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Review: Otis Redding, “The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection”

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Otis Stax Volt SinglesOtis Redding was just 21 years of age when Volt Records issued his first single for the label, “These Arms of Mine” b/w “Hey Hey Baby,” in October 1962. The latter is a solid if unremarkable riff on rockabilly (“Hey, hey, pretty baby/Baby, you sure is fine…Every time I look at you/You drive me out of my mind!”) but the torrid, smoldering A-side reveals a singer-songwriter far older than his years. Otis Redding couldn’t have known then that he was living on borrowed time; he would, in fact, perish just five years and a couple of months following the release of that first 45. But in those crucial 60+ months, Redding released a series of singles filled with the essence of what we call soul music. Shout! Factory has, for the very first time, compiled the As and Bs of Redding’s Stax/Volt singles in one package, with each one in its original mono single mix. Redding’s posthumous Atco singles, drawn from the Stax/Volt sessions but released after Stax’s split from original distributor Atlantic, are all here, too. The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection (826663-13488, 2013) offers 70 songs on 3 CDs, all heart-rending slabs of R&B from an artist whose every work is precious.

There’s a consistency of sound and performance on these 70 brassy sides, released between 1962 and 1972, roughly five years after Redding’s December 1967 death. (Part of CD 2 and all of CD 3 consists of posthumous releases.) Redding brought out the best in the Stax staff, working with producers Jim Stewart, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Booker T. Jones, Al Jackson, Jr., Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and singing in front of Booker T. and the MGs and the Mar-Keys. Even more impressively, Redding wrote the majority of his singles. (For a detailed look at Otis Redding, songwriter, see Ace’s recent anthology Hard to Handle: Black America Sings Otis Redding.)

Take a closer look after the jump!

Throughout these tracks, the raspy, hoarse Redding uses his natural instrument to great effect. He’s unafraid of emotional displays, wearing his heart on his sleeve, pleading for “Security” or in one of the many B-side highlights here, begging “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” When he wrenchingly implores “I’ve got no other place to stay,” one can’t imagine anyone refusing to succumb. Likewise, when Otis assures that “our love will last” with a tear in his voice in “Your One and Only Man” (the B-side of “Chained and Bound”), there’s no doubting him. There’s no artifice in these performances, and no attempt at smoothness or sweetness – just sheer passion. He might have declared himself “Mr. Pitiful” on a 1964 flip, but Otis Redding was anything but.

In the splendid remastering by Dan Hersch and Bill Inglot (also one of the set’s producers), the tracks are vibrantly presented, with Redding’s swagger and the strutting Stax horns brimming with crispness and clarity. It would have taken a tremendously potent voice just to compete with those horns, which invariably accent the recurring themes of lost love, hopelessness, desperation and grief. The formula that served Redding for his entire, too-short life was established on that very first Volt single. Steve Cropper’s doo-wop piano flourishes on “These Arms of Mine” and Redding’s relatively subdued vocal recall a more romantic era, but with just the right amount of grit. The vocally versatile Sam Cooke was an influence, but compare Cooke’s “Shake” to Redding’s live version, included here, to hear how the younger artist transformed Cooke’s rock-and-roll style into something even more frenetic and exciting.

1965’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” (Redding’s first ever Top 5 R&B hit and a considerable pop success at No. 21) remains one of his most durable compositions. The song, co-written by “Ice Man” Jerry Butler, has been recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, The Rolling Stones and Butler himself. But no version has topped the sheer ferocity of Redding’s original as well as the sensuousness. Redding doesn’t resort to the carnality of Ike and Tina’s recording; rather, it’s restrained but all the more affecting for it.

The mutual admiration society with the Rolling Stones is evident on Otis’ reworked “Satisfaction,” another staple heard here. Redding retains Keith Richards’ main riff but embellishes the song with that unmistakable Memphis brass to create a true rock-soul anthem. And if Aretha Franklin came to own “Respect” with her sizzling recording of Redding’s song, his original is a brash, defiant animal in its own right. Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connolly and Harry Woods’ “Try a Little Tenderness” had been recorded by all-time greats like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé before Otis brought it to Memphis, but his dynamic, gospel-infused rendition might be its definitive reading. (It appears twice here, the second time as an extended live version.) He slowed down Billy Hill’s “The Glory of Love” (a 1936 No. 1 for Benny Goodman’s band which Redding might have known from The Five Keys’ 1951 hit version) and in the process added depth to its cheery message. Needless to say, Redding made virtually every “cover” song his own with a fiery and raw vocal sound straight from his gut. There were few missteps; his attempt to fit the polished Motown groove on a rather tame “My Girl” is an odd Detroit-meets-Memphis hybrid.

In addition to the familiar songs – those mentioned, the untamed “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” the immortal, valedictory “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” Redding and Cropper’s grooving “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” to name a few – there are rarely-anthologized treats to savor here, such as 1969’s “Look at That Girl.” All of the elements of a hit are accounted for as Otis and his female backups ride a killer bass line, bleating horns, rock-steady drums, piano flourishes, et cetera. And a set such as this one affords listeners the opportunity to revisit B-sides in context, too. Redding’s lighter, less pained side came out on many of these flips. “Satisfaction” was paired with the breezy, charming “Any Ole Way.” He throws a twist reference into a kooky rewrite of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as “Mary’s Little Lamb” (if Frank Sinatra could swing “Old MacDonald,” why couldn’t Otis do “Mary,” right?) as the B-side of “That’s What My Heart Needs.” On the other end of the spectrum, the Stax band lends a blast of proto-funk to Redding and Booker T. Jones’ “Let Me Come on Home,” the B-side of 1967’s “I Love You More Than Words Can Say.”

Otis Redding - Stax-Volt OpenEight tracks (four singles) feature Otis duetting with Stax labelmate Carla Thomas. There’s palpable chemistry on the humorous “Tramp,” their first 45 together, but they play it straight on their revival of “Tell It Like It Is” as its flipside. (Both songs hail from their LP Queen and King, its title accurately reflecting their roles in the Stax firmament.) The Otis and Carla tracks here showcase a playful quality not always apparent on his solo recordings, and he’s even lustier than usual when paired with her sassy cooing and complementary voice. Another treat is Otis’ one-off Christmas single containing a red-hot rendition of “White Christmas” – that’s actually more faithful than The Drifters’ famously controversial R&B treatment – backed with a rather less unexpected version of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas, Baby.”

Sure to keep fans and collectors talking is the packaging to The Complete Stax/Volt Singles. Imagine an old album of 45s, the way you might have collected them yourself, and you have an idea of what package designer Melissa McMahon has created here. The pages of the 7” x 7” box are filled not with liner notes, but by full-size 45 scans of each actual single, with the A-side on the front of the page and the B-side on the back, as if you were flipping through the actual album of singles. The CDs are housed in clear plastic sleeves which slide down into slots from the top of the package. Just as on real 45s, there are circles cut out into the center of each page, and the discs can be slid up from these circles. Each CD is adorned with the label for the first song on that CD. Following the scans of each and every single, there are two pages of credits and personnel information, though no essay or standard discography with release dates has been included. But the set produced by Inglot, Derek Dressler and David Gorman is a wholly indispensable one. (Inglot was also among the producers of Rhino’s must-own 1993 career-spanning box set Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding which he and Hersch remastered.)

What would have come next for Otis Redding? It’s tantalizing to wonder. But rather than dwell on what might have been, we can always cherish the small but significant body of work the artist left behind. The Complete Stax-Volt Singles works as a one-stop shopping primer for those lacking much Otis in their libraries, and also fills in a major gap for those who already have his original albums and countless compilations. We’ve been loving him too long to stop now.

You can order Otis Redding’s The Complete Stax/Volt Singles here at Amazon U.S. and here at Amazon U.K.! The set is also available with an exclusive 7-inch vinyl replica single of “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” b/w “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” at Shout! Factory’s online store.

Written by Joe Marchese

July 26, 2013 at 07:52

Posted in Box Sets, Compilations, Otis Redding, Reviews

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20 Responses

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  1. Joe
    Great review – great set – brilliant packaging – kudos to Shout Factory. After the absolutely superlative sound on this set and on the Joe Tarantino remastered “Lonely and Blue” CD on Concord/Stax – this is surely the time for Rhino and Stax to get together to update the 1993 Rhino set with its somewhat wasted live set – (London/Paris – absolutely yes! – Sunset Strip – forgettable) with improved sound and a better context and appreciation of Otis’ impact on soul music (especially while Jim Stewart and Steve Cropper are still with us) along the lines of the Rhino Handmade sets on Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge. If Wilson Pickett merits a 6CD set – surely the undisputed KIng of Soul deserves as much?

    Mike Williams

    July 26, 2013 at 09:34

    • I’ll dispute that, and I believe Otis himself would as well. Both Otis and Al Green have been quoted as saying Sam Cooke was the master and their inspiration.

      I still do love Otis!

      Kevin

      July 26, 2013 at 12:02

      • No artist, no matter how legendary or iconic, pops out of a vacuum fully-formed. They all have influences, and Otis was never shy about giving credit to the various musicians who influenced and helped him along the way. And the same goes for Sam; he had tons of inspirations that shaped his music as well, and he gave credit where credit was due too. But the truly great ones, like Otis, Sam, and innumerable others, manged to fashion and meld those influences into something unique and lasting.

        Chief Brody

        July 26, 2013 at 12:17

      • Nicely said, Chief.

        Even Aretha does not have a “complete” Atlantic boxset, and of course, a number of her recordings have still never made it to CD. These corporations are insane.

        Kevin

        July 26, 2013 at 15:03

  2. I just received this in the mail, and it sure looks sweet. I hemmed and hawed about it for a while, because I have most of the original albums on Rhino CDs, as well as the “Otis!” box (which has a lot of mono mixes apparently) and a few other odds and ends, but this set has a number of songs not on that box, and it’s mainly because of that that I made the purchase. I’m SUPER eager to hear it, though. Maybe this weekend.The packaging is cool as hell! And having Bill Inglot involved in the mastering never hurts!!!!

    Chief Brody

    July 26, 2013 at 10:40

  3. Awesome set, great re-mastering, killer packaging, but I’m extremely disappointed on the lack of liner notes. I can live without the usual space filler rambling essay. But no release dates? No R&B or Pop chart listings? No non-lp info? Unacceptable! I still buy cd’s, as opposed to downloading projects because I really rely on liner notes for information on the history of the sessions. If this is the ‘be all-end all’ definitive singles set how can it NOT include this info. Bummer!

    Duane

    July 26, 2013 at 11:08

    • That is odd, considering this is a “singles” collection.

      Tom

      July 26, 2013 at 11:48

    • Totally agree

      Kevin

      July 26, 2013 at 12:03

    • The lack of liner notes is obviously sorely disappointing, since they didn’t seem to skimp elsewhere. Yeah, it sucks, but for the modest price I paid, I’m not thrilled about it, certainly, but the music is so friggin’ transcendent, I can live without notes. I’m not really surprised, though. So many reissues these days are released with glaring shortcomings that make you shake your head in disbelief, but there are also many fantastic ones out there too. This one would’ve benefited greatly from comprehensive notes, but at the end of the day, it’s the music that TRULY counts–and, on that note, this thing looks amazing!

      Chief Brody

      July 26, 2013 at 12:10

      • Amen

        Mike Williams

        July 26, 2013 at 12:32

      • It would have been even better had they included ALL of Otis’ 45 singles.

        Kevin

        July 26, 2013 at 15:06

  4. Kevin
    What is missing?
    Mike

    Mike Williams

    July 26, 2013 at 16:54

    • His early pre-Stax/Volt singles like Shout Bamalama….I have two of them, bought them way back in 1965 or so

      Kevin

      July 26, 2013 at 18:07

      • That’s what I thought – I’ll pass

        Mike Williams

        July 26, 2013 at 18:28

    • You mean you won’t buy it? Those pre-Stax single are not very good anyway.

      One of the best current prices is on blowitoutahere.com – $33. I just ordered it.

      Back in the 60’s, when I left town, I hid my Otis records in my underwear drawer. I figured a thief would not look there. That was when people broke in to steal records and stereos.

      Kevin

      July 26, 2013 at 21:55

  5. Listened to the first disc, and the sound is killer. If I’m feeling particularly anal, I *might* do an A/B against the “Otis!” box or individual Rhino CDs I have to see if there are any profound differences, but nothing I’ve heard thus far has given me any pause whatsoever. I’m no Otis scholar, but IMO Inglot did a fantastic job, and I’m just enjoying it for for what it is: some of the finest music of the 20th century mastered with seeimingly great care by an industry icon. Good enough for me!

    On another note, this is called the “Complete Stax/Volt Singles,” so it’s not unreasonable that it doesn’t contain any pre-S/V material. And I agree: Otis truly came into his own when he joined Stax, and the stuff he did prior merely HINTED at what was to come.

    Chief Brody

    July 27, 2013 at 07:54

  6. Many years ago, I went to the original Stax studio when it had become an abandoned building. The doors on the rear had been broken down, and there were broken liquor bottles and drug garbage everywhere. It was a profound experience…

    Kevin

    July 28, 2013 at 10:39

    • Kevin – more detail on your Memphis? Have you been back to the Museum?
      Also any support from any commentators to lobby David Gorman at Stax to get a proper retrospective box out on Otis? Properly sequenced and annotated with a selection of outakes al la Rhino Handmade or the present set?
      I listened to the 1993 Rhino Otis set last night and the mastering – irrespective of Bill Inglot’s involvement in 1992 – doesn’t compare with the recent efforts of Joe Tarantino on “Lonely and Blue”, Isaak Jasmin’s mastering on the French Donny Hathaway boxed set or what Duncan Cowell and Wayne A. Dickson have been doing routinely at Ace and bbr, respectively. Nothing to do with Mr. Inglot’s abilities just changes in the electronics. In an e-mail Joe told me that the quality of the A to D converters has increased exponentially in the past few years and with good quality source material the final product can reach levels equivalent to “Lonely and Blue”. For instance, Joe’s remaster of “McLemore Ave” is audibly superior to SHM version while the remastering of the Stax tracks on RZAs “Shaolin Soul Selection Vol 1” (no engineer credited) is nothing short of breath taking – check 24-Carart Black’s “Poverty’s Paradise” with the Stax CD – it’s like you never heard it before.

      Mike Williams

      July 28, 2013 at 11:21

    • As far as I know, the current Stax museum is a replica, I believe the old building was torn down. I don’t want to believe that though. When I saw needles, I decided to absorb the experience quickly and get out fast

      When I went there, I also went to the old Lorraine Motel, before they tore that down and put up a museum. I believe that Dr. King’s blood was still in the concrete. I also went to the Hi Record studio, where Al Green recorded. They had barbed wire across the windows to keep people from breaking in, if my memory is correct.

      Quite often the vinyl sounds better than almost any CD remaster. Yet when I do a CD-R transfer from vinyl, then do a synched A/B between the vinyl and the CDR, they sound identical. I do this on cheap consumer equipment. So therefore my two-bit undoctored transfer typically sounds better than the hyped CD remaster.

      On this basis, I never believe the hype about remasters. Its more a matter of who ruins it less, who gets out of the way and just transfers the recording, no bells, no whistles, no $500,000 machines.

      Kevin

      July 28, 2013 at 21:57

  7. For those who think the packaging is “cool”, I totally disagree.

    First, the way the CDs are “held” is absurd. The poorly mounted plastic sleeves are in no way archival, and will stick to and potentially ruin the CDs when left on the shelf for an extended time.

    Second, not only is there no essay/liner notes (well who reads that anyway, I could say), AND no chronology of recording date info (that IS more important), BUT there is not even a proper setlist of the CD contents at all within the book (you know, a list of songs and track numbers). The only setlist is an after-thought loose insert intended for store marketing. Most people lose such ‘advertisement’ inserts. No setlist for a collectors boxset is really outrageous.

    I give this an A+ for the music and an F for packaging.

    It is time for the music corporations to have the designers at least understand what collectors want. This only encourages more downloading from torrent sites

    Kevin

    August 1, 2013 at 17:57


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