Otis Redding died 50 years ago today, on December 10, 1967, when his light plane crashed into a lake near Madison, Wisconsin. Six others — the pilot, Otis’s valet, and four members of his band, the Bar-Kays — also lost their lives. A fifth musician, the trumpeter Ben Cauley, was the only survivor.
Two years earlier, one Saturday in the late autumn of 1965, I’d bought his album Otis Blue. It’s the same copy that you see in the picture above, and it came from Rediffusion Records in Nottingham, where I’d had a Saturday job the previous year. What I remember about that day is taking it out of its bag, throwing the bag away, and walking around town with the record under my arm, so that people could see what I’d bought. I was 18, and that sort of thing mattered. (Distressingly, perhaps it still does.)
You could argue, and I might agree, that his peak came the following year with the studio version of “Try a Little Tenderness”, an epic beyond compare, and that “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, completed only three days before his death and released posthumously, is a wholly original piece suggesting fresh directions his music might have followed had he not been taken at the age of 26.
But Otis Blue is the goods, the work that defines him at his most immaculate. Naturally its 11 tracks contain examples of the transcendental fervour that inspired a thousand imitators, the songs that soaked his sharkskin suits with sweat on stage in clubs and concert halls. That’s what you get in “Respect”, “Shake” and his famously frantic cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.
But an unusual tone has already been set by the first track, a self-penned blues-ballad called “Ole Man Trouble”. It’s a strange way to start a soul album, although it fools you for a moment when it opens with two hits from Steve Cropper’s Fender Esquire and Al Jackson Jr’s snare drum that sound like the fanfare for a fast song. Instead there’s a half-beat pause before the guitar, Jackson’s bass drum and Duck Dunn’s bass guitar release the tension with the start of the backing to a slow song in which Redding mourns his problems and pleads for a change of luck. The arrival of the B3 organ (Isaac Hayes, I think) and the four-piece horn section emphasise the lifts built into the song as it works to its climax, but they do nothing to get in the way of a mood that is almost austere.
This carefully judged economy of means and approach is maintained in the album’s other outstanding slow songs: a version of “My Girl” that rivals the Temptations’ original; a deep-soul treatment of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”; the classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”; a conversation with Cropper on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” that shows what a bluesman he would have been, had soul music never been invented; and, maybe best of all, a reading of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” that gives us a second great version of one of the key songs of the civil rights era.
All the way through, he delivers his lines with a fine control of tone and phrasing as well as the expected commitment. There is no hint here of the stereotyped soul man — a caricature from which “The Dock of the Bay” promised, in vain, to deliver him. He is simply magnificent. And if you had to choose half a dozen great albums from the 1960s, Otis Blue would be one of them.
It is a glorious album, made so not “just” by Otis but the band, their economy and taste. I agree about “Change is Going to Come” which is riveting, but also “My Girl” which is so beautifully sung and inch perfect played, a sophisticated object lesson. I bought the 45 single of “My Girl/Down in the Valley” before the album, from Spillers in Cardiff, the first copy they had in, took it to a party that night and played it to death all night and all that weekend. It sums up that entire era for me. Hugely significant for a load of reasons, personal and musical, and timeless.
I saw Otis and the Stax Review in Cardiff in 1967 (The Top Rank) perhaps the most memorable live show I’ve ever seen. Just magical. Spoke (briefly) to Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn at the sound check – a blue tonic Mohair suit would get you in anywhere. Well, slipping past the Rank’s then distracted “security”!
Lovely piece as always Richard, this one is REALLY special.
Btw, if that’s your original album/LP, you do look after your records! Mine disappeared years ago after too many parties. The cover shot is interesting too, still putting attractive white women on soul albums. Shades of Miles Ahead.
Yes. Interesting to note that his next LP, ‘The Soul Album’, had a black woman on the cover.
One of the great musical revelations of my life came when someone at university handed me a cassette of Otis at Monterey. Such electricity!
Always remember Johnny Walker doing an impromptu and very moving tribute on Radio Caroline South when he died. One of those rare radio moments that sticks in the memory. I may even have a tape of it somewhere, acquired on the anorak circuit several years later.
Excellent Richard – your post, the album and Otis
Another wonderfful piece, Ruchard.i loved your story of you discarding the bag and walking around Nottingham displaying your hip good taste.it was a pleasure to finally meet you at Foyles on Friday evening, thanks for being a genuine life enhancer and for all your constructively brilliant writing over the years. All good wishes, Steve Clarke PS Looking forward to your round ups of 2018.
Thanks, Steve, Nice to see you, too.
A Classic album.i Have a mint copy ..
I still have my copy of “(Sittin’on)The Dock of the Bay”,bought in ’68.
One of the Classics, no question. Though I always thought Satisfaction, and Shake, all the ‘got to, got ta, got ta…y’all’ numbers, did him a disservice, when you hear what he was capable of – ‘Change’,’Tenderness’, ‘Loving You Too Long’, etc.
Thanks for reminding me Richard. Lovely piece and I’ll listen to Otis Blue this morning, the perfect soul record.
Super piece on Otis and great to be reminded of all the dynamic performance’s on his timeless album. I still have my LP too and remember Nick Jones first playing it loudly one night in the MM office while we were working on the Xmas issue. I shall play it again Sam, I mean Richard – on my new turntable. Right now!
Hi Chris, very long time now see. How are you and your family? It would be good to see you again after all these years. Happy Christmas to you and your family, Steve
looking forward to catch up tomorrow. I’ve sent this on to you, can’t believe its been 50 years. I do remember walking around with an LP under my arm though. Joe Cool!
Gareth Hickery email@example.com
Thanks for all this. I was just wondering, as a local man, will you be giving us your thoughts on the new Eel Pie Museum in Twickenham?