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The Early Days of Otis Redding

Otis Redding

The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads

Released: March 19th, 1965

7.0
Album Review Otis Redding

The events we write about at Gaslight Records happened in some form or another 50 years ago to the day. Roll along with us and imagine you are back in 1969.

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Comparisons between Otis Redding and Sam Cooke were plentiful following the release of Soul Ballads. Undoubtedly, there are structural and melodic similarities between tunes like “Chained and Bound” and many of Cooke’s slow paced ballads. But unlike the “Bring It On Home To Me” singer, Redding always came across as unrestrained in his vocal delivery; and it’s this factor that differentiates the two more than anything else.

In terms of his studio output, Sam Cooke rarely hit the free-wheeling heights of Redding on songs like “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend”—an enigmatic creature of a tune that both smolders and explodes with the energy and nuance you’d expect from a man actually caught in the throws of love. That is to say, that where Redding’s heart and head were actually at seem a lot more palpable to the listener than Cooke’s: you can feel true emotion in Otis’s strained crooning, and as a result, one is more inclined to put him on the level of realism instead of viewing his work as polished commercial product.

The Early Days of Otis Redding
Otis Redding - 1965

It’s completely inaccurate to suggest, however, that Sam Cooke was nothing more than a polished product of the studio system. One need look no further than songs like “A Change is Gonna Come” to make such statements seem ridiculous. Moreover, it’s not fair to say that Cooke was incapable of cutting through on an emotional level to the same extent as Otis Redding—look, for example, at Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club in 1963, where you’ll find a raw and emotive connection with melody the likes of which has rarely ever been committed to tape. What is fair to conclude though, is that Redding was given more room to move in the studio than Cooke ever was. The result of which is, in Redding’s case, an oeuvre that is more visceral and honest sounding. Whereas for Cooke, such attributes are frequently traded in for a smoothness of delivery that was indicative of what the mainstream market demanded.

It’s relatively hard to argue with this assessment if you look at the context: Cooke hit his peak in 1962-63, when songs like Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time” were topping year-end Billboard charts. So the demands on him as an artist signed to a major record label (Columbia), were presumably centred on catering to a relatively beige marketplace that was less interested in boundary pushing as it was in sweet, jingly hooks. Redding, on the other hand, was just hitting his stride in 65-66 (Soul Ballads was his second studio album), and by then artists like Bob Dylan and The Beatles had refocused the market agenda on more conceptual and visceral elements. Plus, Redding was signed to Volt Records—a new and largely independent subsidiary of the Stax label—so you’d be fairly safe in assuming that a fresh young record company would’ve been more supportive of experimentation than, say, Columbia Records in the late 50s-early 60s.

But the fact that Soul Ballads substitutes smoothness for raw delivery, doesn’t always work to its favour. In fact, Redding’s vocal approach often comes across sounding inchoate: as though he knows he’s got something to say but just doesn’t quite know how to express it. The record is a stop-start affair as a result; a tale of a man divided between the personas of intense and reticent lover. These divergent forces are most recognizable on “For Your Precious Love” and “Come To Me” - you can feel a push pull at play here: a tonal sweetness, and yet, a confusion in terms of how exactly to convey intent. Sam Cooke never operated with such indecision. For all the polish of his studio albums, his message was always direct, and his grasp on how best to convey it melodically was never short of masterful.

On top of the emotional and melodic indecision that often rears its head on Soul Ballads, it must also be said that the songs themselves are somewhat lacklustre affairs in many cases. While there’s certainly an aesthetic at play on this album that at once convinces you to get on board with its sultry soul tones; there is, in the end, not a whole heap to grab onto. It’s kind of like when you see a movie for the first time and think it’s great, though you’re not exactly sure why; and then when you see it again, you come out going, ‘actually, there wasn’t a whole lot of substance to that thing’ - Inception comes instantly to mind. Sure, the exceptional “Chained and Bound”, “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend”, and “Mr. Pitiful”, contradict this theory. But one could argue however, that nearly everything else on Soul Ballads is not exactly worthy of adjectives like memorable.

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