Thursday, 5 January 2012
Otis Redding "The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads" (1966) (News, Views and Music 128)
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.