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.