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otis redding in america (1999)

When I think of R&B, I think Otis Redding. In his short career, he not only brought his version of the authentic live R&B road show to a mass audience, but offered his unique soul on powerful studio recordings.

old man talk
When thinking about contemporary music and reflecting on music of the past it seems all too easy to slip into a mode where things like "they don't make them like they used to" are frequently said. This is especially true with R&B and jazz musicians. The same also seems to be true about politicians. There are talented new artists who care deeply about music, so the case must be that the music and styles they choose somehow mute their soul.

The mix of the 'disco-fictation' of R&B caused by the marriage of the music industry with Los Angeles in the 70's and the degeneration of the post-pioneer period of rap of the 80's has often resulted in a shallow brew that concerns cliches of cars, women, clothes and fame. This line of criticism has become pretty cliché'd itself, especially from white critics who have a glorified vision of what a "good" African-American musician should be (and subsequently what a "good" bleached blonde haired white rapper copying Arfrican-American rappers should be). What's missing in both the work of these new artists and their critics is a focus on music.

real deal
With Otis, whether you are listening to his hoarse cries on the ballads or the guttural staccato rimshots during the live shows, you are hearing a man express himself in way that is deep without being buried in surface image control or confessional drivel. Listening to the live version of "Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)", ask yourself: when was the last time you heard a R&B performer expressing so much joy and having so much fun? Otis singing "That's How Strong My Love Is," creates no level of "cool" on top of the feelings to protect his image. Pay close attention to the music and you will find there are no calculations.

Fa Fa Fa (sad song) live, (Stream MP3)

That's How Strong My Love Is, (Stream MP3)

male r&b walking backwards
In today's R&B and pop a man pouring his heart out is a mere cartoon of what even the most over-the-top showman used to pull off. It is a strange thing that after feminism has saturated our culture male R&B and pop artists have somehow reverted to pre-liberated mentalities. Even in the middle of his pre-feminist bump and grind, Otis was a man expressing his feelings, crying out in a way that was much closer to actual crying. Compare this to the detached technologically-enhanced multi-octave falsettos of contemporary artists. You hear real male emotion on "That's How Strong My Love Is."

What happened? The music industry raped so many R&B artists of their pride, money and creative lives, that the cliches of "getting paid up front," "look at my new car, jewelry and bitches" are sad, but understandable reactions to exploitation. Musical cliches followed the lyrical cliches. Compare B.I.G.'s video filled with cigarette boats and "bitches in bikinis" with Carla Thomas making fun of Otis, saying his clothes are shitty and he is "country, straight from the Georgia woods" and Otis replying "that's good, cos I'm a lover!" on "Tramp." Otis is not worried about his image, he's not flaunting his DKNY and Prada. It's hard to imagine a contemporary male hip hop or R&B artist allowing a 3 minute track to be released where a woman makes fun of his image and calls him a hick, even as joke.

Tramp, (Stream MP3)

flexible strategies
The refreshing minimalism of rap and hip hop in the early 80s mirrors the Stax sound coming from Memphis in the mid to late 60s. Both of these important periods of music featured a no-bullshit sound that focused on the groove and pure talent of the artists. The lack of bullshit allowed musicians to achieve great thing without hype, huge string sections, choirs and laser shows. Otis' studio and live performances offered extremely different versions of soul, but both are based on the band. The versatility was amazing.

The band (Booker T and the MGs) could, with the aid of the horn section, sound alternatively like a small band or an orchestra. They could move from one song creating a clean, straightforward highly-produced Motown track to a gritty, funky Memphis jam. Listen to the interplay of Steve Cropper's guitar and the horns on the live version. Compare the studio and a live version of "Security."

Security, (Stream MP3)

Security, live, (Stream MP3)

Finally, compare the relatively tight sound on both versions of "Security" to the live track of the famous R&B romp "Can't Turn You Loose." By opening up the groove a bit, letting the horn section spread out, the band gives Otis room to do his "hip shakin" rap and creates an almost orchestra-sized sound of multiple rhythms, without employing a string section (something that would become popular in the years after Otis died).

Can't Turn You Loose, live, (Stream MP3)

a national treasure

Otis created some interesting covers of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs. Take "Day Tripper," a Beatles song about dropping LSD (about those who only do it during sunny afternoons a.k.a. "Sunday drivers"). I kind of doubt that Otis ever dropped a tab of acid in his 26 years, but he takes that song and turns it into a sexual romp. Instead of accusing a young woman of being afraid to trip acid more often, Otis challenges her to give it up. When Otis covers "Satisfaction" live he nearly has a heart attack by the end of the performance. Even in '67, he made Keith and Mick seem like tired old ladies. Otis raps, sings and burns the motherfucker down in under 2 and a half minutes.

Satisfaction live, (Stream MP3)

what could have been

Otis didn't have time. While "Dock of the Bay" isn't my favorite performance by Otis, his last single before being killed in a plane crash certainly hints at a new direction and depth that his songwriting could have gone in. Otis was spared much of the shame and disrespect that so many of the great R&B legends of the 60s had to endure during the 70's and 80's. Between getting paid pennies in royalties by greedy record companies, Michael Bolton covering his songs, drug addiction and early death (look at the sad things that happened to the Temptations), the 60's R&B star is endangered in America.

Try a Little Tenderness live, (Stream MP3)

Unlike long-living artists, Otis only really has one period of music: pure soulful R&B. There is no consideration of later periods when synthesizers were used, or sequinsed attempt at disco or an jeri-curl injected 80's period. Otis Redding is one of very few popular musicians
that tries so hard to entertain and yet manages to be completely honest, simple and from the heart.

Otis has a four-CD box set from Atlantic/Rhino, which is certainly worth the investment and will bring hours of joy. The good thing about the box set is that if you have the 50 bucks or whatever, you can buy it and have pretty much all of the Otis. If you are strapped for cash, but still want a full plate of Otis, a suggestion would be getting two CDs which are generally found at bargain prices. "The Ultimate Otis Redding" is a 20 cut collection that covers the greatest hits and studio work. "Otis Redding Live in Europe" is a live show that is real good example of how amazing his show was (all of the live tracks from this page and the graphic at the very top are from that CD). There are other live recordings out there, including "Live at the Whiskey a Go Go" and an incredible video from the Monterrey Pop Festival (the same night as Jimi Hendrix blew people away).

There is now an "official site." --wb.

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