Wednesday, September 16, 2009

September 16: Otis Redding, "Otis Blue"

Artist: Otis Redding
Album: Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul
Year: 1965
Label: Volt

When it comes to the style of soul music, there are truly many different approaches within the genre, yet there are few artists who can successfully carry out more than one of these styles. A majority of soul artists perfect one certain form of soul, and this is what they present throughout their entire career. However, there are an elite few artists who are able to not only to perform these varied styles, but also create new styles, which remain unmatched to this day. Unquestionably one of the finest performers of this group and easily one of the most important singers in music history, to this day Otis Redding still seems to receive less credit than he deserves for the massive impact he had on the artists after him. Blending soul, R&B, funk, and often blues as well, Redding transcended musical genres and in the process created some of the most unforgettable songs and performances the world has ever heard. Tragically passing away in a plane crash literally days after recording what would become his biggest song, Otis Redding remains one of rock musics' biggest "what if's" and the music he left behind similarly stand as many of the most cherished songs ever recorded. Though it does not contain his most famous hit ("(Sittin' On) Dock of The Bay"), Otis Redding's breakthrough 1965 release, Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, is by far his greatest overall effort, and the record stands today as one of the most extraordinary albums ever recorded.

The song selection on Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul perfectly encompasses all of Redding's musical loves and influences, and it is easily one of the most diverse collections of songs you'll find anywhere. Ranging from classics like "My Girl" and "Wonderful World," there are a handful of other songs that would become absolute classics. Though he certainly did not record the most well known version of the song, it is, in fact Redding who wrote and first recorded the song that would make Aretha Franklin a legend, "Respect." Redding's take on the song reveals where Franklin took the tempo, but aside from that, both versions are fantastic in their own right. Otis Blue also features Redding covering what, at the time, may have seemed like a very strange selection, as he puts his own take on the Rolling Stones classic, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Obviously, there is a bit of irony here, as it is somewhat well known that the song itself was actually written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as a tribute to the sound and style of Redding. On Otis Blue, Redding also takes a moment to pay tribute to one of his biggest influences, when he sings his own fantastic rendition of the Sam Cooke classic, "A Change Gonna Come." Though he actually covers three Cooke tunes on the album, for many reasons, this stands out high above the others. It is this amazing diversity in song selection that helps to show Otis Redding's wide range in musical taste, yet he is able to re-shape each song to make it uniquely and undeniably his own. It is this ability to adapt songs to his own style that made Redding so fantastic, yet Redding was also smart enough to surround himself with some of the finest musicians in the world for these recording sessions.

As impressive as Redding is throughout Otis Blue, one simply cannot ignore the all star band he has playing behind him. Leading the band, as well as playing keyboards and serving as one of the key producers was a young man named Issac Hayes. Though Hayes had not yet established himself as a solo artist, one can hear the early inklings of his amazing talent throughout Otis Blue. One of the other main producers, as well as the main guitarist on Otis Blue was fellow legend, Steve Cropper. Aside from founding Booker T & The M.G.'s, Cropper co-wrote soul classics like "Knock On Wood," "In The Midnight Hour," and it is, in fact, Cropper who is being referred to with the line, " it Steve!" on the legendary Sam & Dave song, "Soul Man." The second bassist for Booker T & The M.G.'s, as well as Cropper's bassist with The Blues Brothers Band, Donald "Duck" Dunn is truly a perfect fit on Otis Blue. Dunn has a one-of-a-kind groove and feel to his music, and he remains one of the most influential and soulful bassist in music history. Rounding out the primary backing band is the man known at Stax Records as "The Human Timekeeper," Al Jackson Jr. Jackson, who was also one of the founding members of Booker T & The M.G.'s, was the one of the primary studio session drummers for Stax, and his inclusion here completes one of the most amazing studio bands ever. Backing the primary musicians is a fantastic horn section, comprised of trumpet players Wayne Jackson and Gene Miller, as well as saxophone masters Andrew Love and Fred Newman. Moving as a complete, single unit, the bands' sound is stunning, and though they are perfect on every track, the true interplay between all of the musicians is perhaps no more clear than on the swinging, funky rendition of "Rock Me Baby" found on Otis Blue.

Yes, the song selection on Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul is stunning, and the backing band is as good as any group ever, this all goes without saying. However, the fact of the matter is, without the absolutely phenomenal performance of the man himself, this record would truly be nothing more than an interesting collection of instrumentals. Redding's trademark gritty, yet somehow soulfully smooth voice is on top form on every song on the album, and the performances captured remain largely unrivaled to this day. This is the key aspect that sets Otis Blue aside from his previous efforts, as it is clear that, on this recording, Redding is truly confidential and comfortable with his singing, and this new assertiveness truly takes the songs to the next level. On each of the eleven selections, Redding delivers full force, and it is his ability to make the soul style swing that would serve as a vital influence on countless singers who followed. This fusion of styles can be heard on "Shake," and Redding even goes further, blending in deep funk on his rendition of the Solomon Burke classic, "Down In The Valley." Easily one of the most stunning moments is Otis Blue's final song, a cover of the William Bell classic, "You Don't Miss Your Water." Redding's rendition is absolutely breathtaking, as the power and emotion he injects into the song is truly unrivaled. Otis Redding is truly superb on every song found on Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, and regardless of the style of the song, Redding makes it his own, resulting in one of the most diverse, yet stunning soul records ever recorded.

Few singers possess as instantly recognizable a voice as Otis Redding, and his unique blending of soul, funk, and blues make him an unparalleled talent in the overall history of recorded music. With his rich, deep, combination of singing and crying, Otis Redding delivers awe-inspriring, raw performances on every song he touches. Though he would land his biggest hit after his tragic death, by far his greatest musical effort can be found on his third studio release, and there is not a subpar moment anywhere on the record. Reading the list of names in his backing band on Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul is like reading an all star list of Stax Records. With names like Steve Cropper, Donald Dunn, and of course, Issac Hayes, it is safe to assume that the music on the album is equally as good as the vocal performances. It is also the presence of these superior musicians that enables Redding to mold classic songs to his own style, as the band re-shape classic songs to fit Redding's funk-soul-blues blend. Though many of the songs found on Otis Blue have been re-collected on countless compilations over the years, hearing them together as a single offering is truly a stunning and breathtaking musical experience. Leaving no doubt that he was far and away one of the most talented and extraordinary singers in the history of music, Otis Redding's third album, Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, remains one of the greatest musical achievements in history and is beyond essential for every record collection.

Standout tracks: "Respect," "A Change Is Gonna Come," and "You Don't Miss Your Water."

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