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As a good northern lass I'm rather partial, even now, to a bit of sweet soul music and, for me, none spoke more soulfully or eloquently than Otis Redding whose all too short career was brought to a sudden close at the end of 1967 when he died in a plane crash at just 26 years of age. Ironically, his death brought about his biggest hit, 'Dock of the Bay', but he also left behind a body of work which resonates even today.
At the time of his death, Otis Redding had already become one of the major artists on the Stax record label and this 5 CD box set represents his 5 studio albums, minus only his collaborative album with Carla Thomas. This collection not only demonstrates the development of the talent of one of the world's greatest soul singers but leaves one wondering just how much better he would have been had he lived.
Although I haven't reviewed every song in this collection, I apologise in advance for the length of this review but there are just so many tracks worthy of mention that the word count got away from me!
The first CD covers Otis Redding's first studio album recorded in 1964 'Pain in My Heart' and showcases the raw and still relatively unpolished talent of the singer. The album kicks off with the title song and has a typical Stax-style intro of blaring sax and trumpets and a definitive beat which sounds rather dated now but once Otis begins singing everything else disappears and it's all about the voice. Otis Redding's slightly husky vibrato with just an edge of raucousness is just so full of soul that the pain he sings about seems absolutely real. This is a man who always sang from the heart.
There are a few fairly typical early Sixties inclusions on the album, 'Louie Louie' and Little Richard's 'Lucille', both of which are delivered competently but just not really suited to Otis's style or singing voice. There are also some less good songs on this album, after all it was his first and he was still feeling his way and it's pretty obvious that he hadn't yet hit on his own style. 'The Dog' is very similar, though not as good as Rufus Thomas's own release of 'Walking the Dog' and though Otis gives an acceptable rendition of 'Stand By Me' it's a pale shadow of Ben E King's original, as is his version of Sam Cooke's 'You Send Me'. 'Hey Hey Pretty Baby', a Redding composition, shows the influence that Little Richard had on his early singing style and he also adopts a similar sound for this more upbeat and rocky track.
The stand out song on this album, apart from the title track, is Otis's own composition, 'These Arms of Mine' which highlights, even at this early stage in his recording career, the type of song he felt most comfortable singing and which undoubtedly he imbued with the most soul. It's a slow tempo and, of course, soulful ballad which, despite the very 1950s beat, signposted the direction in which Otis was heading.
'The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads' shows Otis settling more comfortably into his chosen style and singing more of his own, and collaborative compositions. As the title implies, this album contains only ballads but soul ballads are as disparate as chalk and cheese so there is far more variety on the album that one would expect ranging from very bluesy sounds to ones with a definite jazz element.
The album begins with 'That's How Strong My Love Is', penned by Roosevelt Jamison. It's a mid-tempo ballad with a strong beat and, of course, those Stax trumpets and saxophones, though quite muted here. The tempo slows ever so slightly for Otis's own, 'Chained and Bound' and, again, as with all his own compositions, its soulfulness is expressed in every note.
As with the first album, this one is slightly uneven and generally speaking it's the cover versions which are less good. Otis Redding is one of those singers who seemed to put his heart and soul into his own songs. The final track on the album is the excellent 'Mr Pitiful' written by Otis with Stax producer and guitarist, Steve Cropper. Though, arguably, a ballad this has a far more up tempo dance beat and I defy anyone not to start tapping their feet. This song more than any other in this collection takes me right back to several nights out at The Twisted Wheel in Manchester. Happy days!
'Otis Blue' signalled the metamorphosis of Otis from rookie soul singer to the whole nine yards. His voice has somehow grown richer and far more textured over the previous couple of years and if it's at all possible, there's even more soul and certainly far more emotion in his singing style here. Although there are fewer of his own songs on this album, he's chosen tracks which are so perfectly suited to his voice and style that he's completely made them his own. For me, 'Otis Blue' is one of the best soul albums ever released and the reason why I bought this box set as, sadly, my own vinyl copy a long time ago became too scratched and warped to play.
The album begins with his 'Ole Man Trouble' which, after a rather strange guitar intro, followed by the trumpets seems to lose its way slightly, largely due to the brass elements almost drowning out the vocals. Despite the less than stellar first track, this album just gets better and better. Quite a few people are surprised to discover that Otis Redding wrote 'Respect' which is now so inextricably linked to Aretha Franklin and though Aretha certainly took this song as her own, Otis's original comes across as very different, having a more up tempo dance beat as well as that trademark Stax sound.
To my mind, Otis's version of Sam Cooke's 'Change Is Gonna Come' is the best and it's worth the cost of the box set for this track alone. Anyone who's heard the song, written at the beginning of the campaign for civil rights in America, will know that it's an emotive one but when Otis vocalises the words, he manages to imbue them with all the pain and suffering of every African American who was ever abused by their slave masters or toiled in the cotton fields and tobacco plantations of the Deep South and yet at the same time offers hope that the struggle will end. The muted brass intro is in stark contrast to the spine-tingling vocals. It doesn't matter how many times I hear this song, I never fail to be moved to tears.
'I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river, I've been running ever since
It's been a long, a long time coming
But a change is gonna come'
Other Cooke covers included on this album are the up tempo 'Shake' and 'Wonderful World' along with the Stones' 'Satisfaction' played with a slightly faster tempo and more soul giving it a totally different sound. B B King's 'Rock Me Baby', which contains a superb guitar riff by Steve Cropper, demonstrates that Otis could not only give any song soul but he could also sing the blues.
'The Soul Album' continues the good work begun in Otis Blue and again features songs from such stalwarts as Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson and Eddie Floyd as well as self-penned numbers and some written in collaboration. This album features a man who has discovered his niche in the music world and sings his own and other people's songs with confidence putting his own stamp on them. He has the same team around him of the excellent guitarist, Steve Cropper, as well as Booker T and Isaac Hayes. Stand out songs on the album for me are 'Cigarettes and Coffee', the very bluesy 'Scratch My Back', the more up tempo 'Any Ole Way'.
'Dictionary of Soul' was Otis Redding's final solo studio album though there were other released after his death using previously recorded material. It features an equal number of self-penned and cover songs, beginning with the Redding/Cropper classic 'Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)'. The album features versions of 'The Tennessee Waltz' and Lennon & McCartney's 'Day Tripper' which show that just about any song can be given soul.
The slow soulful ballads were really where Otis Redding came into his own but apart from 'My Lover's Prayer' most of the tracks on this album are more up tempo, dance orientated tracks, which I feel gives this album a lack of depth of some of the others. If I'm honest, despite the competency of this album, I find it the weakest of the collection.
There is absolutely no doubt that Otis Redding was a superb soul singer and who knows just how good he would have become had he lived. He was one of the major artists whose work made Stax Records into *the* soul label and this collection is a must for any Redding fan who wants to hear his music played as it was originally recorded. Though the material is a little patchy in parts, when he's singing those slow soulful ballads, Otis Redding is incomparable and he more than demonstrates what a huge loss he was to the music world.
This box set can currently be bought online for around £8.
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Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Pain In My Heart (Single/LP Version)
2 The Dog
3 Stand By Me
4 Hey Hey Baby
5 You Send Me
6 I Need Your Lovin'
7 These Arms Of Mine (Single/ LP Version)
8 Louie Louie
9 Something Is Worrying Me