Rewind: Otis Redding’s Otis Blue
[On the long list of incredible artists who died too soon, it doesn’t get much more tragic than Otis Redding. This article was yet another love letter to an album that, in my humble opinion, is about as close as you can get to perfect. And if I may flatter myself, I think I make a pretty damn good playlist.]
With TIDAL Rewind, we blow the dust off an old album that’s begging to be heard again. Here we look back at Otis Redding’s enduring masterpiece, Otis Blue, which turns 50 years old on September 15.
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What is Otis Blue?
Otis Blue, or more properly Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul, is the third studio album by the King of Soul, Otis Redding. Released September 15, 1965 on Stax Records, it consists of 11 tracks, all but three of them covers of other popular artists. Amazingly, the entire album (save for opener “Ole Man Trouble”) was recorded over a 24-hour session at Stax Recording Studios in Memphis.
Otis Blue was highly celebrated upon its release and became one of Redding’s most successful albums. Many consider Otis Blue to be Redding’s first fully-realized album, as well as arguably his best, and it is frequently included in lists of the best albums of all time.
What does it sound like?
As on previous albums, Otis was joined by a dream team of session musicians, including Booker T. & the M.G.’s (the Stax house band at the time), Isaac Hayes on piano, and a horn section that included members of the Bar-Keys and the Memphis Horns. Recorded between 10 a.m. July 9 and 2 p.m. July 10 (allotting a several-hour break in the night so the band members could play local gigs in Memphis) the album has a decidedly live feel, with most of the tracks recorded on their first or second take. In other words, this is Otis unpolished and in his element.
Despite not writing the majority of the songs, Redding manages to transform every single one into something completely his own. This includes a funky jam of Solomon Burke’s “Down in the Valley,” a soulful rendition of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and more masculinized version of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” popularized by the Temptations. His aggressive and raw take of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was so convincingly original that the Stones were at one point accused of appropriating the song from Redding.
Three of the album’s strongest tracks — “Shake,” “Wonderful World” and “Change is Gonna Come” — were originally written and performed by Sam Cooke, who died just a few months earlier. Redding covered Cooke’s songs throughout his own brief career, establishing his voice as the rough, countrified counterpart to Cooke’s smooth, urbane style. In many minds, Redding’s impassioned renditions — such as his heart-bleeding “Change is Gonna Come” on Otis Blue — frequently rival or surpass the great Cooke’s originals as the song’s definitive version.
Redding’s three originals on the album — “Ole Man Trouble,” “Respect,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” — defend his reputation as a gifted songwriter in his own right. Explaining the effortlessness of “Respect,” which Aretha Franklin would turn into the feminist anthem “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Redding said the whole song took “a day to write, 20 minutes to arrange, and one take to record.”
Why should I care?
Often imitated, but never matched, there will never be another Otis Redding. This 24-hour snapshot captures the immense talent of a man, whose tragic death in a plane crash two years later (along with several members of the Bar-Keys) cheated the world of one of the most promising performers of his generation. He was only 26 years old.
Otis Redding’s influence cannot be understated. As the King of Soul, his lean and powerful style defined the Stax Sound and made him a archetypical role model for soul singers and rock ‘n’ rollers alike. Both the Beatles and the Stones cited him as a primary influencer, along with Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Grateful and the Doors — as has just about every soul and R&B artist of the past 50 years, including Al Green, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin. In more recent decades his recordings have been heavily sampled in hip-hop, such as JAY Z and Kanye West’s Grammy-winning “Otis,” which lifts Redding’s hollering vocals on “Try A Little Tenderness.”
Testifying to the profound importance of Otis Blue and Redding’s greater legacy, Pitchfork called the album ”the crowning achievement of a man who could sound pained and celebratory and tender and gritty and proud all at once, with a voice that everyone from John Fogerty to Swamp Dogg to Cee-lo owes a debt to.”
Where do I hear more?
Outside of Otis Blue, Otis Redding was more of a singles artist, as was typical of the recording industry at the time. All the same, there are plenty of hidden treasures in his living and post-death discography.
Redding’s most unforgettable song is without a doubt “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” recorded mere days before his death, released posthumously as a single. It later appeared on an compilation album of the same name, also considered to be one of the best collections of his songs.
Following his recovery from a larynx condition that had threatened the future use of his voice, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was written on a houseboat Sausalito, California with Booker T & the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper. Inspired by the Beatles’ then-new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the track’s crossover sound displeased Stax at the time, but is now celebrated (and lamented) as another brilliant (and painful) reminder of all the incredible music Otis Redding had yet to make.
The internet hosts some remarkable video footage of Otis in action. Of particular interest is his legendary performance at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, credited for breaking him as a mass-appealing crossover artist, and his now-haunting final concert in Cleveland, Ohio, recorded the day before the fateful accident that took his life.
(Otis Redding, January 1967)