Today’s album is an eclectic and interesting choice for me, even as the #178 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It is also rated as the #4 all-time soul album by digitaldreamdoor.com. When I saw it was an Otis Redding day, I was pretty excited, as I’m a big fan of pretty much anything I had heard from him to date. My final take on this album? A bit of a mixed bag.
This album, “Otis Blue”, is a series of mostly covers and three original songs. In most cases, an artist, particularly one with the talent of Otis Redding, can take someone else’s song and make it his own. That being said, I wish I could say I loved it, and I really wanted to, but I can also see I’m somewhat trapped and attached to some of these other versions as well. Let’s start with Sam Cooke. Two of the songs on this album are “Shake” and “Wonderful World”, and while I appreciate the rougher takes by Otis, I do miss the vocal purity of Cooke, especially on “Wonderful World”. And since we are speaking of smooth and pure, I also struggled to embrace his version of the Temptations’ “My Girl”, written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, mainly due to the lacking of the harmony backing vocals so essential to the song. As I heard Otis tear into “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, I was hoping for a funkier sound, but to me, it came across as just a mediocre lounge version; I think the arrangement could have been done much better. Even on an original song, “Respect”, which I learned was written by Otis Redding, I was unable to escape the much more well-known rendition by Aretha Franklin.
I think my favorite moment on the album was his version of “Change Gonna Come”, again by Sam Cooke. Deep in the fight of 1965, I am moved by any powerful version of this song, especially by a great singer like Otis Redding, and it is truly heartbreaking to think how quickly both Otis and Sam Cooke were gone after these recordings, not living long enough to witness the transformation our country mandated, in part due to the powerful inspiration of their music.
As I discussed my mixed reaction to this album today with one of my musical north stars, my son, we both agreed that sometimes even our favorite artists go in a direction we don’t fully appreciate or embrace, and that it is just fine. Clearly, for most, this is an album that carried tremendous weight and influence, and I remain a big Otis Redding fan, eagerly anticipating what he and others have waiting for me tomorrow and beyond.