Monday 14 May 2018

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

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I used to think I knew what the secret to soul music was, dear listener. It was the sound of one stubborn immovable object trying to get another immovable object to do what they wanted to. Not enough loving, too much loving, loving the wrong way, loving the right way but not often enough, too much freedom, too much of a trap: most soul music is men or women huffing or puffing about their other half and getting sweaty as they try to change their minds by force. James Brown, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles – everyone who came before Otis seemed to be not so much ordering as bullying o bargaining. With the odd exception of a song like ‘Shake’ (is it really soul?) that encouraged you to dance, most soul songs weighed you down with the weight of battle. Almost all soul singers spent their careers wanting something so desperately that they would get down on their knees and plead for change.
And then came Otis and suddenly all that soul DNA became enveloped in more dimensions somehow, as if it was telling the part of a wider story. Otis didn’t beg. Otis didn’t plead. Otis didn’t huff and puff the way his predecessors did. Though Otis was physically bigger than any other soul singer (‘six feet one, weigh one hundred and ten’ as he puts it himself in his song ‘Love Man’) and sweated buckets on stage with the best of them, something seemed different about him somehow, subtler. He was vulnerable for starters. Otis’ first big hit and the song that changed his career was titled [  ] ‘Pain In My Heart’ and reacted to events, rather than famous soul songs like ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ or ‘Please, Please, Please’ that demanded things of his partner. Rather than ordering change, Otis spends most of his career trying to put things right with his beloved instead. However he still sounded vulnerable – with power. That’s a huge trick to pull off and to my ears no one else got it right. In fact I’m not sure anyone else ever really tried it. Most soul singers got grandiose ‘characters’ and nicknames’ across their careers. James Brown was the Godfather of Soul. Sam Cooke was the King of Soul. Jackie Wilson was ‘Mr Excitement’. Even Otis’ main rivals Sam and Dave were known as ‘Double Dynamite’. What name did Otis choose for himself? ‘Mr Pitiful’. That name even became a song, so that more people could hear it, a parody of sorts of what all his rivals were doing, upbeat and enthusiastic but at the heart of it all so very very sad. Otis was the one soul singer you could count on to keep you company through a sad and lonely night, a figure for whom nothing ever seemed to be going right, for whom every relationship was going to end in heartbreak and make himself look stupid.
You just didn’t do that in soul music before Otis arrived in 1964. You don’t really do that now: who else but Otis would sing quite so many songs of melancholy in their careers? Songs where, far from seeming like superhuman the people in them seem vulnerable and weak? ‘Pain In My Heart’ was the start in a whole series of original songs about feeling vulnerable: ‘Security’ ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’ ‘My Lover’s Prayer’ ‘Ole Man Trouble’  ‘Chained and Bound’ ‘Dock Of The Bay’…they all come with the feeling that something is going wrong and all the huffing and puffing and sweat isn’t going to put it right. ‘Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)’ even has Otis trying to write what other soul singers do and realising that he can’t, so he realises that ‘this is the only song I can sing’ instead, a song that in another’s hands would be all smiles, but here is all tears. This theme is less obvious in the soul cover songs Otis did, which tended towards the happy side of things, although that might be why – unusually for a soul singer – he reached into the rock and roll idiom too and his choices are interesting: rather than the common cover songs ‘Day Tripper’ is a rare Beatles love affair that doesn’t work out, ‘Satisfaction’ a teeth-gnashing song of frustration about everything in life, while even in-concert-only Beatles cover choice ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ isn’t exactly the happiest song in the Lennon-McCartney songbook. Nope, Otis is a pitiful figure. ‘My life is such a weary thing’ sighs Otis on ‘My Lover’s Prayer’, ‘You can’t make my life all over!’ Notably the only time Otis ever asks his love to come back to him, as he does on this song, he doesn’t do so in an ‘I promise you the Earth baby and sweep you off your feet’ way like a James Brown, but in a ‘how could you leave someone who needs you so badly he’s going to cry great rivers till you come home lyric?’
Then Otis discovered his backing band – or at any rate Stax discovered them for him. Booker T and the MGs were themselves not your average r and b instrumental band. Their playing, especially when enhanced by the Mar-Keys horn section, tends towards the melancholy. Booker T isn’t a flashy keyboard player – he plays glorious descending chords that sound like teardrops. Guitarist Steve Cropper, who co-wrote so many songs with Otis, is a master of the minor key (just check out that guitar solo on ‘Ole Man Trouble’, so full of despair and desperation). Donald ‘Duck Dunn’ doesn’t so much press home where the song is going as throb and pulse, letting the sorrow of the songs sink in. And drummer Al Jackson can play anything, including the kind of weight-of-the-world sigh that only heartbreak and despair can inspire. Booker T and the MGs can and do play happy songs and indeed most of their own discography tends towards the cheery. But they sound at their best playing sad.
‘So what?’, you might be thinking. Otis was just a sad man with a big voice and a band with the scale to match it. But that melancholy is important because it allows Otis to do things differently to everyone who came before him. It’s easy to get stuck in one place if you sing soul: there are only so many ways you can ‘show off’, plead endlessly, order the person of the opposite sex to do what you want them to do and yell ‘gotta gotta gotta’ while you go red in the face. But the melancholy in Otis’ work allows him to tease out extra nuances in his writing. He’s not tied to just sitting in one place and can go anywhere. Soul music can suddenly do regret, not hope. It can do guilt, not pride. It can do multiple layers and this gives Otis a subtlety his forebears can’t reach. Take a song like ‘Try A Little Tenderness’: it’s his gentler instruction to any macho men listening to soul records for advice in their love lives: sometimes being yelled at by a tough guy isn’t always the way to go, he says, try it with some sensitivity instead. ‘Just One More Day’ is an earlier song on the same theme: ‘I’ll buy you anything you want me to buy, and I will love you till the day you die, if you please let me have one more day!’ Otis cries. You believe him, in a way that you don’t always believe Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and co who are playing a character. We know that this is the ‘real’ Otis somehow, a gentle giant who has fun playing at a romantic caricature like ‘Love Man’ but is really struggling to keep his shit together like the rest of us.
Where did this come from? Well, here is my guess – but I stress it is only a guess. Otis was an autobiographical writer, perhaps more than he’s ever been given credit for. His life impacted his music more than it did most soul singers – perhaps because he was a lot more sensitive than most soul singers and less concerned about playing a role. Otis, though, was sensitive to the degree that he worried about everything, because he knew how easy it was for life to change and to lose everything. He was certain that he was about to lose everything important in his life any day now and much of the  sadness in his work came out of fear. His dad was poorly with TB for most of his childhood and could have died at any time; this is unsettling for anyone, but it also left Otis was the family’s chief breadwinner from the moment he left school early at fifteen, aware of life’s responsibilities far too young. He then had a baby at eighteen and a wife at nineteen and it changed his life – the couple had a chance meeting after she went to see a band run by local Georgian singer Johnny Jenkins when she fell for backing singer Otis. Keen to make his acquaintance, she got nervous and her words came out as a row: why did he have to sing like that? Their relationship started with an argument then and there would be many more, in between the kisses. It was a relationship that was clearly based on love and where the pair adored each other – but did they adore each other enough to stay together in between the temper tantrums? Otis seems to have been asking himself that question up to the day he died, past his seventh wedding anniversary.
Desperate to make it in the music business, he moved out of Georgia at the age of twenty to try to make it as a singer in Los Angeles – wife Zelda and son Dexter stayed behind. While other soul singers had the life they always dreamed of out on the road, partying every night and with a different girl (sometimes boy) on their arm after every gig, Otis went back to his hotel room alone. He yearned to be with them, doing the things other couples took for granted. He longed to do the ordinary things every other soul singer ignored and make them out to be special moments. Even after he became a success and bought his wife and child a mansion to keep the rain off their heads, he hardly ever got the time to spend with them – he was too busy touring or recording and trying to get a hurried message through to them on the phone. Even the rows in what was an often stormy relationship, the sort of thing that other soul singers always vented about, seemed somehow special to Otis: with so little in his life that was solid and so much risk of it being taken away, he was always anxious to please, to put things right, to make up any differences that happened. Zelda once said to a reporter that ‘every single song Otis sang I felt as if he sang it for me’ and she’s probably not far wrong. Just as Otis got through his first overwhelming gig on the advice that he should aim to sing to just one girl in his audience and the rest would believe it and follow, so he realised more and more that this one girl was her. And he was worried that without her he might not be able to sing at all. One of the most moving of Otis’ songs is a lyric that was written about what he wanted most in his life: not love, not happiness, not perfection. But [  ] ‘Security’. And Otis is wary, paranoid even, that what he’s got is all going to be taken away and that there is nothing he can do about it.
You could argue that he found it. Zelda was so distraught at his early death at aged twenty-six (when she was only twenty-three) that she said she could never possibly fall in love again – and she hasn’t, even with the fiftieth anniversary of Otis death come and gone. There’s never been a moment of doubt in her voice in public in all the years since that Otis was made for her and it would no doubt have done soul’s gentle giant the world of good to hear that. I’ve never doubted it either: most of their arguments were probably not because she wasn’t in love but because she felt insecure too. She was fifteen when they met and she was swept off her feet; eighteen when she had her first child and she was alone for long stretches of their marriage when Otis was off on the road. She thought her husband was the most attractive and talented man in the world and he was off on the road alone; of course she probably feared that he was about to run off any day too. At times he might well have done, certainly that’s what the guilt in many of his songs seems to suggest sometimes. But nobody has ever come forward with a paternity test and said ‘Otis was my father!’ and there has never been a ‘ten girls a day shock’ revelation about Otis, even after he died (and couldn’t sue, which is what happens to so many leading figures after they die – especially when young and famous). Whatever the cause of that doubt, though, it seems to have fuelled both of them in this period. Otis loved Zelda but couldn’t be sure if she loved him; in turn Zelda loved Otis but couldn’t be sure he loved her. There were cracks in their relationship as early as the first album and Otis mines this uncertainty in his songs. Is today going to be the day she walks out on him? Is it today that this minor fight will blow up into something he can’t stop? Otis is terrified of losing what he knows is the love of his life too and the Redding catalogue is a series of songs, original and borrowed, that charts their rise and fall together as a couple far more than any other soul writer ever did (Otis may have got some of this from his hero Sam Cooke, but Cooke’s love life was complex and full of strife: his first wife died soon after their divorce in a car crash and his second was in the process of splitting up from when he died after the death of their son in their family swimming pool, not to mention at least three children born out of wedlock). Otis’ problem, by contrast, is that the family home is his sanctuary and escape – but he also feels a drive to write and record and sing that takes him away from home for so many long periods. Will his wife let him do this? Or will he lose both (with pretty much 100% of his songs about Zelda somewhere?)
On the first album ‘Pain In My Heart’ Zelda is the only thing that’s going right – that he no longer doubts anything when ‘I hold you in these arms of mine’. Second album ‘Soul Ballads’ has Otis pledging himself in a much more determined, anxious way. ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ he promises Zelda, while offering to be ‘Your One and Only Man’. Both songs, though, come with an added dimension of worry and doubt – he can’t feel safe when they’re together anymore, he needs her to know it, to prove it to her. Both songs and plenty more on that album come with a weight, a desperation, a pleading that’s hidden away in the minor keys, the sigh of Otis’ vocal in between his promises of love and a horn section that feels unstoppable, a pressure that’s too much for even this powerful singer to bear. ‘Chained and Bound’, a song that reads from the title as if it’s going to be another soul song about escaping the clutches of a girl, is the happiest we ever hear Otis, more than happy to be with the one he loves (‘I don’t have to worry no mo’!’) However even this song has Otis aware that he’s never at home, sighing ‘what kind of love is this I’m giving?’
Then we have the great ‘Otis Blue’, an album released as Otis has realised all his career objectives and become a headline act at last, a popular draw across Europe that everyone is talking about as the next big thing. But you wouldn’t know that from the music: every time he plays halfway around the world he’s another day away from his sweetheart. Emotionally this is the album where all things have gone wrong: it starts with the messy chaos of ‘Ole Man Trouble’, moves on to the argument that ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (And I Ain’t About To Stop Now)’, features a revved up ‘Satisfaction’ and sighs over the fact the narrator never had it so good on ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’. This is a haunted man, as far away from James Brown’s look-at-me antics as it’s possible to get; Otis wants to run away and hide from everyone. ‘The Soul Album’ seems on first hearing to be happier – but even that record starts with an unlikely opening song with the tearful ballad ‘One More Day’ as Otis pleads with Zelda to stay just one more day so he can enjoy their time together just a tiny bit longer. There’s a four note phrase buried away in this song, in the horn arrangement that’s the most emotional moment of any of these recordings: ‘Please don’t leavvvvve meeeee!’ it intones between Otis’ promises of a brighter future. It kinda works, but fifth record ‘Dictionary Of Soul’ is a very schizophrenic album when you scratch under the surface. Half of it finds Otis strangely at peace: ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ is the sound of someone whose finally worked out how to cope with marital strife, by being kind and supportive and ‘Hawg For You’ is as sexual as Otis ever got, an innuendo song where all that testosterone spills over into a lyric that almost seems to write itself. But then there are the guolty songs: ‘Lord Have Mercy’ is the one time Otis tries his rival’s usual spirit on for size and it doesn’t fit (‘How many kisses have I stole?’ he starts, before backtracking and apologising for the rest of the song); ‘I’m Sick Y’all’ and ‘Lord Have Mercy’ are also both pleas to the universe to put things right because they’re out of Otis’ hands.
It might be significant that the last album of Otis’ career is a duets album, one mostly made up of breakup songs, as if he’s desperate to give an audience to his wife’s views as well. However more significant I think are the songs that Otis went on to write in the second half of 1967 in the most prolific creative outpouring of his life, none of them released in his lifetime. ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’ is the most obvious of course: Otis has lost everything, he has no home to go to and we even hear that his home is in Georgia, exactly where it really was making this a more autobiographical, confessional song than normal. But now Otis is afraid to go home to the house that once offered so much security and so he cools his heels by the docks, wasting time, without even as much of a band as normal to support him as he cools his heels and whistles, completely alone for the first time in song. It’s there in other songs too though: Zelda was herself a wannabe songwriter and though she was reluctant to get her work on her husband’s albums for fear of nepotism it might be significant that the only song of hers Otis ever sang is the heartbreaking [  ] ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’. It sounds to us now like eerie fortune telling as Otis’ lover gets on a plane that ‘stole you away from me’ given that this is what will happen forever only a few weeks (days even?) after the recording took place. But assuming that Zelda didn’t have a premonition it seems like the natural end of their love story that’s been played out on song since the beginning and tells the story from her side: what if after getting on this plane he never comes back? Oh well, at least she found the love of her life and has memories, even if she no longer has his physical presence anymore. Even with all these other sad songs where Otis sounds as if tears aren’t far from his eyes, they’re closest in this song which he almost whispers, afraid of hearing what these words have to say to him.
Almost as eerie is Otis’ own ‘I’m Coming Home’ in which he sighs that his woman has left him and taken the house, leaving him a ‘lost and lonely little boy’ with nowhere to turn. Or [  ] ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ where he sighs that ‘I made a mistake’ and ‘I miss you all the time’. Or [  ] ‘Waste Of Time’ where Otis finally caves in and huffs and haws the way his contemporaries did, only in a twist it’s a song demanding not love but release: ‘My heart can’t stand it!’ he cries. Or [  ] ‘Free Me’ with its haunting opening verse: ‘Turn me loose, free me darling, let me go from your love now’. It feels like a love story that’s run its course and that the melancholy that’s been there since day one has slowly swelled up and overwhelmed the songs to the point where there’s nothing else.
Or is this too simple? Zelda for one is adamant that she never loved her husband more than she did at the end of his life and that they were never closer. She famously sued author Scott Freeman for comments he made in his excellent biography ‘The Otis Redding Story’ that he was thinking of divorcing Zelda. That’s probably going a bit far: the Otis Redding of these songs would never have gone through it. But I do think that he lived with the fear, rightly or wrongly, that she would end it each and every day. Various biographies think that Otis, like many music stars, wasn’t immune to sleeping round during busy nights on tour too. Maybe it was more his guilt that one day she might find that out?
Whatever the source of that melancholy, it makes the world of difference to Otis’ music. There have been other great singers in the soul idiom before Otis, who can hold the attention of a room and use all their effort and willpower to deliver a rocking song. There are some around now, though soul music does seem to be something of a dying art. Hopefully soon in the future there will be more. But Otis is, up till now at least, unique. I love the irony that it took the biggest, butchest, heaviest soul singer with the biggest voice to turn around the world’s most extroverted genre and make it introverted. I love the idea that the man who was given that many God given talents spent his times full of doubts and worries as the rest of us. I love the thought that although Otis was huge and powerful, it was the subtle of his delivery that moves you and that the power was couples with authenticity. I love the fact that he took the most macho musical genre around and urged his audience to try a little tenderness. I love the fact that he called himself ‘Mr Pitiful’ when he was one of the most wonderful musicians on the planet with so much going for him. Otis may shout, but does so when trying to repair a tender flower. He may moan in frustration, but it’s not out of ego but because he really cares. He may have been built like a boxer, but he sang fragile love songs to a fragile love crowd. If anyone helped soul music find its soul it was Otis, by recognising that life doesn’t have to perfect for you to strut your stuff.

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

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