Graded on a Curve:
Otis Redding, Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul
of Otis Redding

As one of the undisputed titans in the annals of Soul Music, Otis Redding seemingly needs no introduction. Any serious discussion of the genre he so thrillingly mastered will reflect upon the rewards to be found in his work, and that it’s never fallen out of favor is tribute to his talents. But in truth, scads of younger listeners do require some enlightenment regarding the massive achievements of the man. Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding will serve as an exemplary primer for the uninitiated, and the thoughtful focus on the artist’s aching love balladry might just lead many longtime fans to hear Mr. Pitiful with fresh ears.

With Sam and James and Wilson and Al and Marvin all making such singular contributions to the style, there will never be an undisputed King of Soul. But upon reflection, Otis Redding can perhaps be accurately described as the form’s Total Package, for the fabric of his music contains so many substantial fibers; a Southern “country” grit combining with the newfound sophistication of R&B, the powerhouse qualities of a consummate front-man coexisting with a distinctive desire to interact with his backing band, and the ability to knock ‘em stone cold dead on stage thriving alongside an uncommon level of success in the studio setting.

Furthermore, Redding’s considerable talents as a songwriter coincided with his equally impressive skills at interpreting other’s material, a substantial crossover into the pop market sacrificed none of his creative verve, and Stax’s significant spirit of racial harmony served as a beautiful example of brotherhood in an era that very much needed it. So Otis clearly lacked nothing in his ascension to the very top ranks of Soul expression.

Add to the above Redding’s knack for both raising the roof through raucous uptempo material and delving into the deep emotional weeds via exquisitely rendered slow burners. This dual proficiency is surely a given with the great soulsters, and it seems fairly obvious that a huge component in Redding’s lasting rep is how he could turn it way up and then bring it all back down without a hitch, frequently hitting upon spectacular mid-tempo grooves along the way.

Otis and his original touring band slaying them at the Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles and then a year later getting on a plane with Booker T. & the MG’s and doing the same in London and especially in Paris; back home they most famously blew away the Love Crowd as the Saturday night headliner of the Monterey Pop Festival.

For countless young rock fans in the years after his untimely death, Redding’s side of the split-LP with The Jimi Hendrix Experience that documented their sets at Monterey, if not serving as an introduction to Otis’ work (likely holding that distinction was the constant oldies station play of his biggest posthumous hit “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”) perhaps more importantly provided that first extended taste of uncut Soul.

And for the inexperienced, it could initially seem like the moments of yearning Redding executed to perfection on the Festival stage (and given superb visual documentation in D.A. Pennebaker’s indispensable concert film Monterey Pop) were intended to keep him from suffering cardiac arrest, so intense were the heights of his performance.

Over time, it became obvious just how essential those moments of heartache and desire were, not only to Otis’ work but to the very structure of Soul Music. And yet in the context of Redding’s oeuvre they’ve very rarely been spotlighted commercially for their majestic properties alone. While it’s true that ‘65’s The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads made a point of emphasizing the emotional vulnerability in his work, it was also an album that came early in his career, when he was still struggling with the major influence of Sam Cooke and coming to grips with his own expressive powers.

And his second single, 1962’s “These Arms of Mine,” was a masterpiece that announced the arrival of a major artist, but Redding really didn’t manage the same feat in LP terms until Otis Blue, a record that explored the many different aspects of his artistry to thrilling effect. And so it was to be for the remainder of his career and long after, with his original albums and a slew of compilations presenting him in the Total Package terms described above.

That’s a big part of what makes Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding so special. It takes the most crucial component of his sound and presents it with thought and care on a record that stands out from the typical reissue fare. Its twelve tracks are in keeping with the album durations that always suited Redding best, the inclusions largely derive from the latter part of his career, when he and his group were firing on full cylinders nearly constantly, and the visual design, particularly in its vinyl form, is intended to provide great pleasure as it pulled from the shelf.

It’s a record lacking in unreleased material, yet it also avoids feeling like a compilation mainly because it avoids the predictability of a hits collection or the general randomness that can make the appearance of vault-stuff feel like dusted off leftovers. Five of the songs included here were first unveiled on the ’92 comp Remember Me, a disc that proudly heralded the appearance of 22 previously unheard cuts.

While a very necessary acquisition for serious Otis-heads, in reality Remember Me did connect as a compilation, though it easily escaped the aura of inessentiality. With Lonely & Blue however, those tracks are put into the service of a laudable theme, and each one stands up tall, working magic with a pair of his best-known songs and a handful of less celebrated material, all of it top-notch.

The record begins with “I Love You More Than Words Can Say,” a song released as a single in ’67 and included on the posthumous LP from the same year The Dock of the Bay. As the concise program continues two additional tracks are sourced from the albums that appeared after his death, “Free Me” from ‘69’s Love Man (also released as a single) and “A Waste of Time” from The Immortal Otis Redding.

These songs might be well-known to Otis freaks, but none of them are among his signature tunes, and while the sheer level of sustained quality between deep cuts and ringers is again impressive, what’s even more striking is how they manage to sustain a natural mood; Lonely & Blue is a construction, but this fact is really only boldly apparent with the appearance of “These Arms of Mine” at the end of side one and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” at the start of side two.

Before and after the one-two punch those indispensible pieces of Soul yearning deliver, Lonely & Blue registers like an record Otis might have made had we not lost him far too early. Not so much a concept album, but rather a document that deeply explored one part of his artistic personality.

Due to how Lonely & Blue’s more familiar inclusions, additionally taken from such absolutely essential records as The Soul Album and Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, connect in such a fresh, vital way, it’s perhaps too easy to come to the speculative conclusion that this inspired reassembling of catalog points to an unrealized creative possibility, a hypothesis intensified by Redding’s creative restlessness.

For causal appreciations of Redding’s work often champion him as a vessel from which Soul’s brilliance simply poured without much crucial input from the man, but in fact he was very knowledgeable over what did and didn’t work in regard to his work. That’s why he never recorded a version of “Just Like a Woman” that Dylan famously handed off to him; in his assessment, the song contained too many words. If energy and sincerity were essential, so was simplicity, and if Otis was hungry for artistic progress, it was never at the expense of the rudiments of what made him matter in the first place.

But the proof of all this theorizing is in the pudding. Or in this case, it’s in the grooves of a fine slab of blue vinyl, packaged in an inspired throwback sleeve. Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding is a true rarity in how it travels a reissue road taken far too seldom.

The dominant impulse in rereleasing the extant works of a departed artist is to either fall back on the established cornerstones of that career or to tweak them in an uninspired, mercenary manner, dropping unheard or rare material onto compilations or as suspect bonus cuts that serve the avaricious completist and the pocket books of the executives while actually doing very little in communicating the sheer importance of the subject that’s being offered.

That’s just the opposite here. Somewhere, right this very minute, a listener is flipping through LPs in their local record shop, basically unaware of Redding’s legacy. Maybe they have a well-worn copy of Otis Blue in hand, browsing around a little longer before heading up to the counter for purchase.

But then spotted up on the wall is a sealed copy on Lonely & Blue, shining in its shrink wrap and calling out to the buyer with a combination of alluring newness and the seductive pull of the Classic. Putting back Otis Blue, or hopefully keeping it in hand, this latest Redding collection is bought and taken home, where it will serve as a truly splendid entry-point into one of the great showman-creators of the last century.

For this hypothetical music fan, a full immersion into the Total Package will come later. But as an introduction, Lonely & Blue won’t simply linger as a distant memory. It will remain in the forefront of active listening, imparting lasting pleasure as it relates great insight into the very essence of Soul Music and one of its finest practitioners, the Big O himself, Mr. Otis Redding.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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