Finally we get the magna-cu\m-laude treatment of possibly the best Otis Redding/Stax album and therefore one of the best long-playing, studio album representatives of Soul music out there (there are only a handful of such even in print). Never mind that -- there are other masterpieces such as Sings Soul Ballads, King and Queen, Soul Album, Dictionary of Soul, and my favorite, The Immortal. Regardless, this release is good news, and hopefully they (Rhino) will continue to give Otis’ albums the deluxe packaging they deserve.
The 2-disc set does a good job of leaving no stone unturned, giving both mono and stereo mixes of the album (there are three tracks with different stereo/mono takes – listen closely!), live tracks from the already released Whiskey A Go-Go show (with Otis’ touring band) and European tour (with the Stax house band), a lively 1967 studio version of “Respect,” and a handful of unreleased or rarely heard B-sides. There are a few key points one should consider in listening to Otis’ music. First is to discover the rhythm section. It starts with Al Jackson Jr. on drums, the foundation of all the rhythmic layers to come. It’s especially helpful if the listener can identify the snare, hi-hat and bass drum patterns. Next you have the bass guitar, played by Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and the guitar of Steve Cropper, who is probably the musician most responsible for bringing Otis’ arrangements into fruition. Then the piano and organ work of Booker T. Jones and Isaac Hayes, though it’s not certain who plays what on which song (personnel information stops short in distinguishing these details, unfortunately). Finally, you have the incomparable Stax horn section featuring Wayne Jackson, Andrew Love, Floyd Newman, and Gene “Bowlegs” Miller on all but one song (except for the mono version of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” which features Sammie Coleman and Charles “Packy” Axton).
Back to rhythm. “Old Man Trouble” starts with a disjointed jerky figure, the guitar playing an exotic-Spanish-Gypsy-type chordal maneuver, which then becomes the main motif of the song. This figure seems to represent musical personification of impending danger of “Old Man Trouble.” It is important to notice that this first track is something of an anomaly. It is dark and unredemptive – not your typical ‘soul’ song.
In some ways “Respect” is Otis’ most important composition, certainly the one that reached the most listeners, thanks, of course, to Aretha’s version. Listeners will most certainly favor hers, especially if they have heard it first, but the original is always important, and it certainly helps illustrate the rate of progress of Soul music in the 60’s.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” is sort of the flip-flop of “Respect.” Otis covers Sam Cooke’s poetic masterpiece, as well as two other Cooke standards (“Shake,” a live favorite, and “Wonderful World”). The arrangement on “A Change Is Gonna Come” is well-constructed and so emblematic of Otis and Stax – stripped down, strategically mapped out, and performed with dynamics, understatement, and finally redemption, exploding with energy before fading out. This is the pattern for most of Otis’ songs, starting with “These Arms of Mine,” and extending through “Dock of the Bay.”
“Down In The Valley” is a Solomon Burke vehicle that Otis makes his own (if Solomon’s version is a limousine, Otis’ is a tank). Over the first horn break, which is faithful to the Burke version, Otis is away from the mic, riffing off the band. Otis seems to be able to go wherever he wants, rhythmically, floating along, in the same spirit as a jazz musician like Charlie Parker, or a rapper like Jay-Z. After Steve Cropper’s quote of Mickey Baker (from “Love Is Strange”), the final vamp features Otis improvising over a four bar horn phrase:
Too much, too much, too much grooviness, too much, got-ta,
Down in the valley, way, down in the valley, so low, so low
We can’t go no further, way down way down, too much, got-ta
Groovin’, groovin’, groovin’, got-ta
We can’t we can’t we can’t we can’t we can’t we can’t we can’t go no further, nah-
Got-ta, got-ta, good God-almighty we got-ta, got-ta
Groovin’, groovin’, groovin’, too much, ah-
Rhythm, pocket, rockit’, vockit’, got-ta
A good time, what we havin’, we got-ta got-ta keep on, keep on
Movin’, Oh! Ah!
You get two versions of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” here and that alone is worth the price. This is a stop-in-your-tracks song, with the same theme as “These Arms of Mine,” Otis’ first intro to Stax, but instead of the teenaged discovery of pain in love, here we have a recognition of the progression of love and time. The lead into the bridge (as co-writer Jerry Butler calls it) has the horns climbing a scale up to Otis’ bending into the high and not-quite resolving “tired.” Like all good music, it calls your attention to brief, immediate, moments of time. The guitar and piano together produce a calm feeling, later turning pensive, and after the shift in key, a crescendo, and another key change into the end-vamp. In this way, the song seems to lift up as it goes out, with intensity building in all instruments, no less Otis’ plea.
The second half the of record contains no originals, but it presents Otis in a variety of settings. “My Girl” (Motown), “Wonderful World (Sam Cooke), “Rock Me Baby” (B.B. King and, interestingly, also done by Hendrix at Monterey), “Satisfaction” (Stones) and finally “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a building-block hit for Stax first done by composer William Bell. The subtext of the refrain “You don’t miss your water until your well runs dry” is a common theme (in fact, Joni Mitchell said it quite bluntly), but in the end, Otis starts brooding: “I keep missing my water, I need my water, I want my water and I’m a little thirsty now.” (Notice the fade out difference between mono and stereo versions!) The guitar and piano, again working together in the same 6/8 time as “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” induces the tranquil feeling of water. Water is transformed into a euphemism, the longing for being purified, the yearning to be cleansed.