Album review

Otis Redding - The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection

Otis Redding - The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection

The soul legend's stunning career charted through is ever-evolving 45s...

With his sweat-stained sharksin suits and his tireless cries of “gotta-gotta” and “sock it to me”, Otis Redding became a stereotype, even a caricature, almost as quickly he became famous. He was The Soul Singer: a template for all those Geno Washingtons who reduced his approach to a set of mannerisms. That’s the debit side, and it’s easily overshadowed by the contents of these three discs, which contain the A and B sides of every single released by the Stax family of labels during his lifetime and in the aftermath of his death. Together they present all the testimony anyone might need to demolish a belief that Redding was superior to his imitators only by a matter of degree – as well as some of the evidence for the prosecution.

Redding was born in Macon, Georgia in 1941. While a schoolboy he sang in doo-wop groups and acquired a rudimentary ability on drums, piano and guitar before joining the Pinetoppers, a band led by the guitarist Johnny Jenkins, as the lead singer. By the time he cut his first sides in Memphis for Stax’s Volt subsidiary in 1962 he had already made his first recordings, for the small Finer Arts and Alshire labels during a trip to Los Angeles (where he washed cars to keep body and soul together) in 1960 and for Confederate in Macon the following year.

His Stax/Volt debut, in October 1962, was with “These Arms Of Mine”, cut in the time left over at the end of an unsuccessful Jenkins session. His own composition, it was a model for the kind of country-soul ballad that would become the staple diet of southern soul singers for the remainder of the decade. Otis’s unaccompanied voice starts it off, quickly joined by doowop-ish piano triplets (almost certainly played by Booker T Jones), Johnny Jenkins’s guitar and the MGs’ rhythm team of bassist Lewis Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson Jr. So basic that it could have been recorded as a demo, it is distinguished by the restrained passion of Otis’s vocal performance and by the way the inherent rawness of his voice adds impact to the pleading of his delivery. The hint of emotional abandon on the fadeout provides a pre-echo of the never-ending crescendos to come.

It scraped into the R&B Top 20 and the pop Hot 100, which for a little independent label represented a sign of hope. His next three A-sides – “That’s What My Heart Needs”, “Pain in My Heart” and “Come to Me” – were from much the same mould. “Pain in My Heart”, written by Aaron Neville, was the biggest success, gaining the accolade of a cover version on the Rolling Stones’ second album.

Not until the release of the fourth single, “Security”, in April 1964, was Redding’s voice surrounded by the mature Stax sound, featuring the grainy Memphis Horns and Steve Cropper’s bluesy Fender Esquire in partnership with Duck Dunn’s bass and Al Jackson’s rat-tat-tat snare. His voice, too, was becoming more and more distinctive, his countryfied tone and diction offering an alternative to the urban sophistication of singers based in New York, Chicago and Detroit.

The single barely crawled into the Hot 100, and with the next release, “Chained And Bound”, Otis returned to the formula of the early singles. But “Security” had laid the foundations for the release that finally established his name in the public mind. A Roosevelt Jamison ballad titled “That’s How Strong My Love Is” provided an early definition of Deep Soul and re-established him in the R&B charts, before the designated B-side, “Mr Pitiful”, stormed the discotheques, becoming easily his biggest hit to that point. Here is the Stax sound in its pomp: an opening horn fanfare, the chopping guitar, Dunn’s riffing bass, and a title borrowed from the nickname bestowed on Redding by an admiring radio DJ.

“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)”, jointly written by Otis and Jerry Butler, the former lead singer of the Impressions, dives even deeper into the dark waters of Deep Soul, and performed even better. Again Otis begins alone, as he had done on “These Arms Of Mine”, before the arrangement rises and falls through a series of distraught climaxes before going out with the singer whimpering over a blare of horns and Jackson’s implacable snare.

Next came “Respect”. Released in August 1965, this may be one of the most significant pop records ever made, even though its memory was largely eclipsed two years later by Aretha Franklin’s remake. On the intro and the choruses Jackson uses his snare drum to emphasise all four beats of the bar, rather than just stressing the traditional backbeat, thus giving birth to the even four-on-the-floor rhythm that powered Northern Soul, disco and dance music all the way to Daft Punk.

With the next single, “I Can’t Turn You Loose”, Redding started to turn into the caricature of a soul-singing wind-up doll, a process accelerated by a cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction”, where the tempo became more hectic and the delivery more frantic, every hole filled by a “gotta-gotta”. This became Otis’s on-stage schtick, lapped up by soul fans who attended the Stax-Volt tour of Europe in 1967 and the hippies at the same year’s Monterey Pop Festival. Among the songs he performed at Monterey was “Try a Little Tenderness”, an elaborate arrangement of a 1930s standard that, in its studio-recorded 45rpm form, evolved from gospel-drenched soul ballad to arm-flailing stomper in 3min 20sec flat.

Then came the pop hits with Carla Thomas – remakes of “Tramp” and “Knock On Wood” – and, on December 10, 1967, the plane crash outside Madison, Wisconsin, that killed him and five others. And straight away, with an almost unbearable poignancy, came the introspective “(Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay”, a posthumous No 1 that presented a grieving world with a clue to the direction he might have taken, had he lived: a move away from the formulaic Mr Pitiful ballads and Love Man stompers towards a more varied, considered, sophisticated musical eloquence. Then again, in another posthumous hit from those final sessions, the gorgeous “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”, he suggested that there might still be life left in the old tricks.
Richard Williams

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