#78 – Otis Redding – Otis Blue (1965)
September 18, 2014
I love Otis Redding dearly, but I’ve never managed to become a great fan of his actual records. My connection to his music was forged most strongly through an anthology that had been on this list but was removed, along with a live album, to make way for Lil Wayne and LCD Sound System. I understood the decision–he is still well represented on the list, and a recent, multi-disc anthology holds pretty tenuous claim to great album status per se. But I was still saddened by the decision, since that collection (Dreams to Remember: The Otis Redding Anthology) delivers a much more concentrated picture of Otis at his most brilliant than do any of his individual albums–including this, his most famous and celebrated.
I really wish I liked this album better than I do, because I know that it was the Otis Redding to have in its own time. My father fondly recalls a “one record party” he attended in high school, where this album was played again and again, all night long. In that context, it would indeed have been a great album. And it still is, of course. It’s just that with from the vantage point of the future, this album doesn’t quite manage to deliver the continuous stream of perfection afforded by a good retrospective compilation.
My complaint proceeds along two interwoven lines. The first is that I greatly prefer Otis Redding’s balladry over his more frenetic output–what I think of as his “gotta gotta gotta” material. There are exceptions, of course–such as the magnificent “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” but none of them appear on this album. For an album with “blue” in the title, it errs a bit too much on the ecstatic side. The other complaint is that I tend to prefer songs written by Otis himself over an excess of cover versions. The exceptions to that tend to be songs like “Try a Little Tenderness” or “Pain in My Heart” (a co-option of Irma Thomas’s “Ruler of My Heart”) that are otherwise obscure enough that Otis’s version has managed to become the canonical one. In general, I’m faintly annoyed by the incestuous quality of the soul genre, in which any song that became a hit for one artist was instantly recorded by many other artists. It is almost never the case that the initial version was significantly improved upon.
Probably the biggest exception to this rule, ever, of course, is “Respect,” which in Otis’s own words, Aretha Franklin “stole away” from him. Clearly hers is the superior and very much the canonical version of that song, although its arrangement and semiotic portent are so different from Otis’s version, which appears on this record, that they almost qualify as different songs altogether. If not forced into a direct shooting match, Otis’s version still very much stands on its own merits, although for my tastes, it is the least of the three originals on this record. The other two, “Ole Man Trouble” and most especially the incomparable “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” are more in the balladic style I favor, and are far and away the high points of this album, in terms of quality if not energy.
The most conspicuously identifiable set of covers on the album are the three Sam Cooke songs–a tribute to the recently deceased singer who was such a tremendous influence on Otis Redding, and the soul genre as a whole. Of these three, “Shake” is the best fit. It’s a great song, but one that has never sat all that well for me in Cooke’s own version. His voice is just a little too mellifluous and smooth to give the song quite the grit it deserves. Otis gives it just the right jagged edge, and it is his version I have come to prefer. For precisely converse reasons, the least successful is “Wonderful World,” which is not really a soul song at all. It is decidedly of the poppier side of Cooke’s repertoire, and he lends the sweet, high school-specific lyric the gentle innocence it requires to work. Otis sounds way too grown up and…mustachioed for the song to make any sense at all coming out of his mouth.
Somewhere in between falls Cooke’s majestic “A Change is Gonna Come,” which is obnoxiously referred to simply as “Change Gonna Come” on the sleeve of this album, as though the directness of Otis’s presentation obviates the need for such niceties as articles and prepositions. It begins almost the equal of Cooke’s version, the seriousness of its message and the stateliness of its sound working both as a civil rights anthem and as a eulogy for Cooke. As it progresses, though, it somehow loses focus. Fidelity to lyrics was never Otis’s strong point, and so he starts kind of winging it after awhile with a gospelly sort of looseness (“You know that I know that you know that a change is gonna come…”) that ought to work, and yet because Cooke’s words are so carefully and beautifully arranged to convey its point, this kind of improvisatory meandering feels slightly (and clearly not intentionally) like a desecration. Cooke’s own version remains the gold standard, though certainly other good versions exist. I like Aretha’s version better than this one, but this one does ultimately do a pretty good job. Otis’s pleading style gives it a welcome kind of grave intensity, but his looseness of style feels a little willy nilly in the context of what almost qualifies as a sacred text.
The other covers on the album are mostly superfluous and not of great interest to me. The most noteworthy for its transgression of genre is “Satisfaction,” which itself is like a bastard British version of a soul song. It’s actually the very first Otis Redding track I ever heard as a kid. I was a huge fan of Devo’s brilliant take on the song, and on the day I finally heard the original over at a neighbor’s house, my father decided to round out my experience by playing me this version. It was a smart and well intentioned move, but it misfired. I didn’t like it at all, and to some extent it probably kept me away from Otis Redding’s music for a little while, at least until I heard “Dock of the Bay.” I still don’t much care for it. It is perhaps the quintessence of that more frenetic aspect of his music that I am not all that fond of. Listening to it now, my biggest complaint is not Otis running roughshod over the words, but the horn part. Keith Richard’s monumental riff was explicitly a nod to the great horn parts of soul music, and yet it has a gravity that is missing from the excessively shrill, brassy rendering of the motif on this recording.
Otherwise, both Solomon Burke’s “Down in the Valley” and the mandatory stale chestnut of my “My Girl” serve as examples of the kind of unnecessary soul on soul covers I alluded to earlier. Otis does nothing to improve on Solomon’s version. And while he gives “My Girl” more grit and soul than did The Temptations, it’s just a song I have never cared for, and which excessive exposure has rendered almost nauseating to me. I know its a classic, and a fine example of Smokey Robinson’s soul classicism as a songwriter, but I just can’t help not liking it.
Faring better is B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” which lent a good note of stylistic diversity late in the album, and which probably benefitted from my unfamiliarity with the original. Also quite worthy is Otis’s take on William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” No one would ever mistake Bell for anything like the equal of Otis Redding as a singer, and while there’s something to be said for the mournful simplicity he brings to his own song, Otis handily trumps that quality with a burst of fiery soul.
All told, of course, this really is a great album. Certainly I like it a lot better than several hundred other records on this list. But between having developed a taste for a more concentrated compilation, and the slightly misleading promise of the title, I have never loved it in quite the way I know I ought. Someone recently released an imaginary Otis Redding album called Lonesome and Blue. It’s packaging–distressed to appear old and mishandled and with pseudo-contemporaneous liner notes–is kind of corny. But it achieves the quality of consistent, slow, soulful tone and first rate song selection that never quite existed on any actual Otis Redding album. It would be unfair to call such an undertaking a superior album to this one, but it is certainly the one I would be more inclined to put on when the urge to hear an album’s worth of Otis hits me.
Source: LP – Possibly an original pressing, or very close to, in stereo.