One of the greatest live recordings ever made begins with the corniest of introductions --- a self-consciously “groovy” MC has the French audience spell out the star’s name. I cringed; you will too.
But all’s forgiven when the bass player delivers eight throbbing notes, as elemental and indelible as the opening to “Satisfaction.” Here comes the trumpet, playing tight little circles. And a drummer who’d rather pound on tom-toms than keep time on snares. And, at last, here is Otis Redding, in a salmon-colored suit and an open-collar salmon-colored shirt, gripping a hand mike and taking one last deep breath.
And out comes:
What you got
Baby I want it
What you need
Baby I got it
All I’m asking for
Is a little respect.
“Respect” was so powerfully covered by Aretha Franklin that it’s easy to think she wrote it, that’s it’s a woman’s plea, but the trick of this song --- in fact, the brilliance of so much of Otis Redding’s music --- is the universality of need. Do you regard male vulnerability as first cousin to weakness? Do you believe that big boys don’t cry? Well, Otis Redding is the proof that machismo has nothing to do with masculinity, that the sensitive guy gets the girl. Otis is, without question, all man; Otis is, without peer, all emotion. And so his version of the best song he ever wrote delivers an urgent double declaration to his lover: I have love to give, but I also need love. (Pride? Not here. He goes so far as to give her permission to cheat: “Do me wrong/while you’re gone.”)
But the words almost don’t matter. Otis Redding’s genius was in his voice, easily the most distinctive in the history of soul music. “Rasp” doesn’t begin to convey how rough it was. Imagine someone who’s been yelling for hours, whose vocal cords are so ragged he should really be home drinking tea and honey. Instead, he goes on stage and shouts out his songs until he reaches a pitch so desperate he dispenses with lyrics entirely and barks: “Got to/got to/got to/got to….” No wonder Janis Joplin attended every Otis Redding concert she could, standing close to the stage and, in essence, going to school on Otis so she could learn how he made his songs --- to use her word --- “visible.” [To buy "Otis Redding Live in Europe” from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
One reason Redding was such an electrifying performer: He was like a track star who runs the mile --- but treats it like a sprint. As a result, everything about this l0-song CD violates the conventions of live recording. If you start with a flat-out screamer like “Respect,” nine out of ten singers will slow it down in the second song --- unless you’re Otis Redding and you’re in a mood to do "I Can’t Turn You Loose” at a pace usually described as “pile-driving.” He then comes to a full stop with a wrenching “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” before picking it up again with Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” and a version of “Satisfaction” that makes Jagger and the Stones sound like slackers. Two ballads follow, then a dash through the Beatles “Day Tripper,” and before you know it, there’s one song left.
It is “Try a Little Tenderness,” and if you know it, you know it’s about all the great women who will never have pretty clothes and expensive trips and homes that are featured in magazines. That’s no one’s fault: They’re married to men who, more often than not, make their living with their muscles and are often just a paycheck or two ahead of trouble. These men love their women --- but how can they prove it? In the gospel according to Otis,there’s only one way: show your love. “You’ve got to hold her/squeeze her/never leave her”…..and from here, Otis leaves language behind, rushing headlong from “got to/got to” to sounds so primitive and immediate, sounds so intimate, you almost feel you shouldn’t be listening.
“Otis Redding Live in Europe” was recorded in March of 1967 and released that June. On December 10th of that year, a plane carrying Redding and his band crashed into a Wisconsin lake. Four members of the band died. And so, alas, did Otis Redding. He was 26.