Monday, 17 July 2017
"I'm the only son of a gun this side of the sun!"
Well, dear reader, here we are at last. This week marks our 500th review. Yes that's right, we've had ever so nearly ten years' worth of news, views and music, of madcap videos starring dogs in top hats, of albums that have soared high fallen low or passed into mediocrity somewhere in the middle and of more Spice Girls jokes than they've had reunions. As I write this there remains just fifteen more reviews to go until we've finished the main leg of our journey (don't worry, there are more than enough articles to keep the site going to the middle of 2018 when the first of our spin-off books should, touch Ronnie Wood, be ready) - although David Crosby's is due soon and Neil Young's been quiet for three whole months now so he's surely cooking up a new one, with probably a few others to come before too long to. Even so we're nearer the end than the beginning and it's been a pleasure having you alongside whether you've read every single article on here (we seem to have had a flurry of activity from Russia recently, which suggests either one person is reading a lot or lots of people are still trying to get to the end of the same article - hello if either refers to you!) or whether this is your first arrival. And what better way to celebrate 500 issues and five centuries than a telegram from The Queen?
Ah OK, sorry, got that wrong. Looks as if Her Maj is busy wasting taxpayer's money by doing something more useful to the world (like watching some people on a horse march up and down or opening a factory of her son's Duchy original biscuits or something) so we haven't actually got The Queen. Better yet, though, we've got rock (and soul) royalty in the shape of not just the Queen but The King as well. The King is, of course, Otis and he wears the crown well, even if he's never sounded more a man of the people than on this working class fears and favourites kind of an album. Carla Thomas, daughter of 'Walkin' The Dog With A Top Hat' singer Rufus, is less well known, though she had already released three albums before pairing up with Otis and had already been billed 'The Queen Of Memphis Soul' by collectors of Stax Records, while she'll release her own spin-off solo set 'The Queen Alone' shortly after this one. The result is the only true duets album in the AAA canon (Paul and Linda McCartney's 'Ram' and the Godley-Creme albums don't really cut it as 'traditional' duets albums), which gives us a rare 'first' for our 500th review as well! What was that? You've never heard of this album or Carla Thomas even though you thought you'd bought everything Otis ever made and currently own twelve copies of 'Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay'? Well, nor have most people, with fans generally seeing this album - the last full new release of Otis' lifetime - as something of a cul-de-sac and with only the album single 'Tramp' standing any chance of appearing on any compilation albums.
In truth 'King and Queen' is not a record you need to know or one whose tracks deserve to be heard alongside the likes of 'Try A Little Tenderness' or 'I've Been Loving You Too Long' . Far from being Rock Royalty or two singers at the top of their game coming together, it's actually a rather drastic attempt by Stax producer Jim Stewart to get extra mileage and double the fanbase for two singers whose career seemed to have stalled. Strange as it seems to think it now, Otis was having quite a quiet time after the blaze of his career in the 1965 period, his fifth album 'The Dictionary Of Soul' suffering from the lowest sales since his first 'Pain In My Heart'. Otis, who'd only really been truly successful in Europe till now, hadn't really broken through at all in his American homeland and this was a rather drastic attempt to re-mould his career from a soul singer of passion into the kind of sweet young gentlemen you wouldn't mind inviting into your home. Stax weren't to know - and neither was Otis - that the contract he'd just signed to appear at the Monterey Pop Festival just three months down the line from this album release was going to change his fortunes forever and re-shape him back to what he should be: a wild, tempestuous singer who gave his all. Carla, too, has seen better days since her big career breakthrough with her dad's duet song 'Cause I Love You' (almost as creepy as Frank and daughter Nancy crooning 'Somethin' Stupid' to each other when you stop and think about it) back in 1961 back when she was still in high school.
On paper their combination should have worked. He's a soul legend, creativity oozing from every pore and a workaholic who nevertheless manages to sound entirely natural and unrehearsed, as passionate as singers come. She is, as it happens, much the same, with a sharp-toothed grin that actually reminds you of a higher pitched Otis at times, with the same emotional resonance and the same hard work and talent. There are however a few problems here. One is that the pair are not 'allowed' to sound like their natural selves, so what we get here is a somewhat halting, cleaned-up version of emotion with neither Carla nor Otis sounds entirely comfortable with, a 'chocolate box' version of talent that's meant to be heard raw and edgy. Another is that the pair do have chemistry (despite what some reviewers think), just not the chemistry for these songs. Though Otis and Carla are only a year apart in age (Him by a year) they sound less like husband and wife and more like older brother and younger sister, too similar and too sex-free to truly get to the heart of this collection of songs about husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend or nice girl and stalker. The moment where they sound most at home is when they're playing at being at each other's throats on 'Tramp', where you suspect the take ended in a big giggle after the tapes stopped rolling. Though Otis is 'The Love Man' and Carla isn't far behind their sex appeal has been put on hold for something more 'sweet'. A third problem is that rather than being planned as an Otis and Carla album from the beginning (when it might have played to their strengths) instead Jim Stewart asked the pair to sound like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell on their successful run of recent duet albums. Well, Otis isn't a Marvin Gaye kind of a singer. Though there is a lot of thought behind his vocals, Otis is more of an instinctive emotional singer than Marvin ever was and you could easily believe that the experienced Tammi was right there with him every step of the way. Carla sounds like what she was - a twenty-five-year-old kid, still unsure enough of her singing career to fit this album around her studies for an English degreeat Washington's Howard University - while Otis goes back to his own younger days in his attempts to match her. These two are great singers, they could even have been great singers together, but not on this material, not sung like this, not in hurried sessions that took place over a few days. I even have a suspicion that the two singers are never in the same room at the same - certainly Carla sounds much 'further away' from the Booker T and the Mgs than Otis does, with far more echo on her voice and the pair don't score off each other so much as try to keep out of each other's way.
Legend has it that Carla wasn't in fact the first choice for the album and wasn't what Otis wanted at all. We don't know who he was pushing for but I suspect it may well have been Aretha Franklin, then at the start of the rise of her fame and who was about to score big with a cover of Otis' song 'Respect', a recording which he had already heard and approved of, correctly guessing that she was going to turn the song into a feminist statement, which his never was. It seems likely that Otis wanted to do more of the same, recording edgy material that meant something, but with his last single the under-rated non-album 'I Love You More Than Words Can Say' peaking at a lowly #78 in Billboard, Otis wasn't the one calling the shots. Stewart probably put the suggestion of Carla to him with Otis comment a dry 'yeah she's from Memphis, I'm from Georgia, I guess that means we can hang!' You sense too that the material was probably decided on before Carla had even been decided on. Otis, not taking this album seriously and perhaps stung by the response to his last few original singles, was initially not going to write any songs for the album - in the end he busked the downright weird finale 'Ooh Carla, Ooh Otis' during a jam session with musician Al Bell. It makes for a very odd end to his album discography in his lifetime (Booker T guitarist Steve Cropper also gets a song on the record in favour for playing on it). Then again, equally unusual are many of the cover songs, which aren't by usual Otis favourites Little Richard or Sam Cooke (the 'safe' cover of 'Bring It On Home To Me' apart) but Isaac Hayes, Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin. None of these songs sound as if they were written with Otis in mind, never mind Carla, and Redding never sounded more uncomfortable than when singing them - even recording commercials for coca-cola he sounds a lot happier than here. Compared to where Otis had been (the charge of 'Respect, the poignancy of 'You Don't Miss Your Water', the autobiography of 'Mr Pitiful') and where he's going next (the pure heart of 'Dock Of The Bay' and it's lesser known sister song 'I've Got Dreams To Remember') this album feels lightweight and schmaltzy. Singers and material don't connect and - a big no no for soul even more than it is for rock and roll - nobody means what they sing.
So is this album a complete write-off? Not quite. Starved of Otis product and aware that it is his last will and testament as finished, many fans have gone back to this album retrospectively to try and find more in it than was probably meant at the time. They find it too, in the slow burning groove of 'Let Me Be Good To You' which features a snazzy Booker T and the MGs horn part, in the bluesy protest of 'Tell It Like It Is', in the up-tempo mayhem of 'Lovey Dovey' (a far better choice for a first single than the rather irritating 'Tramp'), in the sudden injection of confidence on the guilt-ridden 'Are You Lonely For Me Baby?' where Otis at last gets to do what he was born to do. Whilst Otis and Carla often sound as lost as Donald Trump at a Quaker meeting or me at a Spice Girls concert the MGs also perform their usual magic and make the whole thing seem bigger and better than it needs to. Though the material finds Otis a long way from home, the Memphis Group often finds a way of providing him with a branch to safety, an oh so typical organ lick or drum beat that manages to hark back to past glory days and - if only for a few lines - make Otis sound great again. Guest pianist Isaac Hayes also sounds great on this album, enabling Booker T to sound as if he in two places at once and adding a respectful twinkle to their grit and soul which works a lot better on this material than the singers. Carla too has her moments, professional enough not to get in the way when Redding starts soaring but not content with letting him get away with all of the best album moments and more than holding her own with him. Had the pair had a second shot at this and been able to do songs more to their fancy theirs could yet have beaten Marvin and Tammi and all the other Stax duets teams at work - had they even played a few gigs together first it would have been something.
What's more I love the fact that this album is so very different to pretty much every other duets album around at the time, especially on Stax. Though the pair do revive 'It Takes Two' from the Marvin and Tammi days, the rest of this album is far closer to breakup than it is to being 'lovey dovey', with that song the only other case of the singers acting being 'in love' rather than falling out of it. Instead Otis and Carla both worry their lives away - will their lover get tired of them? Are things getting harder now than when they were first married? Is there something wrong with their baby? is the other lover secretly dreaming of them even though they won't admit it and they've gone their separate ways? Does Otis really dress like a tramp?!? This feels like an album getting ready for divorce papers, not wedding bells, which might be significant. Most biographies and documentaries say that Otis' marriage (he married young, way before his singing career!) was a paragon of virtue that kept him safe and sane. By and large I should think that's true and Zelda has been the consummate musical widow, overseeing Otis' legacy with a care and love that even Yoko Ono can't match. But was their marriage as strong in 1967 as it had been years earlier? We don't know for certain of course - and it's pointless predicting whether relationships would have got better or worse with time - but there's a definite sense of guilt in some of Otis' interviews, in public and in family, that suggest adultery was at least crossing his mind across 1967. Zelda seems to know about it too and it can't have been easy for her to see her husband leaving for these sessions with a female singer, pretending to have a 'relationship' if only on vinyl. Her response to this period is to write what should have been the first of many Otis Redding songs but instead ends up being an eerie coda, with 'I've Got Dreams To Remember' about a husband who used to be so close but is now so far away. Though not a duet, had the song been written earlier the downbeat theme and sense of regret and guilt would have slotted in perfectly on this album. That song feels like a 'goodbye' of sorts, even before a plane crash makes that a permanent farewell, but this album feels in retrospect like a precursor. Or would Otis have seen the error of his ways, spooked by this album's songs of divorce and remorse, and come home? We don't know, but it makes for a more interesting album and choice of material than this quickly made record perhaps could have been.
However some of the reviews that have been written since Otis' death, which see this album as another masterpiece (if not quite as much of a masterpiece as the other five) are surely a little ambitious, if not misguided. Far from being at the top of his game, the way we know Otis will be in the second half of the year, from Monterey right up to his final sessions during the Autumn, Redding is coasting here by his standards, with only 'Are You Lonely For Me Baby?' sounding as if he's spent any time studying or feeling the songs. Many people have started talking about this as Otis' 'frothiest' record as if that's a good thing; had this been the lengthy career it was meant to be then we could have given Otis a few stars for doing something different, but a frothy Otis is about as pointless as a Spice Girls concept album; they live in very different worlds and there really is no point to the one embracing the other. Plus I find Otis digging deep into his soul (and Carla too I have to say) far more entertaining than hearing them doing second hand cast-offs about casual trivial love when they both know that real romance is far darker, messier and scary than that. This is the sort of album the pair should have done at the start of their careers, not at the midway point when things were looking bleak and the reception to this record at the time was cool, bordering on indifferent. Only Otis' death and his sadly shortened discography makes us see more than was probably ever meant to be there. It speaks volumes that Otis, desperate to plug this record any way he can and keep his career going, doesn't even consider performing any of these songs at his Monterey performance just three short months later (when this was his most recent product to plug by far) or even invite Carla to sing on-stage once. This was a record you sense Otis was always going to forget and leave behind as soon as possible - it's an unfortunate twist of fate that this record ended up being the final resting place for his catalogue in the end instead, at least until the posthumous releases kept coming (and it speaks volumes too that they all sound more substantial than this, even when we get to the dregs of the barrel being scraped). Still, I would rather have an inadequate Otis than none at all and after you've bought the true 'Otis Blue' five album run before this and the three posthumous records made up of those Autumn 1967 sessions first then you will still need this album to complete your collection and by then you'll be so Otisified that you'll accept anything, even a record that's at best only a third up to standard. Otis never lived long enough to make a bad record and while this is the weakest in so many ways it's not without worth and even with a cardboard crown and a gold-plated tiara Otis and Carla still sound like King and Queen enough to me.
While both Otis' and their own star was fading, Booker T and the MGs looked around for other singers to back for their weekly pay cheques. Eddie Floyd was another Stax Otis-clone and a natural choice and guitarist Steve Cropper in particular struck up a close friendship with the singer. Though 'Knock On Wood', one of their collaborations from 1966, barely outperformed Otis' recent singles with a Billboard peak of #29 (indeed Otis' peaked at #30 as the album's second single). Otis liked it enough to cover it though and he sounds more comfortable with this huffing puffing blustering song than Eddie ever did. The song was inspired by a lightning strike that happened while the two were trying to write a song, with the starting point 'the way you love me is frightening - it's like thunder and lightning!' Otis is all thunder on this song, stretching out his vocal in a 'Love Man' type of way, while the lyric is a good fit for his own songs, full of pleading and longing. Otis' narrator is agonised that he might lose his love and bids us that he's 'not superstitious' but this romance is so precious 'I ain't taking no chances'. As with so many of the songs on this album, you wonder if it's aimed partly at wife Zelda as he tries to get his marriage back on track with the help of Stax. As for Carla, she's barely here, which seems an odd move for the opening track of a duets album and this is indeed the most 'Otis' like of all these recordings.
'Let Me Be Good To You' is my favourite song on the album as it's the best use of Otis and Carla's pure personalities. Over a backing that recalls 'Soulsville 3-5-4-1-7-8-9' Otis sighs in his usual 'Mr Pitiful' voice about how every time he thinks he's on to a good thing his life falls apart, emphasising how he's 'feeling down' and how desperate he is for love. For pretty much the only time on an Otis record, though, his prayers are answered as Carla sweetly, shyly, nudges her way into the song and promises to look after him, telling Otis that she's offering her love on a 'silver platter'. Though Otis doesn't immediately bite and take the bait - setting off for an equally gloomy sounding verse despite the more upbeat lyrics about how 'love can turn a life around' - by the repeat Carla seems to have got through, this oh so typical Otis 'Sad Song' ending up somewhere cosy and content, two lost souls having somehow found their way to each other. As a result it's one of Otis' more moving songs (Carla's too) offering this poor character we've been following for three years now a shot at redemption and peace. So many of Otis' narrators' lives have been made worse by other people's actions that it's just good to hear someone offering to help and this is a rare love song where both sides pledge their love, support and allegiance to each other, both of them scared of being hurt again but prepared to take the risk for the other anyway. The result is perhaps Isaac Hayes' greatest composition (far more than his other famous songs like 'Soul Man' or 'Theme From Shaft'), so it's odd to report that musically he's the 'odd one out' here, his flowery piano tinkles a million miles away from the weight Booker T and co are giving to this piling, preening soul song. Even so it's the best thing on the album by a country mile.
Many fans like Jimmy McFracklin's fun 'Tramp' best, the album's first single that restored Otis back up the charts even before his Monterey revival with a Billboard high of #26. However I'm not sure this song was a suitable choice for either singer. Otis always prided himself in looking smart, seeing what he wore as an extension of himself far more so than most soul singers (Sam and Dave were never this nattily dressed!) Carla was and is a sweetheart, more likely to help somebody than attack them. So why did anyone think that a song about her ripping him for his dress sense was suitable for this album? Alas what probably started off life as an in-joke (with both sides way out of character) has rather ended up defining both of them - the few fans who've heard this song (or seen the music video with Otis as a country bumpkin) have assumed that it's accurate, that Otis was a scruffy mess and that Carla was a nasty piece of work (she's certainly good at acting here, more than convincing as Otis' nagging girlfriend wanting him to better himself). Speaking as a scruffy mess myself I can tell you that Otis was as smartly dressed as they come and some of these barbs really seem to sting! Though neither singer had a hand in writing this track, it wouldn't have been all that well known at the time so as Otis was a 'writer' who often spoke about himself you can see why so many people assumed he was doing the same thing here. It had, after all, only just been released as a single by Lowell Fulson a few months earlier and was hot off the press, but at a peak of #52 few people would have heard the original. My guess is that Otis was trying to give a career boost to a Stax writer he admired and didn't pay too much attention to the words. Alas, though, for these ears at least it doesn't sound like the fun track people describe but a row set to music and a pretty ugly row at that. 'What you call me?' barks Otis out of character. 'You heard me!' slams back Carla with an unlikely sneer in her voice before Otis boasts and tries to impress her with his 'six cadillacs' parked outside instead. The only bit that rings true is when Otis breaks off to say he don't care about what he looks like 'because loving is all I ever knew how to do!' The backing too is like a sea-sick version of the usual Otis template sound with the Mgs sticking to their one groove throughout the whole song that never quite finds a resolution. Only Al Jackson Jr's quite brilliant drumming stands out, smartly smacking and slapping the drum-kit around even when the others drop away to let Otis and Carla bad-mouth each other, mimicking what the pair probably feel like doing to each other about now. For all this song's success and respect, it's an oddly unlikeable recording from two very likeable singers.
'Tell It Like It Is' is another recent, less obscure cover. A single by Aaron Neville released in January 1967, just two months before this album, it would have become one of Stax's first #1s in the general chart had The Monkees not got in the way with 'I'm A Believer' that week. It's another song that seems an odd choice for this pair of singers, slowed down to a crawl and without the same places to stretch out that we're used to from Otis' ballads. The Bar-Keys horn section, indeed, sound as if they're playing in slow emotion while even Otis can't keep this tempo exciting. It's another row in song: with double entendre that probably wasn't intended back in 1967 Otis tells Carla to stop treating him like a little boy and that she'd be more likely to be comforted during long lonely nights by 'a toy'. Otis is believable when he sings 'don't play with my heart!', but otherwise is having a rare off-form vocal day, 'phoning in' his lead part without really thinking too much about it. Instead it's Carla who shines when she suddenly kicks in after three verses and the song raises its level. 'Ooh Otis' she croons, 'life is too short to have sorrow, you may be here today and gone tomorrow', acting as the full-blooded warmth to his icy aloofness and she's never sounded better than here, tender and sweet and a million miles away from her best known work on 'Tramp!' It's a poignant moment too because of events that will happen less than a year later, but the sentiments work another way too - with his life so short, why was Otis wasting his time singing unsuitable slowed-down crooning songs like this?
Isaac Hayes returns with one of his best but one of his least known Sam and Dave hits, 'When Something Is Wrong With My Baby'. In another of the album highlights, this ready-made duet is given a whole new dimension by sounding as if it's being sung not by two blokey friends but by a husband and wife to each other, each stewing in their own misery and wishing the other would talk to them. Otis knows all about heartbreak and really shines on the vocal, pouring out his heart on lines about he knows his wife is 'feeling misery' but feeling helpless to put it right when she won't talk to him. You sense, from reading around the subject, that this song is his relationship with Zelda to a tee: she withdrawn and stiff-upper-lip and he emotional and fragile, each accidentally stepping on each other's toes not because they don't love each other (they clearly did) but because they don't know how to talk to one another. Carla sounds slightly lost here. She, at her best, is a similarly passionate and emotional vocalist but she's just too young and naturally upbeat a person to truly express heartbreak just yet and sounds as if she's billing and cooing while the lines talk of despair, that 'if he got a problem then I've got to find a way to help him solve it!' Forget the vocals if you like though as the MGs backing on this song is fabulous, especially the gritty rhythm section and the Bar-Keys horns slicing through the tension with a knife. This time around Hayes' own floral piano style is perfect too, adding the 'surface sound' of politeness and societal niceties that lie behind the sudden swaying passion and isolation of what is really going through the two singers' minds. It's a terrific song performed by a terrific vocalist and a terrific band, exactly the sort of thing Otis should have been doing more of on this album.
'Lovey Dovey' is a case of right song, wrong singers, a shouty breezy upbeat number that sounds out of place on this album, especially arranged the way it is with the Mgs doing their usual 'how dare you!' stance and a riff that sounds exactly like the one for 'Soul Man'. The oldest cover song on the album by some margin, it was a big hit for The Clovers in 1954 and Otis may have recorded it as a nod of the head to label owner Ahmet Ertegun, who co-wrote the track under his pseudonym 'Nugetre' ('Ertegun' written backwards so most people wouldn't guess, though it's not exactly the greatest smokescreen in the world). This is the daft, silly, frivolous song most people take 'Tramp' to be, with two people so loved up and wrapped up in their own worlds that they're talking gibberish, or at least a form of gibberish to get more sexual innuendo past the censors: 'You're the cutest thing I ever did see, I really love your peaches wanna shake your tree!' One of the few places you can hear Otis and Carla singing at the same time, it's clear though how little their voices have in common and neither sound quite right on this track, uncharacteristically shouting. Otis isn't used to singing with carefree joy and abandon and doesn't seem quite sure of what to do, while even Carla sounds 'wrong' on this track, pushed past her warm and velvet tones to something a lot more screechy. The pair don't quite convince as doe-eyed lovers somehow, especially after so many tracks of going at each other hammer and tongs. The third album single, released as one of the first singles after Otis' death, it seems an odd way to remember him by.
Over on side two Otis is back on more familiar territory, spending these January sessions looking back over a difficult year in his love life and pleading to get things right this year. 'New Year's Resolution' seems to have been one of the few tracks written with this album in mind by a whole host of writers including another Stax singer Mary Cross (who might have been a more natural match for Otis than Carla to be honest). Otis is right at home on a track where he pleads, begs, cajoles and promises to do things better next time, getting out every ounce of his guilt and worry on another song that may well have been aimed down the microphone to Zelda back home. Nobody can sing the line 'I'm sorry' and invest it with as much meaning as Otis and his promise that 'Ooh we're going to try harder not to hurt each other again' is sung with a real purr of tenderness and remorse. Poor Carla, naturally so upbeat, is on shakier ground with her verse which seems oddly out of kilter with today's way of thinking ('Ooh I'm just a woman and they sometimes make mistakes too!') Forget the middle verse if you must though, this is still one of the album's more impressive moments. It is, though, sad to think that this brand new year that Otis is looking forward to so much will be his last - one of many spooky ironies like that littered across this album.
The huge success of Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell's duet 'It Takes Two' in January 1967 is clearly a major influence on this album. However it's a sign of just how misguided this record often is that Otis and Carla are encouraged to sing it, even though it's a track that sounds nothing like the records either of them were making before they got together. Otis as a Mr Pitiful lover pleading his wife not to go, we get - but madly off his head in love? That's a first for an Otis record and he doesn't sound at all convincing. Carla too isn't used to sounding as madly in love as she's asked to here and the chemistry just isn't there. The MGs as well sound clueless on this song, rattled ahead at full steam without the original's finesse, power or sense of wonder. The result is one of the biggest disasters in the Redding songbook that the duo should never have been allowed anywhere near; both singers, after all, tend to sing about loneliness and isolation so hearing them bleat that doing things together is more than double the fun of doing them apart is just woefully mis-cast. They could not have found a less likely song for the pair to sing together. Which is a shame because this Marvin Gaye number deserves better and is indeed one of his best, the original being chock-full of fun and delight and giggles, wrapped up in a sudden squelch of desire, longing and love. The difference is those singers knew how to be silly and frivolous - Otis , in particular, has never known how to be anything other than intense. A big mistake.
Bert Berns is most famous as Jerry Ragavoy's collaborator (writing 'Piece Of My heart' amongst others) though he wrote more than a few good 'uns alone. 'Are You Lonely For Me Baby?' is one of his best and though the song wasn't written for this album it fits it like a glove, being the third album highlight. Otis and Carla are former lovebirds living apart, trying to get on with their own lives and forget the other and move on - but they oh so can't. They still care way too much and though both plead, separately, for the other to forget them and move on they can't, wondering if the other is awake like them and dreaming of what they used to have. Reaching out to a third person whose a mutual friend, Otis sounds guilty as he hears him telling her he's no good for her, sadly agreeing and trying to keep away, though his heart is breaking. Otis is born for these sort of tracks and is wrung through with guilt and remorse with by far his most aggressive and assertive vocal on the album the perfect match for a rocky song that has him carefully climb his way through some key changes onto a major chord - only to fall the way, minor key by minor key, to the bottom. The Bar-Keys lick that laughs at him every time he tries to pick himself up and falls over again is delicious, a perfect arrangement that makes us root for Redding and his determination to move on - even when he's doomed to failure, too much in love to ever truly let his lover go. Carla too sounds mighty fine, at last getting a chance to put her passion and emotion across, equally desperate to put things right but being clueless where to even start. This is what an Otis Redding duets album should be doing - instead of celebrating how things are better when done together, it's a song about how awful and depressing they are when done apart. Superb, with another great Booker T and the MGs backing track that's about as close to rock and roll as the quartet ever came when backing Otis.
Sam Cooke was growing more and more out of fashion by 1967 since his death three years before, with too many modern soul legends to worship to be remembered by all but the faithful. Mega fan Otis, of course, was that faithful fan and you sense that 'Bring It On Home To Me' was a compromise with producer Jim Stewart: 'yes you can do a Sam Cooke song if you must, but only after you've done these other songs we know will be hits and only if you do the most obvious cover everyone else does'. The Mgs change things around compared to most versions of this song: what's usually slow and melancholy (and very Otis) has been sped up to sound keen and upbeat. This works better than you might expect, especially when turned into a duet, with Otis pleading for Carla to come home to him - and Carla agreeing not to leave him alone for long. Programmed here near the end of the album, it might be Otis' secret message to Zelda that they still had a way to go and he was going to put things 'right'; having put up with so many Sam Cooke records playing at home she'd have understood that this was a 'message' from her husband, not a song put here by his record label. It's an upbeat way for the album to (nearly) play out. Whilst it's probably the weakest Cooke cover out there Otis did (Carla sounds way too uncomfortable on a song she doesn't quite understand), Otis' delicious zestful vocal just about makes it work, full of life and joy.
The album's real closer, though, was a surprise. From the beginning this album was only meant to contain ten tracks - the least that Stax could get away with selling and with this album recorded in such a hurry they would have worked out in advance how many songs they could get away with making in that time. But then guest guitarist Al Bell started busking a riff between takes which sounded so very Otis, like 'Love Man' in fact. Otis, who'd spent less time and effort and creativity on this rushed album than any of his previous five, suddenly got inspired and grabbed a pen, jotting down some lyrics that he thought would go down well on a duets album. As it happens 'Ooh Carla, Ooh Otis' sounds like what it is - a song that was written in about five minutes before the tapes started rolling again. Of all of Otis' originals it's by far the flimsiest and is more like a list of clichés, with Otis calling Carla his 'sweet and ice cream' and Carla teasing him for the 'dimples in his jaw'. And yet the recording makes up for this. The only song here written with Carla in mind, this song plays to her strengths - her fizzy upbeat life-loving personality that can't wait to go outside and play. Otis too manages to straddle the line between this being one long in-joke and a song he's emotionally invested in. Unlike the majority of this album you can believe that these two are 'lovers', the chemistry finally kicking in at last on a neat halfway house between their styles: her joy to be alive; his relief at not being quite so alone. It's a dumb but sweet way to leave the Otis Redding songbook during his lifetime and the one track here that would have gone down a storm at the Monterey Pop Festival three months later.
To be honest, though, the surprise of this album is how little here sounds like Otis' setlist at Monterey. This is the sound of a singer on a downward spiral, bullied by his record label into recording songs he doesn't believe in or understand to make the most amount of money out of him in the shortest amount of time. New fans who'd never heard of Otis and who rushed back to hear those great songs like 'Respect' and 'I've Been Loving You Too Long' who, not knowing where to start, simply went with the most recently released album would have been bitterly disappointed: by Otis' standards this album has little heart, few emotion and not much, erm, soul. Carla, too, would have sounded like an anachronism from yesteryear to the 'love crowd' who expected their women singers to be gutsy and feisty, like Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, not sweet and joyous. You can see why this record was only viewed as a 'marking time' album in Otis' own lifetime and why the singer himself was determined to wrestle back control of his career and go somewhere newer (and sadder) with the might and respect of the Monterey crowd behind him (the December 1967 sessions that sadly never were finished before his death). However even if 'King and Queen' is Otis' flimsiest, sloppiest LP, it's not without its moments. 'Let Me Be Good To You' 'When Something Is Wrong With My Baby' and 'Are You Lonely For Me Baby?' are three excellent cover songs where the collaboration works and both singers do what they do best, perhaps the most overlooked tracks released in Otis' lifetime that always seem to get missed off compilation albums - even though there've been dozens of the things over the years with very few tracks to go round them all. Even the worst of this album has excuses - most singers told to record songs that didn't fit in a short time while his collaborator was still busy doing her coursework for her degree wouldn't have got anywhere close to this. Plus the alum artwork is pretty fab is had to be said, with some pretty good likenesses of Otis and Carla turned into playing cards, the King and Queen of Spades. This album might never be the King or Queen of your heart, but with so few Redding albums to collect they are all special and this most overlooked record might well be the biggest surprise, the most oddball one of the lot. No it's not the long lost masterpiece that modern reviewers try to claim - there are too many mistakes, pitfalls and a completely misguided choice of material for that. But all Otis is good, just as most Carla is good, and both singers come out of this album with their heads held high. I'd much rather the AAA be graced by their true blue heart and soul Royalty than the fakeness and smugness than our 'real' Royal Family, that's for sure.