On 'Otis!,' one disc rules in best defining Redding's power
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Is it possible for an entire box set to ride on one disc?
Before a few days ago, I’d never considered it a possibility. There’s nothing quite as exquisite as a well-crafted box set in defining an artist, and there have been some great ones since Bob Dylan’s Biograph changed the market in the mid-1980s. And, sure, each of them, whatever your favorite might be, might include a disc that edges out the others, or a disc that is miles ahead of the rest in a given set.
But Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding, beyond just being better than the rest in musical terms, may serve to define the man better than anything else available. With a career-spanning box set, definition is the name of the game, and I never noticed a quirk in this 1993 set before revisiting it recently.
The first three CDs of Otis! document his recording career, moving chronologically through his albums and singles, collecting his posthumous material on disc three and ending with “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” likely his best-known song and the forever-tragic reminder of where his career might have gone had he not died so young.
But the fourth disc, compiling some of Redding’s live performances, take the set to another level. It pushes the previous music, all of it essential, to the realm of definitive, and it’s a masterwork of programming.
The set notes that the fourth disc was assembled with the idea of creating the ultimate live Otis Redding set, pulling the best-available version of each song into one place. Admirable and simple, it’s amazing how few live sets strive for such a goal. Even in Redding’s back catalog, live albums were pulled from one source or another. His Live in Europe album in 1967 was the last he approved before his death, and later records chronicled performances at the Whisky A Go Go or the Monterrey Pop Festival.
While those are necessary and essential bits from the historical archive, the distillation of the greatest of those moments into this set, and more, creates a whirlwind of soul and flash that isn’t matched anywhere, whether it’s in Redding’s own catalog or another live entry from the period. It’s profound; James Brown’s live Sex Machine doesn’t even quite approach this.
There’s plenty of range on display in these songs, chosen in that ever-so-short 1963-67 performance window. The ballads, both original and covers, are pitch perfect and tasteful, whether we’re discussing “Pain in my Heart” or “Mr. Pitiful” or “My Girl.” But hearing Redding belt out a number with that kind of mournful emotion is only part of what made him such a dynamic showman, and it’s the up-tempo songs that tell the entire story.
It’s immediate, with “Shake” kicking off the set with a punch that was unmatched at the time, that same punch that wowed the Monterrey Pop Festival just a few months later. “Can’t Turn You Loose” channels that same energy, pulling fun and frantic energy into trying to keep the girl from leaving, and towards the end of the disc, he brings back ownership of his own “Respect.” He even jokes that “a good friend of mine took it away from me,” referring to Aretha Franklin, obviously, “but I’m gonna do it anyway.”
Through all this, the bits that put it over the top are his rock and roll covers. He spins his way through his way through the definitive take of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” leading the band through a rollicking version while the audience hoots and claps along to his improvised lyrics of “Gotta gotta have it now!” Elsewhere, he puts his stamp on the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” turning the latter into a full-on rave up, pairing perfectly with “Respect” in the set in sound and spirit.
Of course, it can be argued that the entire spirit of the man could be summed up in “Try a Little Tenderness,” and right on cue, the set concludes with the song that closed his blazing Monterrey Pop set, the song that best defined his career while he was alive. It’s tough, it’s frantic and even through headphones, it’s blindly obvious that he was pouring every ounce of himself into that song and that moment.
That spirit is really what separates Otis Redding from his many formidable contemporaries. Beyond the voice, which is nearly flawless, and the songwriting, which was original and groundbreaking, the spirit of Redding was best displayed on the stage. Through the very simple act of trying to make a set that was definitive and not tied to a specific period or performance, the set’s producers pulled together what may be the single greatest disc of Otis Redding music available on the market.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org