OTIS REDDING THE IMMORTAL OTIS REDDING, 1968, Atco
When Sara decided to cook an elegant dinner in order to open the rare 1978 Rioja she’d bought herself for her 30th birthday, the onus was on me to find just the right music for the occasion. She’d been waiting nine months to open this bottle so I felt the pressure to make a perfect choice. I decided to play on records released in ’78, but in this category my collection proved surprisingly bare. Every album I could think of from that date seemed to come out in ‘77 or ’79, very little in the year in between. There were some great albums from that year I admittedly should’ve owned—The Stones' Some Girls, Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy, Van Halen’s Van Halen, The Police’s Outlandos D’Amour…, but in general, I think it’s safe to say that 1978 wasn’t a superlative year for music. It feels like the enduring and influential artists who came of age in the 60s and told the truth in the 70s were starting to re-evaluate or resign. New artists and new sounds were appearing but not sure of themselves yet. The records of 78 reflect this curiosity and ambivalence. New Wave competing with hard “arena” rock, dark reflective country, druggy urban dance music, and increasingly bombastic, self-conscious releases by prog acts like Yes and Rush.
As I researched, I came to the happy conclusion
that if Sara, as she liked to tell me, was born in a good year for wine, then
I was born (in 1975) in a far better year for music. I started falteringly,
determined to make the best of what I had. We worked through Jethro Tull’s
Heavy Horses (very underrated in their catalogue), Bob Marley’s
Kaya (a personal favorite of mine) and Elvis Costello’s This
Year’s Model through cocktails and appetizers. Finally, three songs
into Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town, Sara put me
out of my misery.
“Is it okay if we just listen to that Otis Redding album I love with dinner?”
“It’s from ’68,” I replied, “not ’78.”
“I don’t care,” she said from the kitchen, “I love it. And it’s my birthday dinner.”
Never underestimate the liberating wisdom of a woman who knows what she wants. Here’s a link to a list of 50 albums from 1978, if you’re curious. The comments are some dude's, not mine…
Otis Redding died in a plane crash at age 26 in December of 1967, just three days after recording “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay.” That song, his first posthumous release, of course became a worldwide and enduring smash, fulfilling the crossover potential he had been steadily building into the world of white, mainstream pop. His death is truly one of those dispiriting tragedies for which there are no answers, only a sense of profound loss. “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay” stands alone, an empty promise, a totally new direction in his sound, his songwriting, his vision for the future of his career and potentially for music in general. Listen to that song right now, forty years later. It is still a devastating punch to the gut. A whole new direction of a great musician’s career left only as an ephemeral, unrealized dream. I don’t understand why the cosmos allows such great, important beauty to go unmade. Shouldn’t the force of love be more powerful than the incident of accident? I can’t figure out the hard lesson and I guess I never will.
Luckily for everyone, Otis Redding had laid down a great quantity of completed, mastered, but unreleased songs before his untimely demise. He was also fortunate enough to have had a producer, guitarist and friend, Steve Cropper, who chose to pay ultimate honor to his legacy, instead of hastily exploiting it for commercial reward. In other words, the posthumous releases were generally of such a quality that they feel like unique albums in their own right, not repackaged “greatest hits” collections.
The Immortal Otis Redding was the second of these posthumous albums after Dock of the Bay, and it is a beauty in so many ways. Only one track had ever been heard before, the novelty-like B-side “The Happy Song (Dum Dum De De De Dum Dum).” From the very opener, “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” with its tremolo guitar riff breaking through the fog of the grave, reaching its transmission to us living ones, it feels immediate, attention-getting, alive. The testament of an artist so powerful and visceral and commanding, Death couldn’t contain him. His voice, disembodied now, will be with us for all time. He is truly the immortal Otis Redding.
This same penetrating, deeply-felt quality runs through the whole album, from the ferocious “You Made a Man Out of Me” to the raucous roadhouse boogie of “Hard to Handle” (the Black Crowes version sounds like white-boy schmaltz ever after) to the aching, spectral soul of “Thousand Miles Away” (my personal favorite track here). This is Soul Music in the defining sense of the term. Many people today think of "soul" with a sneering grin as music made by black people with the lascivious purpose of getting folks horny. It’s a kind of lazy cultural put-down that demeans the extraordinarily high level of musicianship, songwriting and production craft that’s on display everywhere on this album in particular and much Southern Soul music (from Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Atlanta and elsewhere) in general with artists such as Millie Jackson, Clarence Carter, Al Green, etc…
It’s fitting that Sara wanted to match The Immortal Otis Redding to her vintage wine because this album contains many of the qualities one discovers in wine. It is vintage, of its time, but it also tantalizes with multiple listens different flavors, structures and images. When you listen to Otis sing, you hear the force of the blues, you can smell the sweat and perfume of a Memphis club, a Muscle Shoals studio, a rural Georgia church Revival. You can focus on the passion of his delivery, its immediacy, its urgency; or you can listen past him to his backing band, how tight they are, how in the groove and you can see where the Rolling Stones got their inspiration for Exile on Main Street. It’s no coincidence they covered a pair of Otis’ songs and he covered “Satisfaction.” In listening to The Immortal Otis Redding, one experiences the terroir of the whole legacy of Southern black music, which is today and for all time, everyone’s music.
One final anecdote: The fourth date I had with Sara, she came over to my apartment. As she gazed up at my record collection, I felt an inward kind of arrogance that all record junkies feel. “You have a lot of records,” she said. I nodded, trying to act cool. “You got any Otis Redding?” she asked. Uh-oh. That moment. The nightmare for any collector, when someone hits you where it hurts. I shook my head, no. “I’ve got a friend who has a few records and I used to listen to this Otis Redding one all the time," she continued. "It had my favorite song on it, "I've Got Dreams to Remember." Do you know that one?” Some other asshole was going make me look bad? Something had to be done. Three weeks later in New York’s Lower East Side, I found The Immortal Otis Redding at the A-One Record Shop, where the kindly store owner talked to me for ten minutes about Kobe and the Lakers. Listening to it with her, drinking vintage wine, felt like a reward for a mission accomplished.