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It’s a sad irony that Otis Redding’s best album was one quickly assembled after his death. Walk into the warm shadow of The Immortal Otis Redding and discover a man you know, a lover and friend, smaller than life and too large to exist in it, his nearness all the more palpable by the fact that he has been absent for more than four decades. The figure who emerges from this 1968 masterpiece is almost too much like the people you love: brash and insecure, sincere in his heartbreak and in on the joke, clingy yet not close enough, a man of flesh and God. Yes, Otis, you are hard to handle, to quote the album’s rave-up single, but not quite in the way you mean.
The last year of Otis’ life shows the vastness of a potential that would go painfully unrealized
We tend to think of Otis as the sweat-soaked rooster from Stax’s Soul Revues, almost forgetting how many colors the man possessed and how wont he was to show himself as anything but powerful. (His first top 10 hit was 1964’s “Mr. Pitiful.”) For a figure who embodied the term “soul” as much as any 20th-century artist, Otis was shockingly cerebral on his final recordings. How does he respond to being done dirt by his woman? In The Immortal Otis Redding’s haunting opening track, “Dreams to Remember,” he simply gathers himself up and recalls the man he was supposed to become. And, oh, what he was supposed to become: Otis wrote or cowrote seven of the 11 songs here, showing in the last year of his life the vastness of a potential that would go painfully unrealized. Imagine, for a moment, how beautiful it would have been had this Georgia soul man lived to be touched by the same social conscience that would lead Marvin Gaye to create What’s Going On?
Part of his legacy was that Otis plead with and sweet talked soul music away from the spit and polish of Detroit’s Motown hit machine and back home to Tennessee. Most of that work was finished by the time he recorded the tunes on The Immortal Otis Redding, and the songs here have a relaxed, back-porch quality. It allows him room to show a range of softer emotions, from the gratitude of “You Made a Man Out of Me,” to the homesickness of “Nobody’s Fault but My Own,” to the inspired goofiness of “The Happy Song (Dun-Dum).” When he finally brings the excruciating, high-stakes heartbreak we’ve come to expect from the big O—it comes here via the beautifully strained vocal of “Think About It”—it feels intimate, vulnerable and unselfconscious. This was a man at the peak of his abilities, able to reach the corners of the room, choosing instead to explore the corners of his own heart.
Even though it’s essentially just a collection of tracks, The Immortal Otis Redding has always felt more like a cohesive record, and is certainly his most listenable, first track to last. The journey from song to song here feels as natural as an evening stroll, concluding with Otis’s seeming return to gospel roots with “Amen” (and it’s this version that Hozier quotes in “Take Me To Church”). It is a choice that could strike some as cynical, as if Otis were ascending to heaven as the needle spins off the wax. But this is an “Amen” born less in pews than in the sweat, funk, and precision of a Memphis recording studio. It turns out to be the perfect platform for both Stax’s legendary house band, Booker T. & the MG’s, and also Otis’ impeccable phrasing, which belongs in the American pantheon alongside Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson. The simpler the tune, word, phrase, the more meaning Otis wrings out of it. To God be the glory, he says by means of a goodbye, but it’s the MG’s in which we trust.