Following a bout of Covid 19 which laid your correspondent low recently, I found myself having to rest up as fatigue and headaches would hit me hard if I tried to do more than an hours work each day. Used to being busy usually, I found this very hard to accept, but those who love me constantly told me to ‘listen to your body’ and eventually I did, and felt better for it.
By way of filling my time, I started to check back on my favourite films, books and records to help make those hours pass in the most civilised way possible, and in doing so, I rediscovered a few pieces of work, that I hadn’t seen, read or heard for quite a while.
One of those that is very dear to my heart is the album ‘Otis Blue.’ I would have first bought this on vinyl way back in the mid 80s, as I made my way into the back catalogue of Mr Redding, who I consider the best male vocalist of all time. There, I’ve said it, and not for the first time.
First released in 1965 on Volt records, and recorded over a 24 hours stretch at the studios of Stax Records, it features the majestic playing of Steve Cropper on guitars, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass, Isaac Hayes on the keyboards, Al Jackson on drums, Wayne Jackson and Gene Miller on trumpets, Andrew Love on tenor sax and Fred Newman on baritone sax. All in all, they compliment the searing, tender and explosive vocals all the way on the musical journey we are about to be taken on.
Which begins with…
Ole Man Trouble – Written and recorded when Otis was just 24. Now, you just let that sink in for a minute. The guitar work of Cropper opens it up, sounding for all the world like he has 6 hands. We are then off floating on a bed of horns as Otis pleads for a bit of peace and quiet in a Gospel influenced call and response kind of way. This is Soul, with a capital S, make no mistake about that.
Respect – The tempo picks up and Al Jackson, hammers down on the back beat on this classic song which did reasonable chart business for Otis in 1965, but which was of course steered to number one by Aretha Franklin in 1967. And I have to say the Queen of Soul version just about pips it for me.
A Change is Gonna Come – Otis’s take on this outstanding Sam Cooke tune. The opening words as sung by Otis, instantly give me Goosebumps. For me, the vocal is simply off the charts. A master is at work here. The arrangement and production is beautifully paced and indeed played. The backing support in the right places and then get out of the way to let Otis do what he does best. Art in musical form.
Down in the Valley – Otis puts his stamp on this Solomon Burke tune from 1962, and ‘strident’ is the word that comes to mind as I listen to it. He isn’t holding a lot back on this and is propelled all the way by the backing of Al Jackson, with the horns hammering the tune down nice and tight.
I’ve Been Loving You Too Long – Oh man. This stops me in my tracks each and every time. Written by Otis and Jerry Butler, it slowly builds from a staggering opening vocal that weaves in and out of the finger picking style of Steve Cropper, and then takes you on gradual climb to the finishing line. Inevitably, I have my eyes closed for the last 30 seconds, soaking in every second of it.
Shake – Otis goes back to the Sam Cooke songbook for this his version of this well-known tune. I was actually introduced to this song via The Small Faces who had a very decent stab at it in 1966. Now, and forever more, I have the image of Otis performing it on his 1966 ‘Ready Steady Go!’ special. On that he is seen in full flow, working up the ‘lucky to be there’ crowd into an absolute frenzy. Indeed, watching that performance is better for you than any medicine can provide.
Trust me, I’m a doctor….
My Girl – Otis takes on this mighty old Smokey Robinson tune, and puts his stamp all over it. Sympathetic in many ways to the original version by The Temptations, maybe the horns here just give it that Southern edge. Beautiful graft.
Wonderful World – Another tribute to the work of Sam Cooke, who had died just a few months before Otis, recorded this album. Moving away from Sam’s more poppy style on the original, this has rougher edge with Otis’s pronunciation of the word ‘Al Gee Bra’ perhaps showing he had about much of as a clue of what that was all about, as us spotty ‘erberts in various South London comprehensives of the early 1970s.
Rock Me Baby – We get down and dirty on this bluesy old standard, with Cropper giving it the full BB King guitar lick treatment complete with the greasy horns sliding it all in the right direction. Otis sounds possessed as he somehow stays on top of the tune. Some piece of work this.
Satisfaction – Otis grabs hold of this all time Rolling Stones classic and basically makes it his own. It has been said that Keith Richards described this version as how he heard it in his head when writing it, with the horns taking the lead on the instantly recognisable riff. Despite that, personally, I still prefer the Stones version. Just…
You Don’t Miss Your Water – Otis finishes up with this cover of the William Bell tune. We are back to a stripped back, no frills sound as his powerful vocals lead the way home.
So there you have it. Still sounding mighty to me all these years after it was first released, and from when I first heard it. If proof was needed, it certainly signalled Otis was the real deal.
The fact that he would be dead just a couple of years later, can only leave us wondering what he might have produced in the years that followed. Of course, we’ll never know.
But one thing that is for certain, in 1965, he was truly a master of his game.
The Mumper of SE5
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