We look back on The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, which turns 50 today. by Thomas Johnson
In 1966, Otis Redding performed at Los Angeles’ Whiskey A Go Go following the release of the previous year’sOtis Blue. The concert was a defining moment in his career; exposing white audiences to Memphis-soul by way of his gravely bark and left-right-right stomping,coupled withOtis Blue,the newly released landmark in soul music. An impressed Bob Dylan happened to be in attendance. After the show, Dylan offered Redding the opportunity to cover “Just Like A Woman,” fromBlonde On Blonde. Redding declined. He was 24.
While we can can only strain our collective larynx crying over milk long-spoilt, a minute of reflection for Otis’ reasoning might rinse that awful mouthfeel. Two reasons:
1) Otis couldn’t sing the bridge; the foooog, amphetamiiiines, and peeeaarls of Dylan’s muse were vices foreign to Redding and, according to Phil Walden (Redding’s manager at the time) Otis “couldn’t get those words to come out of his mouth in a truthful way. So, we had to put it aside.” It’s heartwarming, but not the most important part.
2) The most important part is: predominantly a cover artist, byBlue, Otis had become comfortable with his own pen. His writing streamlined, trimming away redundancies and unnecessary baggage. His songs became short, filled with quips, basic in format but malleable enough for just the sweetest thought to filter through his croak.
That failed recording session marked a pivotal moment in the denouement of Otis Redding’s career. It gave usComplete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul, the best Otis Redding album.
Did you know Otis wrote Aretha Franklin’s “Respect?” He did, two years before Franklin spelt feminism with a capital-R. It was the second track onOtis Bluebefore it was the first onI Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. It was also the only instance in his career where his words were eclipsed by another voice. From then, his best words came from his own hand, delivered by way of his calloused rumble. Yes, his career was busy with covers, and his legacy sits firmly atop his prolificacy hijacking rhythms and emotions and grooves and sensations hidden to the original artist —the Rolling Stones, or size, have admitted to altering their live-renditions of “Satisfaction” to more resemble Otis’ version as they found it preferable to their own. The four albums precedingComplete & Unbelievableshowed unprecedented mastery of adaptation and grasp of musical sensibility.Dictionarywas the focal point of his transition from colouring outside preset lines to drowning blank canvases in shades of royal blue and impossible blackness.
Bluemarked Redding’s ascent of Soul music.Dictionaryis 37 minutes of said peak’s howling winds.Dictionaryemanates an aura of prideful, playful confidence — no hubris. It positioned Otis as the King Of Soul. He was 25. His lifespan has been lapped twice since its release, it’s tracklist re-appropriated and recycled and graciously borrowed by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Grand Puba, Salt-n-Pepa and Kanye, half of the Wu-Tang Clan, Phantogram and the other half of the the Wu-Tang Clan.
Complete & Unbelievable: Otis Redding’s Dictionary of Soulwas the first album in his catalogue to truly showcase Otis Redding as a premiere songwriter. His MO was tailored to his delivery, bespoke for his burly presence. He preferred to write simply, recognizing the power of a concise line unburdened by redundant imagery or metaphor. It’s what makes the latter half ofDictionary, in which four of the six songs were Redding originals, such an immediate delight. “Ton Of Joy” or “My Lover’s Prayer” highlight his efficiency as a songwriter; the former as straightforward a ballad as you can write, the latter a painstakingly one-sided conversation. “Joy,” it’s simplicity and unfiltered exuberance, gave Redding’s improvisations ample room to forego form for tenacity, to the point where his ad-libs packed morefeeeelthan the chorus or bridges. “My Lover’s Prayer” is the unpacking of heartbreak by a tired romantic, exhausted and blissful. Couplets like “She gives the blind man eyes to see, y'all/She knocks a preacher man straight on his knees” and “What can the matter be, now?/It can't be too serious, we can't talk it over”are so discernibly straightforward, it’s shocking they hadn’t been said before. That’s the funny thing about standards: at their genesis, they are astonishing. It was through uncomplicated mediums that Otis was able to channel his greatest depth of emotion.
An understatement, but his bands helped. Steve Cropper and Isaac Hayes of Booker T & The MG’s, in addition to being progenitors of the Memphis Soul sound typified byDictionary of Soul—thus by extension progenitors of modern soul music— were intrinsically involved in the structuring ofDictionary. Cropper was a Blues Brother and Hayes portrayed Chef on South Park, so there’s that too. Cropper has co-writing credits on “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” and “I’m Sick Y’all” while Hayes contributed to “Sweet Lorene” and “Love Have Mercy.” They played guitar and keys, respectively, on all tracks, and they played crucial roles in the arrangements made by the Memphis Horns. Otis had a love of horns, and Dictionaryis filled with them. Unable to read or write music, he would reportedly hum melodies to the Memphis Horns or Bar-Kays that would later be implemented live or in-studio. It’s how the triumphant brass section of “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” came to be. I imagine it’s how the dancing chorus of backup wind closing out “Ton Of Joy” came to fruition as well. Stabs from the Horns are sprinkled throughout, punching moments of levity in between the valleys of Redding’s execution. This early lineup, before venturing away from Stax Records and whittling down to the duo of Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, consisted of Jackson (trumpet), Love (tenor sax.), Joe Arnold (tenor sax.) and Floyd Newman (baritone sax.).
But Otis’ fifth was no one’s but his own. Otis loved, well, love, too. He brimmed with it.Dictionary of Souloverflowed with it. It was the band and it was the writing, but it was mostly the voice. Redding’s vibrato would rattle right from his heart, pumping passion through all 6 ft. 2, 220lbs of him. He made his rockslide vocals sound docile, gravel made plush with a little tenderness. At barely a quarter century old, Redding’s voice sounded world and wine weary enough to have twisted with Dionysus.
Take the wounded tremolo that opens “Tennessee Waltz.” Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart originally wrote it in 1948. Redding repurposed the country standard into a power ballad, by little more than the vibrato in his voice. He never passes up the beauty of the dance —that beautiful, wonderful, marvellous Tennessee Waltz — only injects it with his woes, juxtaposed with the warbling grandeur of his vocal chords. He was magnetic, entrancing, inspiring. When asked about the dueling melodies of its opening horn line, Haye’s screeching keys and the Spanish leaning plucks of his guitar, Cropper has said that while recording “Try A Little Tenderness,” the MG’s just“listen[ed] to Otis Redding. Everything else was sort of insignificant, as far as I was concerned.”
“Try A Little Tenderness.” The towering monolith that epitomizes Redding’s career, it stands as not only one of the greatest covers ever, but as, simply put, one of the greatestsongsever (A twist of irony: Aretha Franklin covered it four years before him). There’s a performance Otis put on in Cleveland with the Bar-Kays on December 9th, 1967, a day before flying to Madison, Wisconsin. Three concerts at Leo’s Casino forUpbeat!, a local variety program. The Big O, as he was affectionately referred to, stood surrounded by his band in golden suits, his feet planted firmly to the ground barely shifting the entirety of the performance. His torso didn’t get the memo, its ligaments contracting then snapping loose and fro. As the crescendo rose his arms flailed and waved. His shoulders dipped to his waist, his neck craned and his veins popping, arteries seemingly ready to burst. He echoed a wacky-wavy-inflatable-arm-tube man were it built like an NFL linebacker. It’s a slightly awkward performance objectively; he doesn’t really seem to know what to do with his body. In all likelihood he was the last person to notice, certainly the last to give a shit. Redding was so engrossed in the rising momentum of “Tenderness” that his corporeal form became second, third, fourth thought. He became pure energy, expelling enough Joules to power the rest of the performers into controlled mania. Coos and warbles shifting to grunts and barks. He’s visibly sweating. It’s utterly captivating.
December 10th, 1967. Oti's plane never made it to Madison. He was 26.
When his plane went down in Lake Monona, Otis’ discography consisted of six studio albums; five solo and one collaborative. He was immortal, long before he was recreated in bronze and vinyl. His catalogue contained unimpeachable classics by the multitudes, influential beyond measure and timeless beyond argument. His next single, “(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay” became the first posthumous single to reach number one on the US Charts. With Steve Cropper’s help, he finished writing it but three days before his death, and finished recording it the day before his performance at Leo’s. Bob Dylan covered it at The Gorge Amphitheater in George, Washington on August 18th1990. “Dock Of The Bay” came to be via a crucial evolution Redding underwent betweenOtis Blueand his death. An evolution that brought him mastery of his pen, synthesis of his band, and unfathomable control of that singular, unparalleled voice. That evolution was catalyzed byComplete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, the best Otis Redding album.