Friday, 6 January 2012

News, Views and Music Issue 128 (Intro)

Happy new year! Yes it really is that time already when we get to look back on another year, prepare for another one, remember all those new year’s resolutions we promised ourselves so faithfully 12 months ago and get ready set go for another year full of news, views and music. If the world doesn’t blow itself up first of course – remember according to the Mayan calendar we have until December 21st to prepare for the threat. That still means we can fit in a quick 48 issues or so of news, views and music so and hopefully a future alien race will be able to revive the internet and find this site so all that work isn’t wasted. Perhaps it’ll be one of our friendly clanduspords from Zigorous 3 as mentioned in our april fool’s day editions?!

Having a quick look back at the first issue of 2011 (news and views no 86) I see that – against all odds – some of the things that we wanted to happen last year did indeed come true. Two whole black and white lost episodes of Dr Who were returned to the BBC last month, a tiny footage of TOTP was recovered (albeit not featuring any AAA artists), our stat counter really did bulge much more than we ever thought possible, there were indeed a few decent additions to the AAA canon (see our review of the year last issue) and thankfully the planned Spice Girls reunion never happened – meaning that, to all intents and purposes, the scary five did indeed retire! Wa-hoo! Alas a lot of our ‘worst fears’ from that issue seemed to happen too: David Cameron got ever nearer to world domination and undoing the few good things Labour ever actually managed to achieve, the highest profile AAA star of 2011 by far really was Lulu and only because of a reality TV show (though on Strictly Come Dancing rather than X factor as we predicted) and I very nearly did end up in the monkeynuts home for retired music reviewers several times over the course of the year after harassments from chronic fatigue, three computer breakdowns and continual harassment from the department of work and pensions. Worst of all, in 2011 we lost two AAA luminaries: Pentangle guitarist Bert Jansch and Monkees co-creator Bert Schneider, sad losses both that didn’t make anything like the splash in the newspapers that either man deserved.

So what are our hopes for this year?: Well, more music, more reviewing and a much bigger presence of AAA in all shapes and forms I reckon, a bit like 2011 but more so (remember that thrill when The Hollies made #1 in the Amazon box set best-seller lists? Or was that just me?!) Our fears for this year: more pointless and mismanaged Coalition cuts, more misunderstanding of our economic situation, an even greater cutback in our democratic values and humanitarian policies and a return to the dark class wars we thought were long behind us. The fact that the first AAA member to announce an album this year so far is Ringo (whose last album released less than a year ago was awfulness personified) doesn’t bode well for 2012, but then again things can only get better from here. Let’s hope 2012 finds a way to bridge that gap between poor and rich, war and peace, anger and kindness, trust and betrayal and The Beatles versus The Spice Girls.

In happier news, I’ve come across a terrific new gadget from the makers of Youtube that will enable you to convert all of their precious soundtracks into mp3 downloads for your i-pod/cd players: you can visit it yourselves at With it I’ve been able to track down many a rare and lost gem entirely legally (with the promise that I’d be first in the queue to buy this stuff were the artists to ever release things officially) – and you can too, without having to pay for any of those silly subscriptions or monthly charges over sites make. Remember, there’s a treasure trove of unavailable AAA rarities on Youtube, as listed on our very pages (see news and views 119-121) so if your xmas presents were disappointing and you still want to add something new to your listening devices for the new year, it’s not too late. I’m currently grooving to a whole batch of Hollies BBC sessions which, like most everything by The Hollies, are absolutely fantastic (get a move on and release them now, EMI!)

Beatles News: Oh dear. Theres a new Ringo album out, Ringo 2012, in February and the signs arent good. For the record, I really admired the Ringo of the 1990s, who made two really good albums (Time Takes Time and Vertical Man) with people who really believed in his talent and got the best out of him the fact that Ringo made both albums after overcoming so many personal problems and battles with alcohol and had the courage to write about his demons impressed me greatly. He re-learnt the knack of writing a clever tune, too. But since then Ringos dropped the people who cared for him to work with any old geezer whose ever wanted to know a Beatle and rushing his albums out in the space of a few weeks when they really do need time spent on them as before. Last years album Y Not? may well be the nadir of my record collection: lots of angry shouting about nothing subjects that have obviously been rankling in Ringos mind for 50 odd years with only empty peace-and-love epithets to break up the mood. It was embarrassing, frankly, perhaps the first time since Lennons lost weekend that a Beatle had something so serious to be embarrassed about. I dont really think Ringos changed that much in just eight months, especially having read two new interviews with him where hes still unusually spiky and defensive for no reason(hes surprised people still want to talk about his past? When he was in The Beatles?!And there are only two of them left?!?!), nor do I think the world needs another Ringo record so soon quite honestly. Things dont bode well either because Ringo is following up his witty but quite frankly nasty song about his hometown The Other Side Of Liverpool with a second song (In Liverpool) about Ringos down-and-out teenage years when he hated the city even more. If Ringo had written these songs at the time he was suffering Id have supported him, but banging on about your miserable childhood a half-century on while writing from a mansion in Monaco that your Liverpool fans helped pay for when no one else believed in you is quite another. If youd have told any Beatles fan in the 1960s that in 50 years time Ringo is going to be making albums slagging off his birthplace and Paul was going to do a whole album of crooner cover versions I think theyd all have been bitterly disappointed. Lets hope for better things from the fab two in 2012...

Lulu News: Champagne for Lulu! Local lass and Edge Hill graduate Jennifer Saunders comedy was back on over Christmas with two specials of her 1990s comedy Absolutely Fabulous. New Years Days episode saw a return of Lulu as a guest on the show sparring against of all people a spice girl! To be fair Emma Baby Bunton was a good sport, there was even a gag about being a sort of singer, but Lulu seemed a bit out of sorts, being prevented from doing her trademark Shout! mid-breath. The plot, generally irrelevant to the series, was about a famous fashion designer wanting to become singer but one who had no voice whatsoever that anybody could hear, hence the presence of the two singers as coaches. The end result? A great postmodern joke when secretary Bubbles (played by Jane Horrocks) sang off-stage to great applause (she did a similar thing in the hit film Little Voice a few years back). For my money, though, I dont know why anyone else turns up to a show where the great Julia Swahala and Joanna Lumley upstage everybody every time, often without saying a word...

Pentangle: BBC6 are repeating an in session performance by Bert Jansch, in tribute to the guitarist who died last year. The session takes place on Thursday, January 5th at 4am as part of the live music hour, following a set from Pink Floyd collaborator Roy Harper.

ANNIVERSARIES: Birthday bonanzas for the busiest week of AAA musicians we’ve had for some time (between January 3rd and 9th): George Martin (producer of The Beatles 1962-69 and various solo albums) turns 86 on January 3rd, Van Dyke Parks (lyricist on The Beach Boys’ ‘Smile’) turns 71 on January 3rd, Stephen Stills (guitarist with Buffalo Springfield 1965-68 and Crosby, Stills and Nash 1969-present) turns 67 on January 3rd, Syd Barratt (guitarist and so much more with Pink Floyd 1967-68) who would be 66 on January 6th, Jerry Garcia (guitarist with the Grateful Dead 1965-95) who would be 69 on January 8th and Terry Sylvester (guitarist with The Hollies 1969-80) who turns 65 on January 8th. Anniversaries of events include: Beach Boy Carl Wilson refuses to join the Army ranks after being drafted (January 3rd 1967); JohnandYoko’s ‘Two Virgin’s record is released – in brown paper bags after distributors object to the ‘pornographic’ front sleeve (January 3rd 1969); The last ever Beatles recording – and even then minus John Lennon – takes place for the George Harrison song ‘I Me Mine’ which had just been added to edits of the ‘Let It Be’ film (January 4th 1970), Performance – the film that all but split the Stones after Mick Jagger was cast in the lead alongside first Brian Jones and then Keith Richards’ partner Anita Pallberg - is first shown (January 4th 1971); The release of The Beatles’ first record – well, sort of, the release is the German-only small label single ‘My Bonnie’ credited to Tony Sheridan and The Beat Brothers (January 5th 1962); The sad death of ‘fifth Beatle’ and unsung hero Mal Evans, who is shot by police in America after threatening suicide (January 5th 1976); The Rolling Stones headline their first tour with The Ronettes in support (January 6th 1964); The first new John Lennon song since his death in December 1980, ‘Nobody Told Me’, is released as a single (January 6th 1984); Max Yasgur is sued for $20,000 of damage to properties following the Woodstock concert the previous August (January 7th 1970) and finally, Crosby, Stills and Nash release their last (to date) platinum-selling album ‘Daylight Again’ (January 7th 1983).

Thursday, 5 January 2012

News, Views And Music Issue 128 (Top Five): AAA References in The Beano/Dandy

It’s really hard trying to relax when you’re a monkeynuts album reviewer, dear readers – everywhere you look there seems to be a mention of an AAA group somewhere! This week there I was looking through some old (and I really do mean old) Beano and Dandy comic strips (kindly collected into some excellent reference books by publishers D C Thompson) and to my astonishment in the 1960s volume alone there are four references to The Beatles and one about The Beach Boys. Is it the fascinating music the cartoonists wish to pay worship to? The way these two bands shaped popular culture for the better? The wit, wisdowm and intelligence of their media coverage? Err, no, it’s usually the hair-styles that are being attacked...For the purposes of reading these comic strips and see what I’m writing about you need either a) the excellent ‘Classic Years’ book ‘Swinging Round The Sixties’ or b) a large pile of pristine comics from the years 1964-67. Alas comics famously never have page numbers, so I can’t point you to the pages directly, but nevertheless here for the collector who has to have everything are the top five Beano/Dandy AAA cartoon-music crossovers!

1)    Korky The Cat from ‘The Dandy’ edition of February 1st 1964:

More than any other month, February 1964 was the one when the fab four were on everybody’s lips (and gramophones). The band still hold the record for the most TV viewers ever during their segment on ‘The Ed Sullivan’ show and had just released their third (or fourth depending which chart you use) number one with ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. Even cartoonists knew The Beatles weren’t a phenomenon that was going to fade and make their strips incomprehensible to future readers and that must be why there are so many references to The Beatles that particular month. The first features perennial favourite Korky The Cat (bring him back, Dandy!) who is plagued, as ever, by the noisy mice that live in his bedroom. Fed up of listening to Korky’s tuneless guitar playing, the mice sneak up to his instrument and cut their own acoustic instruments out of it (not very likely, I know, but this is a cartoon remember – don’t try this at home because it won’t work and your guardians will be angry!) Next day Korky comes back from work (what work did he actually do by the way? He’s a cat!) and is surprised to find an awful noise coming from his windows and a load of swooning female mice outside his door. All becomes clear when he sees a sign saying ‘Beatle Mice’ and a small band singing that memorable hit ‘She loves cheese, yeah yeah yeah!’. I think I need a lie down now...

     2)  Dennis The Menace from ‘The Beano’ edition of February 22nd 1964:

Softy Walter’s a credit to his family. There he is, off to his music lessons with violin in hand (presumably grade eight knowing Walter) alongside his dad and who should they bump into than Mr Menace? (well, Dennis’ dad anyway – does he ever actually get a name in all the 60-odd years he’s been in the Beano?!) He sighs whilst listening to endless gossip about how well Walter’s doing – by comparison all Dennis has a talent for is ‘getting into trouble’ – and decides that he’d rather fight his son than risk another bout of crowing from Walter senior. Dennis, of course, isn’t buying the idea of becoming a musical genius, fixing his flute with peas to act like a ‘pea-shooter’ and when told to choose something else asks for a ‘cornet’ (because, naturally enough, he thinks its something to do with an ice cream – what a silly name for an instrument, no wonder he’s so confused). Along the way he picks up Walter’s violin and gives a quick rendition of ‘I’m a menace, yeah yeah yeah!’, complete with a Beatle wig he’s got from somewhere about his person (before The Beatles came along, Dennis must have had the longest hair of any person in Britain anyway, so I can’t say it makes all that much difference!) Of course, it all ends in tears with Dennis expelled from his music lesson and his dad using his behind as a drum-kit (about 90% of these cartoon strips seem to end in some form of corporal punishment – there must have been a Coalition Government in power back then too as ours are already talking of repealing that law!)

3)    Korky The Cat from ‘The Dandy’ issue dated June 13th 1964:

If you’re of a nervous disposition, dear reader, look away now. Korky The Cat is being a barber this week (why?!) and thinks American style crew cuts are going to be the ‘new’ in-fashion to have. So he puts a board up outside his shop (where did he rent that from?!?) and encourages some long-haired mop topped Beatles fans in. There seems to be an awful lot of them around in Beanotown – more evidence that Beatlemania really did get everywhere! Korky then sticks a colander over his customer’s heads (where did a cat get a colander from?!?!? Oh, Never mind...), plays a scary movie on a projector (perhaps it was a music video of ‘The Mice Girls’ some thirty years early?) and when his ‘customers’ / ‘victims’ are sufficiently shocked cuts all the hair that sticks out through the holes. Ingenious, but not actually recommended, unless you want to have blotches of hair left behind (perhaps that’s what happened to The Human League’s Phil Oakey in the band’s early days and nobody told him?!)

4)    Corporal Clott from ‘The Beano’ issue dated  September 5th 1964:

The bumbling Corporal Clott is clearly only three letters and not many genes away from Pink Floyd’s damning 1968 song ‘Corporal Clegg’ (a song that’s taken on a whole new life since Nick joined the coalition!) But this cartoon actually references The Beatles yet again in another of The Beano’s cartoons obsessed with hair. The Sergeant Major’s on the warpath once more, this time obsessed with his patrol’s moptop haircuts. Corporal Clott is ordered to wait in the barber’s shop with a pair of scissors (he should know not to put Clott in charge by now – surely the name gives it away as much as anything!) until the men come along peacefully. These being soldiers, of course, they fail to do anything peacefully and instead kick up a right fuss (involving ‘friendly fire’ somewhere we’ll bet). Trapping the platoon with the lure of, erm, cigarettes (times really have changed in the past 50 years haven’t they?!) Clott drops a wooden board with head-shaped holes over the men and starts hacking away. A second group of men are fooled by Clott in a lion suit who makes them run into some railings, leaving their heads stuck long enough for the lion to give them a quick back and sides (frankly they deserve it – The Beano’s always doing that gag and they should be used to it by now). A third group of men are lured by the promise of a super-duper hair cream that will give them all the ability to grow their hair super-quick and look just like The Beatles – only Clott is really handing them super-glue and is ‘forced’ to cut their hair off from the roots. Nice to know our armed forces are in such safe hands isn’t it? Mission accomplished, Clott feels rather pleased with himself, until an angry mob realise they’ve been fooled and stick a rather fetching Renaissance wig on his bonce, giving that timeless joke about it being a ‘permanent wave’ (see the Ringo Starr album ‘Old Wave’ and the Kinks song ‘Permanent Waves’). Oh, how we laughed. Some of us. When we were really really bored and we weren’t allowed to watch the telly and it was raining outside and you had your maths homework to do and oh you get the picture... (Quite honestly the Corporal Clott cartoons were the worst thing in the Beano, apart from the text stories – did anyone actually read those?! – and simply filled in room where my own favourites The Bash Street Kids, Little Plum or Minnie The Minx could have fitted).

5)    Korky The Cat from ‘The Beano’ issue dated February 25th 1967:

Finally, Korky The Cat is at it again, starring in his strip with ‘The Bleach Boys’ this time (the illustrator clearly knew their music, because the haircuts are spot on!) Actually this cartoon strip is highly revealing, offering an insight into the up and down nature of the record industry in early 1967 and the fickleness of fame at a point in time when the public at large had assumed The Beach Boys were passe (ha! If only ‘Smile’ had come out at Xmas 1966 they’d have all been eating out of their hats!) Korky promises new-found success to the band if they follow his suggestions which include – you guessed it – a haircut, sending the band to sleep with sleeping pills and hacking all that hair off. Again. Left bald as a coot, each band member (for some reason they’re a trio – perhaps it’s just The Wilson brothers left in this era) is incandescent with rage until they realise that being bald is beautiful and begin a whole new career as ‘The Bawled Boys’ (yes, I know, it’s an awful pun isn’t it?! I’m surprising you’re still reading this article to be honest!) I’m impressed to say the compiler of these cartoons in book form about five years ago clearly knows his stuff, suggesting that this whole cartoon strip was an inspiration for The Beach Boys track ‘She’s Goin’ Bald’, released on ‘Smiley Smile’ late in 1967, the same year as this cartoon!

And that’s all for another issue – see you next time at Alan’s Album Archives!

Otis Redding "The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads" (1966) (News, Views and Music 128)

You can now buy 'Change Gonna Come - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Otis Redding' in e-book form by clicking here!

If you’re a regular to this site you may have noticed I haven’t covered an Otis Redding album since review no 4 (‘Otis Blue’), some 225 articles ago now. That’s not because I don’t own Otis’ run of five albums and it’s certainly not because I don’t like them but, to some extent, I feel out of my depth. As a rule I’m not a big fan of soul records, which sound to me like a lot of huffing and puffing over nothing that would be time better spent writing, say, a guitar riff, a beat or a proper lyric (hence the overwhelming amount of thoughtful rock and rollers on this list) so I have far less knowledge about the genre and far more homework to do while writing about it. It’s also true that Otis’ short career (three years as a recording artist) runs out just at the point where he’s made the leap from promising youngster to genuine timeless legend, dying in a plane crash at age 26 (missing out on the ’27 club’ by a matter of months) and just six months on from the Monterey Pop Festival breakthrough that turned Otis into a household name rather than just a star to music lovers. Only six short records were ever made and - seeing as they were recorded on the same treadmill as The Beach Boys’ draconian contracts of an album every six months as well as touring, writing and TV appearances they show the same small slow gradual progression you’d expect from someone whose only had six months’ living to do between albums (Using The Beach Boys parallel that’s the same as the huge sea change between ‘Surfin’ Safari’ in 1962 and ‘All Summer Long’ in 1964 – although heard album by album, four-six months apart, the change is undistinguishable if you play the albums in order). Otis was capable of doing new, bold and daring things in his life though – we know that because the last thing he recorded (and half-finished) before his death was ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’, a song that – had he lived – would have brought Otis a whole new audience and signalled a major change in his discography.

Frankly, it’s hard to know what to make of someone’s output when it’s incomplete. I feel the same writing about Janis’ albums or Syd Barrett’s (whose ‘retirement’ in 1970 came 35 years before his actual death). There isn’t a ‘whole’ here, the artist never got the chance to revisit their back catalogue, talk about things in later life they weren’t allowed to mention at the time or reveal new sides to their writing that were only hinted at before (for example, who saw ‘Graceland’ coming in Paul Simon’s discography, at the age of 44, despite tinkering with world music as part of Simon and Garfunkel from the age of 27?) These five albums might all have become just ‘early’ albums before Otis got ‘the groove’ (although I suspect the wonderful ‘Otis Blue’ would always have been loved by fans, whatever the gentle giant had gone on to record), but as it is I have to write about them as they stand, without any idea of how the story should have ended for Otis. Sleeve-writer Paul Ackerman, who penned the rather elongates notes for this album clearly has the same problem: I haven’t read this much artistic puff since Tony Barrow’s notes for The Beatles’ ‘Please Please Me’ and it’s more luck than skill that both artists went on to gain the kind of skill written about because it’s not always obvious from the early records here. 

Add in the fact that I only have six Otis records to play with compared to ten times that for Neil Young and Paul McCartney and you can see why I haven’t got round to adding another Otis record yet (although that said I am two-thirds of the way through the Buffalo Springfield discography already and they only did three albums!) My other problem as a reviewer is that ‘Otis Blue’ is so head, shoulders, knees and toes above the other albums here, so much so that all Otis’ best known songs except ‘Dock Of The Bay’ are on it. The others all sound a bit bland or at least very mixed in quality next to it. But that said there’s one album – Otis’ second – that keeps ending up on my playlist and I’ver made it my new year’s resolution to start dealing with some of the more obscure, forgotten albums on my list by artyists that I haven’t really covered too fully as yet. So despite all these issues that have put ,me off for so long I thought the time was right to flesh in a bit more of the Otis story to those who, like me, might not know it.

It’s notable that as early as this second release Otis is being billed as ‘the great’ on record sleeves. That ‘greatness’ was arguably seen less as a performer than as a writer – ‘Pain In My Heart’, Otis’ break-through hit of 1964, had been a hit for quite a few other artists, as had follow-up ‘These Arms Of Mine’ (so it’s doubly odd that this album’s sleeve-notes offer ‘surprise’ that Otis was writing so much). In fact it’s Otis’ eyes for a song – both his own and other people’s – that really make this record and Otis will never again have the time to write quite so much of his own material. Nowadays everyone writes their own material (barring The Spice Girls) and it seems odd to make such a fuss when only five of these 12 songs are written or co-written by the star, but back in early 1965 writing was either a rock phenomenon expected to be a passing phase or the hallmark of a few select people like Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. Both of these men tend to be thought of as writers more often than they ever are as singers and yet Otis manages both hats during the making of his second album, at the age of just 25. They’re good songs too – already Otis’ material is the equal and often the superior of the songs he covers.

Then again, this album isn’t really pure soul (perhaps that’s why I like it so much).Otis is clearly being ‘groomed’ as a rock talent here too, inasmuch as any African-American backed by horns can be made to seem like someone like The Beatles. This will make more sense later on when Otis covers first The Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ and then the Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’, repaying the debts both bands took from black music of the 1950s in the first place (Both bands pay their debt again, The Beatles with ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ which borrows heavily from Otis’ and the Stax sound in general and The Stones in the 70s once Bobby Keys joins the band). But it’s here even in March 1965, when The Beatles are still explaining to hapless music journalists who people like Chuck Berry and Little Richard actually are. Just look at that sleeve, with lots of little Otis Reddings staring back at us from the sleeve, like the cover for ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, but with only one man’s figure in place of four. Note, too, the multi-coloured hues that have been used to tint the pictures, something that seems old hat now but must have been daringly new at the time – is this a comment that Otis is for every colour of human being, that his music can transcend such racial boundaries? I’m curious as to the bold white strip running across the bottom of the record – is this the palefaces holding Otis back because of his skin colour (had Otis been born now, he’d have broken through as a star a whole lot earlier and easier than in 1965)? Or a record company reaction to the black border running round the sleeve? Either way, it’s a much more striking image than the other Otis sleeves, of which only one (the quite frankly horrid duet album with Carla Thomas ‘King and Queen’) features Otis’ face.

Rock and soul aren’t the distant relatives people would have them as anyway, more close cousins than the great-aunts and great-uncles people assume them to be. The Beatles were covering Smokey Robinson as early as their first album and were always mentioning Otis in print as their new-found love of 1966, while both the Stones and The Hollies cover one of the songs that Otis also covers here (‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’). It’s worth noting, too, that Otis was always much bigger in Europe than his home of America until that Monterey breakthrough (this album charted at a quite respectable #30 in the UK for example, compared to #147 in the US), so the idea of Lennon or Jagger stumbling across this record isn’t as odd as it first appears. Clearly, both sides – rock and soul - are borrowing from the same melting pot of influences here, with the instrumentation being the only real difference between the two (indeed, Little Richard was Otis’ biggest early influence, much more so than other soul artists). In fact, Otis doesn’t get enough credit as a pioneer of mixed-race music – his backing band the MGs can lay claim to being the first popular mixed-race band (beating Arthur Lee’s ‘Love’ and the Hendrix Experience by a year or so) and even in his short lifetime instigated a ridiculous amount of scholarships to help out the poor kids from his Georgia neighbourhood, both black and white. Had Otis lived past 1967 and into 1968 and 69, when musicians were that much more open about bringing down old racial boundaries in the press, he would have been hailed as a hero, even more than he is now.

But even without imagining what might have been, Otis was clearly a star even at the time. Going back to this record, there are two distinctive features about this album that set it apart from  nearly anything else around at the time. The first is the powerful horn arrangements on this record, which for the most part were written by Otis and show off an amazing ear for licks and riffs unusual for soul in those days. Songs like ‘Your One And Only Man’ are transformed by these from simple I’ll-always-love-you sentiments into a real powerhouse of emotion, as if the horns are acting as the narrator’s subconscious and telling the full story which he can only hint at. Otis’ backing band Booker T and The MGs often get credit for creating Otis’ sound and deservedly so – few bands were as tight as this one in the day and fewer still sounded so good live (just listen to Otis’ set at Monterey, where they never sounded sweeter). But for me it’s the horn parts that set Otis out as something special, using the horns as an integral part of the song rather than just nifty colouring to the songs, giving these arrangements a real bite and emotion that livens up even the emptiest song here.

The second feature is the sheer amount of ballads on offer her. First album ‘Pain In My Heart’ in particular sets out the usual Otis formula: each side of the original vinyl record opens with a huge-sounding driving rocking number, quietens things down, goes somewhere completely new for the third track and then goes through that same process again for tracks 4, 5 and (where relevant) 6. Otis’ best loved songs apart from ‘Dock Of The Bay’ tend to be the hard-hitting powerful ones: ‘Respect’ or the covers of ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Shake!’ (another song covered by rock AAA bands like The Hollies and Small Faces). But as this album’s title implies, ‘Soul Ballads’ is nearly all filled with slow-burning yearning ballads and yet, despite the similarity of pace, this album never gets boring and Otis somehow manages to show off even more of his varied craftsmanship than he did on his first record.

Also, neither song ranks close to his best I don’t think but there are two significant entries into Otis’ songwriting catalogue that show off both sides of his personality. ‘I Want To Thank You’ is in many ways Otis’ most personal song and I’m pleased to say it’s a happy one, a really lovely love song dedicated to Otis’ wife Zelda. The pair met when the singer was aged 18, married at 20 and had four children by the time Otis died at 26 – amazingly the family still live on the same estate Otis bought in 1965, partly with the money made from this album. Unlike, say, Yoko Ono or other famous rock widows of our day and age Zelda has never really come forward with her own story about Otis, has only ever taken part in one CD retrospective of Otis (‘Definitive’) and still lives in the same mansion they shared together fifty years ago, booting out the odd snooping reporter with the classic line ‘I ain’t turning my house into Graceland – get out!’ It’s tough losing your husband to the lost land of rock and roll anyway, but losing your husband so young in a plane crash that he could do nothing about hurts all the more given the very tenderness of this song and the fact that the lyrics are so clear about relying on her so much. Alas Otis never really got a chance to write many more love songs to his young bride, but the one that he did write is special and says a great deal about both characters.

The other Otis song to mention here is ‘Mr Pitiful’, perhaps the best known song on the album (unlike most of Otis’ other albums, ‘Soul Ballads’ never did really spawn any hits). Most reviewers take this song to be something of a joke, a spoof of how Otis’ songs nearly always seemed to be about misery and bad luck and based around a nickname Otis was given by a Memphis DJ fed up of playing depressing records all day. But hang on a minute – this is Otis’ second album and this is only his ninth released song ever, hardly enough time for anyone to have started developing a pattern of work, never mind had the temerity of mind to laugh at themselves and expect people to get the joke. ‘Mr Pitiful’ sounds real to me, a cry from the heart about bad luck dogging you everywhere you go and one that’s as moving as any song Otis did, even if the melody isn’t one of his strongest.  

Whether pleading, cajoling, demanding or exhilarating, there are few sounds in the world as passionate as Otis Redding at full throttle. One of my reference books (Colin Larkin’s excellent ‘Top 1000 Albums’) calls this album ‘elegant intensity’ and that’s a good fit for this album, where Otis is clearly emotionally  involved with every song and yet still manages to get his feelings across without resorting to the sorts of histrionics lesser artists would use. For a kid of 24-25 when this record was being made, that’s quite a skill, especially given that many of these songs made famous by more famous and more established men (most notably Sam Cooke) will never ever sound like they belong to someone else after hearing Otis sing them. Already in his career Otis has reached the point where it only takes a few melancholic horn phrases and a single held note from the singer and everyone knows whose record this is.

To be fair, ‘Soul Ballads’ only reaches those peaks of recognition and talent a few times across the record compared to, say, ‘Otis Blue’, but even on some occasionally average material Otis is always convincing and always somehow manages to get to the heart and soul of the composition. That inventive Monterey set, where Otis just owns a crowd that many would think was far removed from his own audience, didn’t come out of the air and that charisma and personality really comes across strongly in this record, much more so than on first LP ‘Pain In My Heart’ (which, the title track aside, could have been made by any smart kid with a good ear for soul music). ‘Soul Ballads’ isn’t the first material Otis recorded or even the best, but it is largely the first time he discovers his own personality and why an Otis Redding record should sound different from any of his competitors. Overshadowed by ‘Otis Blue’ and missing the hit singles of the later albums, ‘Soul Ballads’ is something of a neglected gem in the soul world despite containing many of Otis’ greatest performances and deserves to be much better known.  

 In all the years of doing this website, I’ve found it’s unusual for my favourite track on the album to be the very first one but that’s what happens with ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’. Amazingly I haven’t written about this song yet despite being on records by the Stones and The Hollies too (plus Steve Marriott when he left the Small Faces to form Humble Pie) and the fact that this song (a hit for OV Wright, who might have made this list himself had he made a whole album) is one of my favourites. The song actually only dates from 1964 so it was a pretty new song back then but was quickly accepted into the acts of many rock and soul stars. For the record, The Hollies do it best but this soulful reading is still special, tailor made for Otis’ pleading, bargaining style. Like many of Otis’ best songs it features a huge dynamic switch between the joyful chorus and verse, with it’s big empty swinging major chords and a darker minor chord middle eight that hints at something darker. The lyrics are ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ five years early, a list of all the things the narrator will do to prove his love for his loved one and how he’ll always be there for her, with such metaphors as ‘an ocean’ ‘a weeping willow’ and a ‘breeze after the storm has gone’. Otis is really convincing at being the kind of strong but empathetic soul needed to speak such dramatic but heartfelt pleas and, along with ‘Dock Of The Bay’, I’d go so far as to say that this is his definite vocal: teasing one minute, determined the next and with a distinct crack in his voice in the first verse (as opposed to, say, Mick Jagger, who sounds as if he’s reading the lyrics for the first time on the Stones version). This version misses the ‘bouncy swagger’ of the Stones version, the hard attack of Humble Pie or the harmonies of the Hollies version, but makes up for these thanks to a slightly slower tempo (which makes this song sound more laidback and mellow) and another classy horn part that really makes this song, sounding like a wheezy sigh of satisfaction in Otis’ arms. The end result is a sweet performed from the heart and a success for all involved not just Otis, with a backing track worthy of his classy vocal.

Not that ‘Chained and Bound’ is far behind, with a guitar opening reminiscent of the riff from ‘California Girls’ (released the month after this album) and Otis back to his pleading style, playing off the horns. This Otis original is noticeably much more melancholic, however, despite covering pretty much the same ground: the narrator is so in love he’ll do anything for his loved one, metaphorically ‘chained and bound’ to her side, and yet there are hints in the song that she doesn’t feel the same way. By the end ‘Chained and Bound’ has turned back into a love song, but for the day – early 1965 – it must have been dramatic indeed for the narrator to interrupt his certainty with a middle eight that asks ‘what kind of life am I living?’, questioning what love really is and whether he has the right to subvert her wishes to his will. Otis sings the songs upbeat, singing with the certainty that time will prove him right and she’ll fall for him, but the backing crew don’t sound quite so sure – the horn riff here, played in minor chords in counterpart to Otis’ vocal, is just the right side of sadness and interacts with Otis’ vocal well, as if its answering on behalf of his chosen girls’ doubts. The end result is a clever song and another fine performance, although alas there’s less of a melody line to this song, with a laidback narrative taking the lead.

‘A Woman, A Lover, A Friend’ is one of the album’s lesser moments, adding some cocktail lounge jazz and one of the most clichéd 12-in-the-bar riffs on the whole of the artists covered by this site. Interestingly, though, this is kind of the same song as the last two but sung from the opposite direction, with Otis’ urgent narrator looking for the kind of partner who shows all the qualities he listed in the first two songs. This Sydney Wyche song is one of the oldest compositions on the album and probably one of the best known songs here in its day, being a hit for Jackie Wilson in 1960. It’s notable, then, that Otis seems to be uncharacteristically struggling with this song despite it not being too far from his usual choice of material. There’s even a badly judged falsetto scream in the fadeout which is pretty much unique in Redding’s catalogue and makes him sound as if he’s invented disco 15 years too early. That’s a shame because this song deserves better, full of some worthy lyrics about looking beneath the surface for the people you love, with the importance of finding compatibility underneath ‘all that powder and paint’ that makes this quite a forward-looking song for its day.It’s a bit of a plodding song though and at 3:18 is the longest on the record – truth be told, it should be one of the shortest as it runs out of ideas so early on. The line about a woman who doesn’t mind ‘giving as much as she receives’ is also as risqué a line as any singer would dare get away with in 1965 – it might just be me but I can detect a little bit of a chuckle in Otis’ voice as he sings that line.

My other favourite on the album is another Otis original, ‘You’re One and Only Man’. The horns are much stronger on this one and much more urgent, with a neat little riff and another strong performance from Otis who really makes the most of the way each line of the song is stretched out further and further, as his narrator pleads over and over for his girl to reconsider the view that he isn’t the one for her. There’s a great rat-a-tat on the drums and some great guitar work from Steve Cropper to enjoy too, sounding not unlike the Stones of the period actually (perhaps they should have covered this song in return for Otis doing ‘Satisfaction’?!) Perhaps because it’s one of his own songs, Otis sounds much more sure of himself on this track and uses pretty much his full range, from deep gravelly growl to high falsetto. Like many a song on this album, Otis uses the fade-out to improvise some lines based round the song to close it, but unlike the other recordings here the fadeout goes on for hours, not quite the length of the song but close to it, coming up with so many great lines that everyone just keep playing. A fun song, with one of the best horn parts on record, exquisitely played, this song deserves to be a much bigger player in the Otis Redding catalogue (why isn’t it on any of the many compilations doing the rounds, for instance?)

‘Nothing Can Change This Love’ is sadly a return to the less convincing and slower-paced parts of the album, despite a jolly opening with a tinkling piano. Sam Cooke really isn’t my favourite writer or singer ever and this isn’t anywhere near my favourite Cooke song, but really he deserves better than the slapdash recording the musicians give him here. On the plus side there’s a neat bed of horns for Otis’ vocal to lie on and a pretty middle eight that lessens the ‘weight’ of the song to have the narrator drop his desperation and surety in favour of lines about his girl being ‘like my favourite ice cream’. But on the bad side Otis is struggling again trying to fill another man’s shoes and sounds far more out of his depth than he does on his own songs. The narrative-like one-note delivery, whilst a staple of most soul songs, didn’t really work for Otis that well I don’t think and here he tries to enliven things up with a few whoops and half-screams which just aren’t him. A fairly anonymous entry this one, without much of a tune to hum or a hook to make this song standout as anything special.

The record’s first side ends with ‘It’s Too Late’, an odd little song from the mid-50s by Chuck Willis, a songwriter better known for the much-covered rock and roll song ‘C C Rider’ and one who, like Otis, would surely have gone on to better things had he not died suddenly of peritonitis at the age of 30. Despite Willis’ soul credentials, he was always a much bigger figure in rock circles than his own field and that figures given this song’s very rock and roll structure, with a boogie woogie piano lick that runs throughout the song, only occasionally matched by a horn lick. Otis sounds much happier here, adding a cute little Buddy Holly-like hiccup after each word in the first line, holding the notes back for dramatic effect and showing off his great ability for timing (a skill as much needed by singers as comedians and I don’t just mean to keep up with the backing musicians either). This recording is a little bit too stop-starty for regular listening and doesn’t really have much to say once we’ve got past the first verse and chorus, neither the best recording here nor the worst.

Side two opens with what used to be another of this album’s best known songs, ‘For Your Precious Love’, a hit for The Impressions in 1958 and already something of a soul standard when this album came out in 1965. Nowadays, of course, this song is one of Otis’ best known recordings, having appeared in the soundtracks of cult films ‘Tell No One’ (2006) and ‘Mr Nobody’ (2009). To be honest, given all that fuss, it’s a bit of an average number where again Otis could be anybody rather than the dynamic singer we know he can be when he wants to be. It’s nice to hear a change of mood, though, and it’s a brave choice kicking off the more sophisticated second side of the record with probably the slowest song here. Lyrically, it’s yet another variant on ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’, with Otis’ narrator pledging how much he loves his partner, even after she’s betrayed him and how that can never change. Lyrically it’s quite a sweet little song and somehow gets away with repeating every cliché under the sun because of the sincerity of both composition and performance, but melodically there’s just nothing here to go on. Some performers are born for getting the most out of a single note repeated conversation-style in a song (James Brown isn’t my cup of tee but nobody does that type of song better) – Otis is too expressive and has too fine a voice to waste it half-speaking, half-singing to us. It’s also a trick the album has used a few too many times already. Next, please.

‘I Want To Thank You’ is a much better take on the same idea and the third of the really strong songs on the record. It’s another Otis Redding original and proof that as early as album number two his songwriting is reaching its peak (as we said earlier, it’s the only Redding song ever given a ‘dedication’ – fittingly it’s for Otis’ wife). It’s another lovely love song, one full of thankfulness at being able to find the true love of your life. We’ve had that idea quite a few times already on this album, but this song is better than most, partly because of the autobiographical-sounding lyrics (the narrator teaching his date to smoke on her first meeting for instance – not something you’d get away with in a song today) and because of Otis’ glorious vocal, bouncing with delight throughout most of the song until the last verse when he shyly asks to kiss his girl goodnight. After three rather plodding songs in a row I’m especially pleased to hear such a cracking good tune and one that doesn’t just take the expected route from A to B. Instead of a predictable chord progression there’s some real surprises in this song, such as the places where the yearning horn solo goes ‘doo-de-doo-de-dooh-dah’ whilst falling down the scale and falling uncomfortably on a cushioning flurry of minor chords. It’s really unexpected and so comical sounding it’s enough to make you laugh, summing up both the happy boundless joy of Otis’ vocal and the comical, shy way the narrator is trying to make the most of his few moments of magic, a little too inexperienced to quite know what to do.  There’s also the perfect marriage of unsophisticated lyric and complex melody, giving this song a depth and grace so many other fall short of here. There’s just one question – how did Otis get the lyric ‘I wish I had another one like you’ past his wife?!

‘Come To Me’ isn’t such a distinguished Redding original and possibly only made the cut because a) this record was made in something of a hurry and b) it just so happened to be co-written by Phil Walden, one of the bosses at Capricorn Records (a subsidiary of Stax that, believe it or not, the Grateful Dead were on too in their very early days) and, for a time, Otis’ manager. To be fair, Otis was always generous with his songwriting credits and probably based this song round one of his buddy’s phrases or ideas – certainly Walden wasn’t one of your typical manager-producers and never quite got over Redding’s untimely death (more of a Brian Epstein figure than, say, a Shel Talmy). There’s a nice change of pace with a block-chord piano part on the opening of this song that really catches the ear and Otis has clearly been listening to some crooner-era records given his sweeter-than-usual delivery here. But nothing much about either song or recording really gels that well, with a melody line that doesn’t stick to one note so much as rambles off on it’s own sweet way round some boring chord changes. The trouble with this song is that you know just where it’s going to go before it gets you and, considering that this is a song about a narrator pleading with a girl to fall in love with him because he can’t live without her, it all sounds rather directionless and passionless.

‘Home In Your Heart’ is another cover version, this time a song by legendary writers Winfield Scott and namesake Otis Blackwell (‘Return To Sender’ is probably the pair’s best known song). Again, it’s interesting to see Otis working not with a soul legend but with a rock and roll one (indeed, when set against a real soul legend – Carla Thomas – later in his career, Otis is at his worst; the reference to being a ‘tramp’ here later becomes the basis for the pair’s best known song from their only album together) and if you have the imagination to hear this song with the horn part played on a guitar then it could have easily been a Merseybeat one, with it’s short staccato verses and rattling percussion. Otis seems to feel more at home on this urgent, upbeat number far more so than on some of the ballads and rattles off his lyrics with delirious delight, adding a ‘gotta gotta gotta’ on the middle eight for the first time, a phrase that will become one of his trademarks later in the year. The horns are back loud and proud too, with a great riffing arrangement that underlines everything Otis’ narrator thinks is so important to get across to his girl. Like all songs on this record pretty much, it’s another song about going to great lengths to get the affections of your loved one, although this time Otis seeks to prove himself by travelling across the world rather than showing gratitude, acting as a slave or comparing himself to natural resources. 

‘Keep Your Arms Around Me’ is a cover of an early song by country/R and B star O B McLinton – again note the fact that, Sam Cooke aside, Otis isn’t doing the obvious soul standards here. For this album it’s quite an obscure choice too, the b-side of one of McLinton’s early records made before his career had really taken off (it wasn’t until long after Otis’ death that anyone but the serious music collector would have known this song in it’s original form) The country style doesn’t really suit Otis, though, even though its presence is mainly relegated to another plodding piano arrangement – then again, the blues style doesn’t really suit Otis either and, thanks to a curious slow-motion slurping saxophone riff, this song is pretty much a hybrid of the two styles. That’s a shame because as a song it’s actually a pretty decent one, with a tale of how the narrator’s physical and emotional pain is eased by his girlfriend’s actions – all she has to do is be nice to him and his troubles disappear. To boot putting her arms around him makes him feel ‘taller than a tree’ ‘the world’s strongest man’ and have such healing powers that ‘if I was blind I could see’. Medical science should be told.

The album ends with ‘Mr Pitiful’, the final Otis song and possibly the best known recording here, which is either a real cry from the heart about bad luck or a pastiche of all the doom-laden songs Otis has been writing in the past year. It occupies a similar place to The Byrds’ ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star?’, being half-true and half a send-up and the backing musicians seem to be divided as to which it is (there’s even a chirpy piano part at one point that sounds very out of place). Most fans like this song a lot and it is nice to have such an upbeat, poppy tune after half an hour of ballads. But that said, this song might have worked better as a slow ballad, because after a while the whole poppyness just sounds trite compared to the rest of the album. Otis tries to offer us one of his up-and-at-em vocals, but its on the wrong side and only really takes off on another long fade, where Otis wails ‘everything’s goin’ wrong...’  To be honest, though, we’ve had this sort of song done better several times over and it’s not the life-affirming closer this sometimes troubled album really needs. If nothing else, though, I suppose it gives us the inspiration for a future Mr Men book!

So we get yet another AAA review that features three strong songs that are well worth the price of admission, but not much in the way of bonus songs to go with them. Clearly, this album isn’t up to the high standards of ‘Otis Blue’ and there are many fans who rate ‘Dictionary of Soul’ or even ‘King and Queen’ over this record. But that’s not to say it isn’t without it’s plus points and in ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’, ‘You’re One and Only Man’ and ‘I Want To Thank You’ this album really is Otis – and soul music – at it’s very very best. No 25-year-=old should be able to convey all the power, living and maturity that Otis just oozes at times across this album and generally this album’s lowest points are despite Redding’s great vocals, not because of them. Really, ‘Soul Ballads’ is a stepping stone record, a learning curve on the path to future successes – and it’s not Otis’ fault that he died so young before he was able to go too much further down that roads to glory. There may be faults, there may be mistakes and there be moments you’ll want to skip, but this really isn’t bad going for someone on only his second record and already defining both his own unique style and re-modelling soul music into a rock-soul hybrid so that even rock fans like me can come along and join the party. For that alone, this album is a startling reminder of how much casual talent was around in the mid-60s and how much we badly need these creative giants today. If you want to seek out Otis’ talent then start with either ‘Otis Blue’ or Redding’s majestic 20 minute set at the Monterey Pop Festival, but if you want to know a bit more about the rest of the story, about where Otis’ talent came from and where he might have gone then this is the record you need. And, quite honestly, if you have any interest in 1960s music then you’ll want to know more of this fascinating and ultimately heart-breaking story, one that came with one of the best soundtracks any life-story ever contained. 

A Now Complete List Of Otis Redding Articles To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'The Soul Album' (1966)

'Complete and Unbelievable - The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul!' (1966)

‘King and Queen’ (1967, with Carla Thomas)

Surviving TV Footage 1965-1967 plus The Best Unreleased Recordings

Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums 1963-2014

Otis Redding Essay: It Takes Two – The Art Of Melancholy In Soul Music