Otis Redding - Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul
Dec 19, 2020 (updated Jan 13, 2021)
The History of the Albums – n°271

If I had to give you my 3 favorite R&B artists of all time that I could listen to without ever getting bored, I would quote without hesitation: Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and of course Otis. Although objectively there are always better examples or equivalent contests, they are obviously a subjective choice without it sounding like a few things wrong. Let's take, for example, the legend we're going to study today: one of the greatest soul singers in history, probably the greatest of the 1960s: Otis, who built a unique and stratospheric legacy, may be even more than his spiritual fathers/mothers. Imagine that when Otis sings, it's like having the chance to eat your favorite food, or like watching the movie you know by heart and can recite without error. It's as grand as a sunset. Yes today I speak with my heart again, maybe more than the other times, because I have a deep love and preference for Southern Soul. So this review is a sincere tribute that I wish to share, because as I told you, whether it's Otis or another Southern Soul legend, the influence that these artists had is so immense that we still see in our time some basics and obvious signs. Without taking any risks, I think it's far from over.

So let's take a simplified overview: Rhythms and Blues was already in the 40/50s a popular music genre that was selling and therefore had a large audience. In the 50s, some pioneers like Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter democratized a new formula called Soul. This new musical sub-style became so important that it became the number 1 commercially, especially with the arrival of the second wave much more accessible on Pop: Sam Cooke, Ben E King or Etta James. This is how Pop-Rock artists/groups and Pop in general have been quick to add a Soul side to their music in one way or another. That is to say that even if in the middle of the 60's the Pop-Rock trend took the upper hand in terms of popularity, relegating a little bit the Soul, there was always in a direct or indirect way a strong link to this musical style. It's true that making Soul a style close to Pop had a lot of chances to become a habit, becoming a basis for many people since it's music that is listened to by a large audience. However, it is also important to note the importance of the many diverse and local communities that have made Soul one of the most successful R&B styles. It is especially at the very end of the 50/60's that this phenomenon will develop, whether it is through religion, different local/regional customs or a very distinct way of doing things. It's thanks to the Pop effect and these multiple communities (by community I mean a vast term that covers for example the different sub-styles (Deep Soul/Southern Soul, the Motown school etc...)) that Soul created its own legend. And still we're not even back in the 70s.

For the moment we are in the middle of the 60's, in the middle of the Southern Soul/Deep Soul boiling point, a musical sub style that I appreciate very much as you can imagine. Why is that? First of all because Southern Soul has its origins in Gospel, Rock n Roll and Country, which detonates the musical style of its peers. In addition to being very emotional, there is a raw and spiritual aspect that lies at the heart of Southern Soul, which creates that depth and sensational groove. Having started in the early 60's with Aretha Franklin, Arthur Alexander, The Mar-Keys Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas, James Brown and Sam Cooke, this style will reach its peak in 1964/1965. If there is only one figure that best represents this sub-style it is without a doubt Otis Redding, when he left us in a hurry in 1967 during an unfortunate plane crash. Otis is not only one of the best R&B singers in the world, he is one of the best in all categories. His legacy has inspired thousands of artists including some very well known. Rather shy, Otis Redding wasn't known on stage as a showman, he was more of a powerful speaker who knew how to touch people with his music and lyrics in a way that few could. With a limited background in singing, Otis Redding was able to hone his skills, using his rocky, percussive voice to become the legend he became. Inspired by Little Richard (his idol), Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, Otis Redding also became a gifted writer and producer who always kept his career at the highest level before that sad day of his passing.

Born in 1941 in Georgia, Otis Redding grew up in a religious family, quickly becoming a member of the church choir. Having fallen in love with music and his idol Little Richard, he never stopped learning to play instruments or to sing whenever he could. Until then, one can speak of a completely normal childhood for a Southern Soul singer. One could say that his career started in radio when he participated in shows and contests that he won easily, but his family was so much in need with a father who was often sick, that he had to leave school to devote himself to a more traditional job to help them. From time to time, he takes advantage of his free time to compete in music competitions, which allows him to make himself known locally to people in the entertainment industry and to play for rather interesting salaries. However, the adventure quickly stops when he goes to live in Los Angeles with his sister for reasons I don't know. Starting from the very bottom of the ladder, Otis Redding manages thanks to his talent to make the good relations which will allow him to sign a deal with a very young label Confederate of Bobby Smith and thus to record his first single called Fat Gal within the group The Pinetoppers in 1961. Moreover this will be the only song of the group. The story is rather funny when you think about it, but at the base it was mainly the guitarist of the band, a certain Johnny Jenkins, to whom their "manager" of the time granted more potential. This led to a famous day when Redding took Jenkins to accompany him to a recording session at Stax studio in 1962 for which Otis had the chance to sing and get signed against all odds. This is how his first songs These Arms of Mine / Hey Hey Baby were released in the Volt sub-subsidiary. Many people consider this first single as the first Deep Soul song, when in fact this merit is rather attributed to William Bell.

At the beginning of the year 1963, These Arms of Mine becomes viral and thus knows a huge success. Until 1965, this single was by far the best song Otis Redding offered us, knowing that there are a handful of very good singles to follow. In addition to the atypical way the young Otis sang, the nostalgic anthem These Arms of Mine sounds like a mini revolution within the R&B/Soul universe that will open new horizons for many other artists. However, it is not because These Arms of Mine has remained his greatest glory for almost 2 years that Otis has not offered us other dazzling excellent songs. First of all one can evoke his passages to the legendary Apollo Theater which knew how to build a serious reputation at the end of 1963, while concretizing with some singles impossible to circumvent in : Pain in My Heart and Security. At the beginning of 1964 the Acto sub-subsidiary of Atlantic decided to market his first solo album Pain in My Heart with interior recordings. It is especially the year 1965 which will make of Otis a legend forever. Taking advantage of the success of the new single Pitiful, the Acto/Stax labels release the second album The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads.

Here we are at last, it's now time to talk about Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul, an unforgettable masterpiece. My God, help me get over it. Ravishing melodies, divine instrumentation down to the slightest brass. Recorded over long and dense sessions over 2 days in July 1965, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul is based on the same principle as the other albums, i.e. a few original songs by Redding and a large majority of the well-known covers. Except that the huge difference lies in the fact that apart from the 2 singles previously recorded in April, the album was recorded with the purpose of an album and not as a simple compilation gathering a catalog of singles/B sides, and believe me that the nuance changes a lot of things. Making an album with more covers than original songs in the mid-60's seems at first glance like a step backwards, where the trend is to write your own songs. Yet the fact that it is reflected like an album, by Redding himself and especially the fact that all the participants are of an exceptional level, it gives birth to an indispensable wonder. When I mention the term "participants" it's because even though Otis Redding walks on water throughout the album, it should be noted that he was supported in particular by the groups Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Mar-Keys and Memphis Horns, without forgetting the participation of the young Isaac Hayes. In other words, with such a sensational team and the help of an extraordinary production, Otis was in the best possible shape. Without taking too many risks I think that Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul is clearly one of the 10 best R&B/Soul albums in history. The factors mentioned above have contributed a lot, but that's not all. Let's start with the covers first. Daring to cover very popular songs to make them very often better than the originals, it's just unbelievable, there's no stronger word. Rare are the moments when this happens, because normally one appreciates a cover version by its differentiation and by the interpreter's paw that emerges from it, but here it's as if Otis totally monopolizes the covers as if it was him who wrote them, or as if it was him who was predestined to interpret them. Of course the absolute example is the delightful and catchy Shake, written by Sam Cooke, another of his idols. And finally it is obligatory to talk about his original songs. First of all, one of the greatest of all, the heartbreaking I've Been Loving You Too Long and then the surging Respect, which sound so timeless. To conclude this love letter to one of my favorite singers, I will say that Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul is also not afraid to wander the land of the Blues at times, which still shows how Otis was above all else, like a shooting star

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