Otis Redding

Selected Discography      Pain in My Heart (Atco, 1964)
      Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (Volt/Atco, 1965)
     The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (Volt/Atco, 1966)
      The Soul Album (Volt/Atco, 1966)
     Live in Europe (Volt/Atco, 1967)
      The Dock of the Bay (Volt/Atco, 1968)
      History of Otis Redding (Atco, 1968)
      The Immortal Otis Redding (Volt/Atco, 1966)
      In Person at the Whisky-a-Go-Go (Volt/Atco, 1966)
     Love Man (Volt/Atco, 1969)
     Tell the Truth (Volt/Atco, 1970)
     Monterey International Pop Festival: Otis Redding/Jimi Hendrix Experience (Reprise, 1970)
     The Best of Otis Redding (Volt/Atco, 1972)
     Recorded Live (Atlantic, 1982)
     The Legend of Otis Redding (Pair/Atlantic, 1986)
      Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding (Rhino, 1993)
    Love Songs (Rhino, 1998)
      Very Best of Otis Redding (ATCO, 2002)
     Live in London & Paris (Stax, 2008)

with Carla Thomas
     King & Queen (1967; Atlantic, 1991)

Otis Redding was the premier Southern soul singer. Providing counterpoint to Motown, the Memphis-based sound Redding defined made the Sixties R&B renaissance a glorious tension of complementary styles. While Motown, as Peter Guralnick explains in Sweet Soul Music, was string-laden, melodic, and tendedd toward pop, Stax/Volt/Atlantic, adhering more closely to gospel and blues roots, was horn-driven and primarily rhythmic, its fierceness the product of stellar solo vocalists and a lean rhythm section. In league with the Muscle Shoals studio players—Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald "Duck" Dunn (bass), and Al Jackson (drums)—Redding tested the limits of his quick musical intelligence. His horn parts alone were radically innovative: By employing trumpets as exclamation points, for example, he altered forever the syntax of the brass section in popular music, and his use of difficult, unexpected key signatures added density to the simple melodic lines his horn parts accompanied. Cowriting many of his hits with Cropper, Otis spared R&B down to its lean core—in Stax/Volt, no note was redundant. All of Redding's technique, however, served emotion, and that emotion, celebratory or anguished, was conveyed by the absolute urgency of his remarkable voice.

The title track on Pain in My Heart (1965) set the pattern for all his ballads to come—Otis triumphed at rendering agony. Signs of the singer's virtuosity are already apparent in the almost teasing way he lingers over some lyrics and spits out others; virtually never would he sing a line the same way twice. The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads continues his rapid development as a style setter: "Mr. Pitiful" sums up his tortured-romantic persona. "That's How Strong My Love Is" demonstrates his skill at transforming gospel witnessing into erotic testifying.

With Otis Blue, he achieved his first masterwork. "Respect" becomes not only a soul standard but also a black pride anthem; "I've Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now)" may be Otis' strongest ballad; the assertiveness of B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby" and Sam Cooke's "Shake" finds him equally at home with blues and rockers as well as ballads. His furious cover of the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is prescient, suggesting the spirit of later R&B-rock fusions by Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Prince. "Chain Gang" and the moody swing of "Cigarettes and Coffee" highlight The Soul Album; In Person at the Whisky-a-GoGo is dependably intense; and by the time of Dictionary of Soul, Otis had arrived at another plateau. "Try a Little Tenderness," first recorded by Bing Crosby, is Stax/Volt at its most sophisticated; in an elegant, almost jazzy setting, Redding, for all his customary fervor, delivers one of his most mature performances, smoky and at times almost langorous.

"Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)" is more typical Southern soul: hard and precise but swinging. From King & Queen, his duet with Carla Thomas, "Tramp," offers a rare display of Otis' sassy humor; their cover of Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood" is almost assaultive in its drive. By 1967, the singer had reached a point of such assurance that he seemed ripe for even more ranging explorations of style and new shifts in tone. But even his record company didn't quite know what to do with the latest product of his impatient creativity—the soft, acoustic-guitar ballad "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay." As the first soul singer to absorb the influence of Bob Dylan, Redding turns out a folk melody of indelible, simple force; his lyrics have all the immediacy of conversation, but he sings the line with an undertone of yearning that makes the record unmistakable soul music, and the final triumph of his deep, swift career.

By the end of the year, Redding had died in a plane crash; given the potential suggested by The Dock of the Bay as well as the consistent, challenging beauty of all the music he'd made up until the recording of that album, the loss incurred by Redding's death remains immeasurable.

The Very Best of Otis Redding is a two-disc best-of, but if you can spring for Rhino's Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding, by all means do so. A lovingly annotated four-CD box set, it compiles all of the singles and essential album tracks, culminating with an entire disc of various live performances assembled to create the definitive Redding concert experience. Of the many live sets, the best are Live in Europe, In Person at the Whisky-a-Go-Go, and Live in London & Paris, which paris a raucous London set with a Paris gig long on ballads—and also tosses in covers of "Satisfaction" and the Beatles' "Day Tripper."

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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