Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Music history is riddled with artists who were taken well before their time, artists who managed to carve out a sound or a body of work that, despite being brief, showed significant promise or downright genius. The narrative most often peddled by critics and cultural historians in regards to musicians—or any artist, really—who die young is one that shows great remorse for the brilliance that was sure to come, while also suggesting that perhaps a young death has secured their legacy.
Cultural critics often glorify their prognostications, spending too much time lamenting what could have been rather than focusing on what is and what was. While the narrative that asks “imagine what so-and-so would have done” is certainly fun, it excludes an arguably more productive mode of analysis, which is looking at how that artist influenced the music and culture when they were alive, and how that influence extends to the present day.
Using such criteria—or really any criteria in this case—Otis Redding is one of the few musicians who deserves the all-too-hastily applied term of “genius.” The Georgia-born Stax artist—who got his start in music backing up Little Richard—not only left a massive footprint on the world of soul music in the 1960s, but also remains an important figure to this day, especially in hip-hop. From 1964 to 1967, Redding released six studio albums, including one with Carla Thomas, a staggering release schedule firmly aligned with the factory-esque output of labels like Stax and Motown. Thus, there is plenty of music to point to that shows how truly talented Redding was, but the best and most influential album of the bunch remains 1965’s Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul.
Even stripping the album of its cultural context and the heralded place Redding still holds within hip-hop, Otis Blue is a stunning achievement, an album that shows Redding’s range as a singer and, considering it’s a studio album, captures just how magnetic Redding would be in a live setting. There’s an energy to the album that typically only comes through in a live performance, a closeness to the recordings that make it seem like Redding is singing in a small club, and every grunt, shout, and croon is staggeringly intimate. The fact that Redding recorded the album with legends Booker T. & The M.G.’s and included Isaac Hayes on piano certainly contributes to that palpable energy.
While much of the record boasts cover songs—with several covers of Sam Cooke, who died only months earlier—Redding kicks off Otis Blue with two originals. “Ole Man Trouble” establishes the tone for the entire album, a slinky cut that’s seductive and heartbroken all at once. Redding’s voice cracks as he laments the way he’s lived for so many years, bringing nothing but trouble his way. “Ole Man Trouble” isn’t exactly a slow jam, nor is it a raucous piece of funk, and that’s a balance that much of the album strikes. The next track, the rousing “Respect,” which Aretha Franklin would popularize while flipping the script in terms of gender connotations, is pure fire. Redding’s version shuffles with purpose, the tom hits provided by drummer Al Jackson Jr. driving the rhythm section forward at a breakneck pace.
As great as his originals are, the best songs on the album are the cover songs, the ones to which Redding brings his signature style. He emotes heavily on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” dragging out the first note in desperation, an announcement of Redding’s arrival if there ever was one. An element of Redding’s unique style was his ability to move from long, accentuated notes to more staccato rhythms, in many ways presenting a vocal delivery that would inform the cadence of hip-hop vocals years later. That influential delivery is most evident on “Down In The Valley” where, alongside a stuttering piano beat, Redding really lets loose, hitting those signature raspy high notes while also chopping up his delivery, using each word’s syllables as his own personal rhythm section. Redding’s voice is as percussive as it is melodic; if you need more evidence of that, just look at Kanye West and Jay Z’s Watch The Throne single “Otis,” where they reconfigure Redding’s voice to create one hell of a beat.
Not every song on Otis Blue is a testament to Redding’s ability to put a unique spin on what would become soul classics. Tracks like “My Girl” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” seem to be present just to show that Redding could be the best crooner of all time if he wanted to be, faithfully covering soul staples with that golden voice. Again, this establishes Otis Blue as a record that shows Redding’s immense range, be it vocally or emotionally. The amped-up, raspy, high-energy Otis Redding is arguably the best version of the singer, but those highs hit so hard because they’re positioned alongside more meditative moments like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
In the simplest terms, Otis Blue is a monumental soul/R&B record, and one of the finest recordings of the ’60s. Going deeper than that though, it’s a record that’s had enormous influence on hip-hop, and therefore remains relevant to this day. When Kanye West chopped up that sample, he wasn’t just acknowledging the way Otis Redding paved the way for black artists; he was also acknowledging how his music prefaced the ideologies of rap music and culture. Consider that Otis Blue is largely cover songs, with Redding interpreting or paying homage to other artists of the time, using their melodies, cadences, or arrangements to build his own work, to bring his own interpretation to life. That method of production, which promotes using the work of others to build your own art, is the very essence of hip-hop, which historically uses sampling as its go-to beat-building method. Hip-hop is about engaging with the past, being proud of a lineage of artists that have come before you, and acknowledging their work by sampling it. It shows respect and solidarity, something that too often gets lost in the increasingly relevant conversation surrounding copyright infringement.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that traditionally black genres of music are the ones vilified when archaic copyright laws are upheld. The very idea of sampling and re-interpretation is inherent in not only the more contemporary genre of hip-hop, but stretches back to soul, blues, and R&B. Otis Blue is a stirring masterpiece, the greatness of which can be seen even when stripped of its context or influence. To this day, though, Otis Blue is so much more. It’s a record that paved the way for hip-hop music and culture. It’s a record that shows solidarity among black artists. And perhaps most importantly, in a world where digital files make it easier than ever to access the work of other artists, it’s a record that shows great art doesn’t need to be “original” as defined by copyright laws. More often than not, genius is born out of collaboration and an engagement with a long history of works of art, and that’s exactly what makes Otis Blue so special.