This venture isn’t just about us delving deep into artists we already know and love (although it has been mainly that so far), it is also about us broadening our horizons and deepening our well of musical knowledge, and so we decided that Season Two of the podcast would address some of the many gaps in our musical education, and so we chose to shine a light on the unknown (to us) world of soul.
Otis Redding seemed like a great place to start said adventure, and we spent the last few months reading about, and listening to, the late great singer.
In each podcast episode we talk through the artist’s history chronologically, picking our favourite tracks and ranking the albums as we go, so check that out if you want to know how we came to our decisions and why we picked the playlist tracks we did.
Our ranking and track picks are a compromise of our two different personal opinions, and of course we have to consider the Jeffrey Rulebook, it is also only a snapshot in time, so don’t take them too seriously! But do please comment below with your picks.
See below for the full list:
The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (1965)
The follow up to Pain in My Heart is a little better in some ways, and worse in others. It feels similarly thrown together at a breakneck pace with insufficient care and attention and songs lazily fading out after their allotted two-and-a-half minutes. On the plus side, the playing and production are stronger and Redding is getting better at his craft, especially with the uptempo dance tracks that Jim Stewart of Stax didn’t like (he wanted Redding to stick to crooning out the ballads).
Unlike Pain in My Heart though, the album lacks much in the way of standout tracks and the plentiful cover versions are nothing to get excited about. It’s at the foot of our list, but it’s still a decent, if dated, listen.
Despite it being the worst album, it does have probably the best cover:
Pain in My Heart (1964)
Otis’s debut album, like a lot of debut albums, has a certain charm to it, especially with the Stax style of recording everything as a live band (with the excellent Booker T and the MGs behind him) – although given this approach to recording live, you’d think they’d work out to finish songs and not just fade them out!
The opening track (Pain in My Heart) is a real cracker – albeit a rip off of Irma Thomas’s Ruler of My Heart – and so immediately we’re drawn in and think, ey up, the great man’s opened his account with an absolute banger of an album … alas, the rest of the album doesn’t live up to that strong start.
On balance it sounds amateurish, and is a hodgepodge of singles, throwaway b-sides and cover versions, none of which are that great.
The Soul Album (1966)
A real step backwards after the promising Otis Blue album.
Around this time bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys were taking time to craft clever albums by building layers of tracks and extensively exploring songs and different sounds, and so Otis’s style – or maybe Stax’s style is a fairer way of saying it – of banging out an album in a day or two, accepting whatever happens happens (including forgetting lyrics in one case!) and then rushing on to the next gig, was starting to sound old-fashioned and not really good enough anymore for a public that was growing more discerning in their expectations of album quality.
It has some good tracks on it though, but like a lot of Redding’s output up to this point, it feels like they’re failing to make the most of his talent, and four albums in, you’d expect more than that.
The Dock of the Bay (1968)
The first posthumous album following his tragic death in December 1967 was rushed out in early 1968 to make the most of the brilliant new hit single Dock of the Bay and renewed interest in the big fella following his death.
Arguably we shouldn’t include this in our list because it’s more of a compilation with some new stuff rather than it being a proper album. but we decided to go for it because it would have seemed churlish not to, and we are many things at the Jeffrey Podcast and Musical Empire, but churlish isn’t one of them, at least not on this occasion.
It’s not great, and don’t let people tell you otherwise. It’s a thrown together mix of oldies peppered with some enticing new stuff that hints at where he was heading with his reinvented idea of Otis Redding the soul star, but that does not a cracker make.
He had been producing other artists, had seen Aretha Franklin take his hastily-written song Respect and transform into a smash hit, he’d seen lesser artists like Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke and others get bigger hits, and had been reflecting on what he needed to do to take the next step up. His European tour had been a huge success, his appearance at Monterrey had stolen the show, and so the ingredients were all there, but he needed to find a way to move up some gears to become the superstar he knew he could be.
Coinciding with this existential reflection, he had had to have an operation on his vocal chords, and during convalescence wrote a lot of new material and consolidated his idea of who this New Otis Redding was going to be, the classic (Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay perfectly captures it with its mid-tempo rich vocal, the layered sound effects, the thoughtful lyrics that even use metaphor, and a song that feels complete and doesn’t just drift off after its main idea has circled around a couple of times (although it wasn’t complete, the whistling was to cover the lack of a second verse!).
Love Man (1969)
Just before his death, he had spent a lot of time in the studio developing new tracks and working on the new Otis sound. This material produced three albums: The Immortal Otis Redding, Tell the Truth and this one, Love Man. All three are crackers, all three showcase the big man’s brilliance and show us how he was starting to lean into his potential and shine so brightly just before his death.
All three of what we think of as the posthumous trilogy were recorded quickly, but the quality of every part: the lyrics, the songs, the playing, the vocals and the production are on a different level to his early stuff. This one is just about the most ragged of the three, with the fewest standout tracks, and like all his stuff still suffers from the curse of the fade-out (if we had been in Memphis around this time, we’d have exchanged a few cross words with the Stax gang about this lazy habit).
Otis Blue (1965)
This was recorded over two days but instead of this being a weakness, they make it feel like a strength as the album gels coherently and sounds great. The original material shines brighter than ever and the covers feel more interesting than the originals (something that had not always been true before).
A lot of his songs still feel like a single ideas repeated rather than fully written songs, most obviously Respect, a decent dance tune that Aretha Franklin would transform into an absolute banging classic (and feminist anthem, ironic given the original meaning of the words were quite different) – had Otis given songs the same care and attention, especially the lyrics, he might had much bigger hits much sooner.
Tell the Truth (1970)
The third of the posthumous trilogy of proper albums is the most uptempo and fun of the three, and suffers a little from feeling a bit thrown together, much like the older albums. Despite this, the songs are strong, the vocals wonderfully rich and velvety, and with higher production values and brilliant playing from Booker T and the MG (and the Mar-Keys on the horns), it’s a cracker of an album.
This also had our second-favourite album cover:
Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966)
After the disappointment of The Soul Album, Otis stormed back with a much better effort. For the first time a majority of tracks have Otis Redding writing credits – and we phrase this deliberately, because he wasn’t above a bit of plagiarism or being a bit mean with sharing the royalties.
It has a good balance of songs, and because this was the time when other top artists were taking much more in the studio to craft proper albums, perhaps this was the start of Otis and Stax realising they needed to stop just carelessly throwing an album together and try to do something similarly considered.
In a strong field of terrible album covers, this dreadful eyesore takes the cake:
The Immortal Otis Redding (1968)
A clear winner for us, this understated soul pop classic appears to be so understated that no one else seems to have noticed it exists. This might be a slight exaggeration, but none of the other rankings lists we could find had it any higher than mid-table, and we’re not saying we’re better than them or anything, but we got this right and they didn’t.
It is made up of mainly songs with Otis Redding writing credits (including the fab Hard to Handle, which we didn’t realise was his song until we heard this album), and with a quality much improved from his earlier work. At the time he was obsessed with listening to Sergeant Pepper and wanted to emulate the way The Beatles were making albums, and although this doesn’t do that (because it was recorded in a only a few sessions in December 1967) we suspect the increased quality around this time was linked to this new approach to recording.
Our picks: You Made a Man Out of Me and Hard to Handle (we originally had I’ve Got Dreams to Remember as our pick, but instead included the alternate version from 1992’s Remember Me as an extra track because it had the original lyrics penned by Otis’s wife Zelma).