Monday, 26 December 2016
Christmas Special: Otis Redding's Xmas Single 1968
Dear readers, here we are at the end of another year - a very weird year interrupted by more personal issues than I ever thought possible (sorry if my writing's been a bit under-par this year!) Despite the interruptions though it looks as if we're heading into what will be our final year in rather good health - thanks mainly to you! Thankyou to all of you who've written in or left me messages on facebook or re-tweeted my columns or spoken up about the occasional bits of stray grammar. Thanks especially to those of you have become my dearest friends (and those of you who will be my dearest friends in the future through this site) - though it's my name on the site this is a Who style 'listening to you' collaboration really and you've all played your part whether by reading, re-tweeting or chatting to me. Every rare-and-expensive-but-not-very-good LP was worth hunting down, every last letter worth writing and every last bit of my health used to make this site was well worth it having you there. My dear twitter family are the reason I've made it to the end of the year still writing at all and if any of you future readers have enjoyed my work then thanks belong to Slack, BarnacleBumm, Cecilia, Paul, Roselyn and Kenny more than it lies with me. Though it took longer to reach the 'end of the first draft phase' than intended (I fell behind about four months in total, which isn't bad given the endless tricks fate seem sto have played on me all year), we're here now and it really does look as if all 500 main AAA reviews will be written by the end of next year, while all of the additional columns (TV clips, unreleased songs , non album recordings and live/solo/compilation albums) are now all written taking us neatly up to (very nearly) the end of next year. Starting in January 2018 the AAA website will also become a series of books; or so we hope - that's what we're roughly on target for anyway! We'll drip-feed you more information during the year and via my twitter feed (@alansarchives) as things begin to slowly fall into place. Whether you joined us at the beginning, are a new reader (hello!) or are a visitor from the future looking back through some old issues now that you've finished all 7976564 books in the series - thankyou! For those of you here and now, a very merry happy and musical Conservative-bashing, Trump-thrashing, Spice Girls-smashing Christmas and a peaceful and just 2017 to you all!
As for the column itself, we've been going through eight Christmasses now, dear readers, and I confess that my stocks of Christmas songs are beginning to become a bit low. Over the years we've had no less than three Beach Boys Christmas albums, The Beatles' Christmas Fanclub Records, Art Garfunkels' 'The Animals Christmas', The Moody Blues 'December', a Monkees special featuring festive recordings and the festive TV special and a catch-all special looking back at various one-off AAA Christmas songs. Goodness knows what I do next year! The best I can manage this year in this short article is an Otis Redding Christmas single recorded during one of his last sessions in December 1967 and not yet printed on the main site (because I hadn't been able to track down a copy when we wrote the catch-all article!) This is the single as it stands:
One of the more heartbreaking oddities left in the vaults from the final days - released a year later than planned - is an intended festive single to celebrate a Christmas Otis didn't get to see. Presumably the idea had already been shelved by the time of Otis' death as December 10th is a good three weeks late for a Christmas single to be released. The tracks don't sound as finished as some of the other vintage recordings either though Otis still gives his all (did he ever give anything less?) [ ] 'Merry Christmas Baby' was one of the last singles to be taken from the late 1967 recordings, a full year on from Otis' death, and it's mad chirrup and joy seems slightly 'wrong' in context somehow. The arrangement is rather good, certainly better than the surprisingly poor Booker T and the MGs festive record 'In The Christmas Spirit' from a year earlier - possibly the inspiration for Otis to try his hand at doing something similar. Otis looks forward to a kiss under the mistletoe like he's getting his partner's hand in marriage and does a pretty good job at sounding like a kid on Christmas Day, eager to greet everything the world can offer him. With his fans poerhaps not in the festive mood around the anniversary of Otis' death, this became the first of the posthumous singles not to chart - and the first with Redding's name on it to fall short since 'Day Tripper' back in 1966. Find it on: Otis! The Definitive Redding' (box set 1993)
A slowed down and bluesy [ ] 'White Christmas' suffers even more under the Otis Redding treatment, turned from a song of comfort and peace into another of those 'pleading ballad' style Otis specials. 'Those treetops, woaaah, you know those tree-tops they gotta gotta glisten and the little bitty little bitty children, they're trying, woah mama, to listen...' Even Otis, genius that he is, can't make this work as anything but parody and this song doesn't feel as if it's been meant as a pastiche somehow, however many fans have ret-conned it that way. Irving Berlin's famous Christmas song has been treated in all sorts of ways down the years but probably never like this before or since. Which is a good thing. I think. You have to hand it to Booker T, though, who does an admirable job at creating the feel of frosted icicles in his simple piano playing as well as to Al Jackson who you can tell is trying desperately hard to play softly on a song that's even less suited to his skill-sets than it is to Otis'! Find it on: Otis! The Definitive Redding' (box set 1993)
However, rather than leave you there, it seemed a festive gesture to write a bit more. When Otis died there were vague plans to release a whole Christmas album -probably for the following year depending on the success of the single. That makes sense: Stax loved a good Christmas cash-in and Otis had already proved on 'Merry Christmas Baby' especially that he had the lightness of touch needed for a good festive album without diluting he soulful power of his usual repertoire. So what else might have made the album? We don't know - but here's what we'd have liked to have heard. 'Silent Night', with Booker T's swirly organ, would have been terrific and perfectly cast for Otis to switch gears from opening quiet to full voiced finale. Gustav Holst's beautiful carol 'In The Bleak Midwinter' is also surely an Obvious choice for Otis, full of keening empathy and a voice to warm even the coldest of nights. Then there's 'I Wonder As I Wander' in which Otis could have explored his Christian side, with lots of scope for long held notes in the soul vein. 'Jingle Bells' was so inevitable it's a surprise it wasn't on the single somewhere, which I hear re-cut in an uptempo 'Respect' style mode. Booker T and the MGs themselves later made a festive album - the chirpy 'Silver Bells' seems like it would have been a good fit for Otis too. 'Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town' is surely ripe for lots of improvised scat-singing and all the 's-s-s-s-s-santa don't leave me out in the cold here mama yeah yeah yeahs' Otis would surely have brought to the (Christmas) table. And just imagine Otis extending the vowels on the 'glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ria In Excelsis' chorus of 'Ding Dong Merrily On High'! The 'Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-las' on 'Deck The Halls' sound not too far removed from 'Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa' (Sad Song). Given that Otis usually re-cut a rock and roll tune in the soul idiom (and most of the famous AAA ones weren't written by 1968) we've plumped for a revved up version of 'Little Saint Nick' by The Beach Boys, with some 'run run run run run run Rudolph!' interludes. No one but Oris would have understood the pain of 'Little Donkey and his (Lawd have mercy) heavy load' better than Otis either. And to finish, The Irish Carol, also known as 'Christmas Day Is Gonna Come', a song not all that far removed from Otis' beloved Sam Cooke cover 'A Change Is Gonna Come' , as a poverty-stricken family with nothing look to the future with happiness and 'mirth'. That surely would have gone down as one of the greatest Christmas albums of all time - sadly it wasn't to be, with Otis dying in that December plan crash with festive carols probably still going round his head. Great acts are for life, not just for Christmas, and we salute Otis and everyone else missing this Christmas who should be here. Good tidings to all rock stars and, incidentally, a toast to all those of you at home. The AAA wishes you a great Christmas and a happy, fulfilling and prosperous new year.