Perhaps the most exciting development in West Coast culture this week is the release of one of the greatest R&B records I have ever heard – Otis Redding Live on the Sunset Strip. It should be equally appealing even to people who know classics like Redding’s Live in Europe and other, shorter recordings of these April 1966 dates at the Whisky a Go Go.
Peter Guralnick, in his masterly Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, sketches an indelible portrait of Redding’s emergence from Macon, Georgia, “just another graceful southern city gone to seed,” through early hits like “These Arms of Mine,” and the growth of what he calls “an aching vulnerability seemingly at odds with the self-confidence he exuded to friends and associates.” Redding died in a plane crash near the end of 1967, at his peak, right before his transcendent “Dock of the Bay” – a song showing a new direction -- was released.
The set is made up of three full sets, including the songs “Security,” “Respect,” Chained and Bound,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” and his covers of songs like “Satisfaction” and even “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
As much as we love James Brown, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke and others, Otis is our favorite soul singer here at The Misread City. We spoke to Ashley Kahn, author of books about Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, who penned the liner notes for this new 2-CD set.
Q: Some of this material exists in previous sets. What’s new here?
This includes stuff that wasn’t available previously. Most important, it doesn’t try to fix ‘problems’ – it’s warts and all. It’s the performance experienced by the people who were actually there, with his hand-picked road band, which he called his ‘orchestra.’ It also includes Sunday night’s last set: In the jazz world, the last set is where people take chances, pull out tunes you don’t expect them to, sometimes hitting, sometimes not. Normally record companies say, ‘We’re gonna bury that -- put it in the archives.’
You can also hear how the energy build in a live show. And the time allotted to these recordings gives you the pauses and banter between the songs: It gives you the feel of the down-home welcome of an Otis Redding show.
Q: Otis’s Live in Europe is an acknowledge masterpiece – how is the spirit of this date different?
A: That, and there’s also the concert recorded with Booker T and the MG’s at the Monterey Pop festival. By the time of those concerts, he had crossed over from being this R&B guy to someone making pop hits, radio hits. Pop radio was changing, genres were opening up. This is earlier: It’s the working-man’s Otis that you get here.
Q: The live recording has a special place in '60s soul, even beyond its role in rock, jazz, and other genres.
A: Live was when soul musicians were most themselves – its when they’re working an audience and working off its energy. It’s hard to recreate that in the studio. At a live show, musicians are very motivated – it’s hit it or quit it. You gotta make it happen – and that’s Otis at his best.
Q: Even with the great voices of '60s soul, there was something deep and yearning about Otis Redding that nobody could match.
A: There’s a grittiness he never lost. As he said in the great tune, ‘Tramp,’ he did with Carla Thomas, ‘I’m straight from the backwoods,’ with no apologies. It’s there in his voice, his in banter with the audience. Otis had a balance between the down-home and sophisticated mid-‘60s soul.
Q: Otis died when he was only 26. What might he have gone on to do?
A: There were so many changes taking place during his career and after. But Otis was always in the process of shifting. If you think of the territory he covered from just the early ‘60s to the mid ‘60s, when he was listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. And he put together, with 'Dock of the Bay,' a gentle folk song on acoustic guitar.
Would he have gone in the direction of Al Green, with a preacherly quality, but elegant and intimate? Or Barry White and Isaac Hayes, that between-the-sheets soul?
Who knows. He was certainly heading in a more introspective direction.He was definitely following his own path.