Blue is the warmest colour

Next week will be the fiftieth anniversary of one of the greatest soul records

Otis Redding.
Otis Redding.

Last month, the estate of soul legend Otis Redding made a somewhat unexpected request on its website that had nothing to do with the late singer’s music. They were looking for somebody, almost as desperately as some of Redding’s pleading vocals. The object of the search was the pale blonde woman on the cover of Redding’s most famous album, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul from 1965.

Times sure have changed since the landmark LP came out (it will mark its 50th anniversary on 15 September). Redding probably wasn’t very pleased about having a nondescript white woman posing on the cover instead of himself. When last heard, the search had been narrowed down to a couple of fräuleins—one Dagmar Dreger and the more famous Christa Päffgen (better known as Nico, who appears on the first Velvet Underground LP).

By today’s standards, Otis Blue is a short album—barely 33 minutes long—but it is to Redding’s credit (and the crack team of musicians who backed him) that he managed to cover a range of emotions from sadness to unadulterated joy. Redding sounds so assured that it comes as a surprise to learn that he was only 24 when he recorded the songs. And he did all except one tune in a single day, but then that was how the music business was run in those days.

Another legendary soul singer, Sam Cooke, had tragically died in a shooting only some months before the songs on Otis Blue were recorded and perhaps it is no surprise that Redding sings three songs by his idol on the album—“A Change Is Gonna Come”, “Wonderful World” and “Shake”. From the moment that Redding sings the first line of Cooke’s civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come”—Iiiiiiiiiiiii…was born by a river—we know that he had filled Cooke’s throne as the best soul singer on the planet.

It is rare now to have an artist sing a cover on their album, but Redding filled Otis Blue with his versions of others’ songs. Yes there are Redding originals, notably “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, now a much beloved staple for wedding singers, and “Respect”, which ironically is better known for Aretha Franklin’s cover version of it. But it’s Redding’s feeling and passion which makes it seem that the album is purely his own.

Naysayers of cover versions only need listen to Redding’s reworking of The Temptation’s “My Girl” or the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”, where he out-swaggers even Jagger.

Tony Palmer reviewing The Beatles (1968) for The Observer noted that John Lennon’s voice could be considered as one of the many instruments that were featured on the double album. One could say the same thing about Redding. But just when it seemed that Redding was destined for worldwide stardom after his mesmerising performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, he was taken away too soon when the plane he was travelling in for a gig crashed in December 1967. Even The Doors were moved to pen a tribute—“Running Blue”.

But Otis lives…on his records, and in spirit on other people’s songs—even samples, just check out Jay Z and Kanye West’s “Otis”.

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