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Back To... SOUL

Skip Heller By

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While everyone else seems to have been attending jazz festivals, I've been flying under the radar with film and TV music jobs, so I haven't had the time to write about the summer's recorded music treasures, and it has been bountiful for record/CD fans. Not least of all because some really careful and wise music fans have made sure that round things with a hole in the middle deliver something digital downloads can't: a real package. Two come from Memphis, one from The Other LA (Lower Alabama).

There are three this summer that stand out from the pack. The first is an anthology so obvious that I wonder why it hadn't been offered until now—Otis Redding: The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection (Shout Factory, 2013), a three-disc package with a 7x7 color book that presents the A and B sides of one of the most formidable and influential bodies of work the sixties can boast. There's always a lot of talk about what Otis Redding might have accomplished had he lived, and I personally find this sort of Monday morning quarterbacking to be, well, stupid. We'll never know, and frankly even the most gifted artists of that generation too often fared not so well as the seventies marched by. What we in fact do know is what Redding left us, and the singles do in fact represent him better than his albums did.

Redding's core chemistry was something of a distillation of Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and James Brown, but also something very different than that. The sound of the black church had found its way to black popular music by 1950, so that was nothing new. But Redding's 1962 Stax debut, "These Arms Of Mine," posessed a dark sophistication within its testimonial. And it also had the slow-burning Stax house band matching his intensity, and with this a major career was launched. Singles puts together his complete 45 rpm output, in the original mono, and for the few who don't know what the fuss is about, all is revealed. Redding's pressure cooker delivery was versatile and worked with ballads, up-tempo material, and all things in between. He knew from pathos, and could instantly transform other people's hits—"Satisfaction," "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," "My Girl"—unapologetically into full-blown Redding vehicles.

This said, he understood his own style, so he was more prone to go deep than wide. At his most effective, Redding was a soul shouter who could rearrange your emotions in three minutes. Singles is to date the best Redding collection, not only because the mono sounds like a stampede coming out of your speakers, but because it's all the stuff you want in one place, wrapped in a record geek coffeetable book (of full color photo repro's of the original 45 rpm records).

While on the subject of Stax, we forward to 1973, six years after Redding perished in a plane crash. Stax was not just a label, but also a studio, and its use was not restricted to artists who cut for the label.

The idea of Elvis Presley cutting at Stax represents a kind of obvious marketing synergy. Everytime The King recorded in Memphis, he brought his fastball with him, as if he sought to remind everyone he was the hometown royalty. The less interesting fact is that it was more a convenience to have him recording close to home. Despite the dilettante's wisdom that Presley was past his prime by this point, what we have is Memphis' most signature-bearing talent since WC Handy fronting a band that blended members of his touring band with the local studio hotshots, a near perfect batch of material, and a level of focus and energy he would never again sustain in the studio. The Deluxe Edition (there's a master takes only version as well) of Elvis At Stax (RCA/Legacy, 2013)—which I bought—gathers the masters and a revealing selection of outtakes, and not only do we hear one of the great singers at his last great peak (backed by a paint-peelingly hot band), but we get a sense of how surely he guided the evolution of his recordings (when he cared enough, which wasn't always the case, as it is here).


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