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To help people who bought VMP Anthology: The Story Of Stax Records dive deep into the catalogs of the artists featured in our box set, we’ve created primers for every artist featured.
The thing about electricity is that it doesn’t need to come through in a loud bang to be felt and it’s like this with music, too. Whether in a hushed word or in an exuberant shout, the shock of it courses through you just the same. Otis Redding understood that, maybe better than a lot of his peers, and his singing was pure electric fire. It’s been 52 years since his death and hopefully it is always known that the King of Soul was an absolute master at playing heartstrings. No one could twist a note into deeply felt anguish the way Redding could. It was all right there in his voice, the musical arrangement providing a cushion, not a push, coming up behind him in support, allowing Redding to stand front and center on iconic songs like “These Arms of Mine,” “Respect,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” to plea for love, keep hope alive despite impending heartache, and to prove that soul music is universal and meant for all to enjoy.
Redding grew up in Macon, Georgia. The son of a church deacon, his musical tastes were cut on gospel, blues, and R&B. Idols included soul and rock ’n’ roll legends Sam Cooke and Little Richard, a fitting juxtaposition of gospel crooning and high-energy chaos. Redding walked around with passion in his gut and an irrepressible ambition to prove his chosen path as a singer would lead to success. He was singing in local clubs beginning at 15 years old in 1956, winning talent contests, and learning the business of showmanship. Eventually he was a singer with a band called the Pinetoppers and as early as 1960 Redding took a chance and headed out to L.A. to be a star. When it didn’t happen, he returned to Georgia, married and had a baby, but didn’t give up on his dream, even working with a small label to release some singles. In 1962 his break finally came at Stax Records in Memphis at a session for the guitarist of the Pinetoppers. Getting a chance to sing two songs, Redding impressed with “These Arms of Mine,” a song he’d written a couple of years prior. Signing with Stax, “These Arms of Mine” was released later that year. Redding’s first album, Pain in My Heart (1964), compiled several of his Stax singles and B-sides. It didn’t break any records or climb high in the charts but it was a strong enough showing for a singer that Stax felt could go all the way.
And go all the way, Otis Redding did. He is now known as one of the greatest artists of all time. A tall, burly man, Redding showed that gritty could also be tender, that muscular could also be warm, and that growling emotion could also be vulnerable. Ballads, stompers, reworked cover songs that no longer resembled their original incarnations, Redding could do it all.
Longtime fans and new ones should all make it a habit of some weekly Otis Redding listening. Here are some to put in your rotation.
Redding had a knack for owning a song, making it seem like it was his and no one else’s. This knack presented itself and then some on second studio album, 1965’s The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads. Seeing how adept Redding was at sad songs, the album consists mostly of ballads with the exception of successful single “Mr. Pitiful,” a song Redding co-wrote with Stax session guitarist Steve Cropper. Of the twelve tracks, Redding wrote or co-wrote five of them. The rest are covers like Sam Cooke’s “Nothing Can Change This Love” and The Impressions’ “For Your Precious Love.” Single “Mr. Pitiful” is a midtempo number that seemed to make fun of his penchant for heartbreaking ballads but even in its more upbeat tone, he’s still lamenting over a love he yearns for. Another album highlight is the Redding co-penned “Your One and Only Man,” which sounds like an early version of later hit “Respect.” The track that stands out the most, though, is “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” a re-arranged cover of a song originally sung by O.V. Wright. It was cast as the B-side to the “Mr. Pitiful” single but ended up charting in its own right. Even though Redding didn’t write it, his rendition of a devoted love ranks up there as one of his most moving performances.
Otis Blue (1965), Redding’s third studio album, was the one where he finally found his footing, more comfortable in his own voice than on previous efforts. It was also Redding’s most overt effort to capture mainstream listeners with offerings as varied as a cover of the Temptations’ hit “My Girl,” the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.” Redding also paid homage to one of his idols by covering three Sam Cooke songs (“Shake,” “Wonderful World,” and “Change Gonna Come”). But Redding really knocked it out of the park with three self-penned/co-penned numbers. The country-blues opener “Ole Man Trouble” shows a more reflective Redding, the assertive “Respect” (his is the original, though Aretha Franklin later made it hers) says he doesn’t care what his woman does when he’s not there but demands respect when he gets home, and the awe-inspiring build-up of desperate love in “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” was his biggest hit up to that time. Otis Blue went to No. 1 on the R&B album chart and is arguably his best.
In 1966, Redding was on a steady climb, selling records and conquering places that once seemed out of reach to soul artists, like the famed L.A. club Whisky a Go-Go. And as the fans that went to his shows would attest, his live shows were the ones to see. Redding’s energy and verve crossed over no matter what he was singing. The Soul Album (1966) displays much of this eclectic energy. He still burned and yearned in a ballad like nobody’s business (listen to “Just One More Day,” “Cigarettes and Coffee,” and “Everybody Makes A Mistake”) but you get a sense of fun on tracks like the Temptations cover “It’s Growing,” the Sam Cooke cover “Chain Gang,” the blues rock of “Scratch My Back,” and the shout party of “Treat Her Right.”
Redding kept the energy going on his fifth studio album Dictionary of Soul (1966). By that time, Redding was already adept at reinterpreting established songs and twisting them to fit his own special brand of toe-tapping soul. This is most evidenced by his version of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” It barely sounds like the same song. His other singles off the album hit the top 20 on the R&B charts, like the fun “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa,” the plea-filled “My Lover’s Prayer,” and “Try A Little Tenderness.” As with many songs that he didn’t write, you hear his version of “Try A Little Tenderness” and it’s hard to believe it started out as a pop standard from the 1930s. Redding took it and molded it, Cropper and company lulling in the background while Redding begins with a sad ode to a woman run ragged by life who just needs tenderness. The music builds and Redding unleashes into a fiery shout, demanding that this woman deserves it, to leave her alone unless it’s with a gentle touch. And if Redding is demanding it, you know it has to be true. “Tenderness” went to No. 4 on the R&B chart and 25 on the pop chart and to this day is one of Redding’s most well-known songs.
Redding had a busy 1967. Live album (Live in Europe), a duets album with Carla Thomas (King & Queen), and the Monterey Pop Festival where he wowed the Bay Area rock crowd. There didn’t seem to be anything he couldn’t do. But then Otis Redding died that December in a plane crash and it was devastating to his family and friends, Stax, his fans, and to music in general. But there were still recordings in the can that had yet to be released. Three days before his death, he finished recording what would be his biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Its sad view of letting life pass by as the narrator feels like there’s nothing to live for hit a little too close to home, given Redding’s sudden death at age 26. The single was released the following month and topped the pop and R&B charts, demonstrating the inevitable transition to mainstream stardom that Redding seemed destined for. The Dock of the Bay (1968) was a posthumous album and essentially a compilation of mostly previously released material from singles, B-sides, and three from other albums. Anchored by “Dock of the Bay,” it’s a reminder of a career that was on an upward trajectory to unknown heights.
There was another posthumous release in 1968 that is just as strong as The Dock of the Bay and this time it consisted of songs Redding had recorded in his last sessions at Stax in December ’67. In the fall of ’67 Redding had undergone surgery on his throat and was ordered to rest his voice afterwards. In that time, Redding went stir crazy, tooling over songs, listening to the Beatles, and when he went back in the studio he was bursting with ideas. The Immortal Otis Redding (1968) includes the heartbreaker “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” which includes a co-writing credit to his wife Zelma Redding, the fierce “Hard to Handle,” “The Happy Song” (previously released), and “Amen.” There are also songs that are a bit more atypical compared to previous work, like, “You Made a Man Out of Me” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” My personal favorite has to be “Dreams,” though. If “Dock of the Bay” hit you in the gut with its sad resignation, “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” reminded everyone that nobody did down-on-your-knees heartbreak better than Otis Redding. It also includes backup singers, a first for a Redding song. There’s no scraping the bottom of the barrel here. Every track on this album enthralls in its emotional intensity, which is not really a surprise since we’re talking Otis Redding. There were more posthumous releases to come but this one is the best snapshot of Redding’s mindset and ambition just before he died.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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