Sunday, April 06, 2008

Sunday Soul - Otis Blue Revisited

Soul is a word that has many meanings. In the pop-R&B world of today it usually means an intensely dramatic performance by a singer, projected with such feeling that it reaches out and visibly moves the listener. It means that the singer is saying something, sometimes even more than the lyrics themselves might normally convey. Soul is not something that can be feigned – you either have it or you don’t. Otis Redding has it, to a degree almost unrivaled by any other young singer in sight.

-original Otis Blue cover notes

Mention the name Otis Redding to most people and the association they’ll make is with the song (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay. That fact is both ironic and a shame. Ironic because the song he’s most well known for wasn’t released until after his untimely death, and originally possibly wasn’t going to be released at all. In fact, the song isn’t really representative of the stylistic feeling of the majority of his work, rather a glimpse at where his creativity was leading him. It’s a shame because Otis was perhaps if not the best, at least one of the best male soul vocalists to ever come along, and that fact is often overshadowing by the overwhelming popularity and success of that one song.

Although Otis’ story was cut tragically short, it’s an interesting one. He had an incredibly lucky break in 1962 when he had the opportunity to cut a solo track (These Arms of Mine) in the famed Stax studios. At the time Otis was singing (and working as a chauffer!) for a musician named Johnny Jenkins and his band the Pinetoppers. The band had hired out the studio to do some recording, and finished up early, with 40 minutes left of session time. Otis stepped up to the mic, and as they say, the rest was history. Otis split from the band and went on to become one of Volt Records’ (a Stax subsidiary) most talented and successful artists.

Otis continued to record with Stax and his popularity grew immensely. Unlike many black soul artists of the time who were limited to primarily producing 7” singles, Otis was afforded the opportunity to create complete albums which sold quite consistently. Possibly the most famous and artistically crafted was cut in 1965: Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul.

The album is a collection of eleven tracks which are, to be quite honest with you, amazing from beginning to end. There is absolutely no filler here. There are Redding originals here, including his original version of Respect (with a different feel to it compared to Aretha Franklin’s equally satisfying cover), a stirring version of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, a BB King song (Rock Me Baby), a surprisingly refreshing Motown cover (My Girl), an equally surprising Rolling Stones cover (although perhaps not so surprising as the Stones’ love of Blues and Soul is well known and they in turn had covered many Redding tunes on several of their albums), and a powerfully heart-wrenching William Bell song (You Don’t Miss Your Water) to close the album out.

Almost as amazing as the sounds on the album is the story behind the recording process. The entire album was recorded in 24 hours. All of it. The musicians showed up in the studio and started to jam at 10 in the morning, worked through the day, woke up at 2 AM the following morning, and had it wrapped up by 10 AM the next day so Otis could hop back on a plane and get to a concert he was performing. Equally interesting is the fact that the album was recorded both in mono and in stereo simultaneously.

Which brings me to the point of today’s Sunday Soul. The album has been re-released in a collector’s edition by the folks over at Rhino Records as a 2 disc set. Disc one contains the original album in mono along with some bonus material including some alternate recordings and singles, and six tracks recorded live at the Whiskey A Go Go in 1966. Disc two reveals the album in stereo along with an alternate take of Respect (a mystery recording with a faster tempo) and five tracks recorded live in Europe from the Stax tour in 1967. As a package, it’s very coherent, and includes some well written and revealing liner notes penned by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville U.S.A. – The Story of Stax Records, quite possibly the definitive tome on the historical Memphis label, and the liner notes of The Complete Stax / Volt Soul Singles Box Sets.

Visit Otis' official site and Rhino Records.


Otis Redding – (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay : (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay 7”

Otis Redding – Sweet Lorene : (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay 7” B-side

The Rolling Stones – I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (Otis Redding cover) : Got Live If You Want It! (original version on Redding’s Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul)

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