Although his recording career only lasted about five years, from 1962 until 1967 when he died at just 26 in a plane crash, Otis Redding was absolutely among the greatest soul singers of all time. Make that among the greatest singers of all time.
Although I know I’d heard some of his songs while he was still alive, I really discovered Redding in 1968 via the posthumous release of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” also absolutely, one of the most perfect recordings of the 1960s. As much, I would argue, a folksong as a soul ballad, the song was not typical of most of Redding’s southern R&B and soul recordings but “Dock of the Bay,” and his two-song performance in Monterey Pop, the concert film from the Monterey International Pop Festival of 1967, drew the teenaged me into Redding’s music. More than 45 years later, I never tire of listening to Redding and to the deep soulfulness that shines through every word he sang.
Redding’s recordings have been packaged and repackaged many times, and in many different combinations, over the years. From the original LPs released in his lifetime and shortly after, to who knows how many different compilations?
Without a doubt, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection, 70 tracks on three CDs, all re-mastered in glorious-sounding mono, is the ultimate Otis Redding compilation. Every single, both the A- and B-sides – including the eight duets with Carla Thomas – is included, along with the two songs from Monterey Pop.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” of course, remains the greatest of Redding’s songs. But the rest are great, too. Whether using a nursery rhyme to launch a soul ballad (“Mary’s Little Lamb”), going full throttle on “Respect,” or in a version of “Satisfaction” that almost makes the Rolling Stones' original seem pale, or in gospel-inflected love songs like “Try a Little Tenderness,” Redding is utterly convincing.
Like so many southern soul singers, Redding’s musical roots are in the church and one of my favorite of his tracks is the traditional spiritual “Amen” which he arranges in a medley with “This Little Light of Mine,” another traditional folksong.
Except for the live tracks, these songs were all recorded in Memphis with members of Booker T and the MGs and the Mar-Keys (which had overlapping musicians) as the core band. The right material, the right musicians, and the right singer all adding up to soul perfection.