From the very first elongated cry of “please,” Otis Redding’s voice drips with pain, the kind of pain rendered impossible to keep underneath the surface. The singer of “I Love You More Than Words Can Say” pleads, prods and cajoles, all the while at an utter loss. This woman who haunts him, who lingers in his mind, seemingly can’t understand the depth of his affections. Yet we the listeners certainly can feel the depth of Redding’s well of torment, channeled in just under three minutes of the song written by Redding’s Memphis compatriots Eddie Floyd and Booker T. Jones. Redding, who perished tragically at the age of 26 in 1967, sang with an urgency that’s all too chilling in light of the tragedy that would take his life. Yet in the world of Lonely and Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding, a new release from Concord Music Group on the Stax/Volt label, Redding is very much alive and well.
This intriguing collection has been packaged on CD in a mini-LP jacket, a replica of an album that never existed but might as well have. Its twelve tracks are all tight, taut dramas, most in the three-minute range, some even shorter. All are imbued with the singular voice of Otis Redding, not in his high-energy live performance mode as a soul shouter supreme, but rather in his most torrid, late-night mood. Fully three-quarters of the songs were written, in whole or in part, by the artist himself, so this album-that-never-was-but-now-is shows off not only Otis the impassioned singer, but Otis the soulful songwriter.
The emphasis here is on lesser-known songs, derived from albums released both in Redding’s lifetime (1964’s Pain in My Heart and 1965’s immortal Otis Blue among them) and posthumously (1969’s Love Man, 1992’s Remember Me). Most of the songs are directed at a member of the opposite sex; the singer needs the freedom only his lady can afford in “Free Me.” She’s got him “chained and bound,” yet he still has to ponder, “Sometimes I wonder, do you really love me?” Redding’s hoarse yelps always fill in the blanks. In “Open the Door,” heard in the alternate “Skeleton Key” version, the down-and-out beggar implores, “Let me in,” but his increasingly-imperative cries might be falling on deaf ears. Steamy brass stabs accentuate Otis’ cries on this track and elsewhere; the horns almost appear to taunt the singer. There’s not a lot of sweetness here; Redding was famously among the most raw of the southern soul men, his vocal cry a piercingly honest one. In “A Waste of Time,” Redding personalizes his own song. Again aiming the song at a lover, he declares himself by name as “the biggest fool,” ad libbing asides as the band keeps on cookin’ to boiling point: “If you don’t want me, mama, don’t just leave me hangin’…” The track fades out, but it’s impossible not to wish we’d been able to hear this soliloquy, in all its increasing fervor, till the very end.
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There are many variations here on the recurring themes of hopelessness, lost love and desperation; on “Send Me Some Lovin’,” Redding makes the tune previously recorded by Little Richard, The Crickets and others all his own. He may cut to the bone – “I need you so bad…I miss you so much…” – but there’s always an innate strength, a sure sense that Otis will pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.
Otis’ voice is somewhat less rough-hewn on “These Arms of Mine,” sung in a romantic tradition that recalls an earlier time, with Steve Cropper’s piano lending an almost doo-wop flavor. Redding’s first hit single and for many his signature song, his vocal is more restrained than on some of the other selections, but no less gripping. Another significant song that’s been included here is “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now).” Redding’s first ever Top 5 R&B hit and a considerable pop success at No. 21, it’s also one of his most durable compositions. The song, co-written by Jerry Butler, has been recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, The Rolling Stones and “Ice Man” Butler himself. But no version has topped the sheer ferocity of Redding’s original as well as the sensuousness. Redding doesn’t resort to the carnality of Ike and Tina’s recording; rather, it’s relatively restrained but all the more affecting for it. (Though there is no discographical and recording information on the new package, “Loving You” is heard in its longer 3:15 version likely with Booker T. Jones at the piano.)
These are the songs that differentiate “soul” from “R&B,” all cut from the same musical cloth. It’s all the more remarkable that Redding made such a mark with just six studio albums released in his lifetime, between 1964 and 1967, on the Atco, Stax and Volt labels. He scored his first No. 1 record after his death with his seventh studio album, The Dock of the Bay, and subsequent collections have continued to appear with regularity since then. But such is the power of the all-too-finite number of songs he recorded. All are anchored by universal emotions that still ring true. Lonely and Blue is just the most recent trawl through the Redding back catalogue, and there have certainly been more copious collections. Collectors might be disappointed at the lack of unreleased material here, and indeed, more detailed liner notes and credits would have been welcome, perhaps on the inner sleeve that houses the CD. Uncredited producer David Gorman has done a fine and creative job, though, in creating an album that stands on its own alongside Redding’s original LP releases, even the rightfully praised Otis Blue. It’s well-designed to replicate such an album, and the artwork has been “aged” accordingly. That protective sleeve is another nice touch. Audiophiles may wish to take notice that Lonely and Blue, for which no remastering credit has been given, is on the loud side.
The liner notes, by mysterious DJ “Marty Hackman” of WDHG in Detroit, refer to Otis Redding in the present tense: “There’s no doubting Otis Redding’s many talents…As a singer…well, he simply exists without equal.” Let’s take a cue from the jock. Lonely and Blue has just arrived on the record racks, and Otis Redding is still alive and well. He gives plenty of voice to pain, misery and sorrow, but makes beautiful art out of anguish. His Deepest Soul is one you’ll want to spin again and again.