 to help feed his family by grafting as a fuel-pump attendant and well-digger made his version of Wonderful World convincing. And Cooke’s conscious anthem A Change Is Gonna Come, astonishingly poignant coming from a Georgia singer, brings Redding’s acute awareness of Black America’s situation into sharp focus. You can feel the struggle.

The legacy: The best of Otis Redding in one place. For all time

Otis Blue closes with a touching cut of Stax labelmate William Bell’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, a learned-the-hard-way ballad that finishes with the singer’s dilemma unresolved, leaving listeners thirsty for more. Redding was at a peak, but we will never know just how much higher he could have climbed; he never lived to see one of his records at No.1, though the posthumous (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay, did make it. Losing someone you love is an appalling loss, but at least Redding left behind the best of him in Otis Blue. For all time.

Buy ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’ on clear vinyl at the Dig! store.

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