Joel Goldenberg: The Best of Otis Redding

Otis Redding at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

As I've written before, my earliest musical tastes were shaped by the 1979 edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, which guided me to The Who, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Kiss and soul legend Otis Redding, amongst many others.

But the book was also written at a time when numerous crucial albums of the 1950s and 1960s were out of print. Elvis Presley albums were always generally available, but his 1950s material was almost exclusively only available in RCA's horrendous form of fake stereo.

(One exception was the two four-LP sets called Worldwide Gold Award Hits, which had everything in mono, including songs previously released in stereo.)

Many other artists had it worse. A crucial 1950s artist like Buddy Holly had, in 1978, only two albums in print, the excellent but insufficient 20 Golden Greats and the horrendous 2-LP A Rock 'N Roll Collection, chock full of fake stereo, posthumous overdubs and even one song with a singer who was not Holly on vocals.

Many other artists had only greatest hits collections available. The next edition of the guide, from 1983, (by which time the great box set The Complete Buddy Holly had come out in the United States) made it clear that many original 1950s and 1960s albums were only available as very pricey European and Japanese vinyl imports.

Of course, the then-coming CD revolution, and later streaming, rectified this situation, and now the sky's the limit for retro recordings.

Getting back to the start of my record collecting based on the 1979 guide, the Otis Redding review was so enticing that I knew I had to buy his albums. The songs were said to be the ultimate in soul music artistry with nary a bad moment.

Unfortunately, barring pricey imports, the only Redding album available at the now late and very much lamented Sam the Record Man (Discus didn't dig that deep and was dominated by bargain LPs) was The Best of Otis Redding, a 1972 2-LP set with somewhat bizarre artwork.

When I first played the album on my father's 1973 record player, I was confused when Otis's version of Sam Cooke's stormer Shake came on. All these horns — is this soul or jazz? And what's with the sound — dull, and Otis's voice was off to one side in stereo, sounding like it was recorded two rooms away.

But once I got used to the album, I quickly came to the realization how good it was, with songs like Dock of the Bay, Ole Man Trouble, I've Been Loving You Too Long, Try A Little Tenderness and all the other classics.

Thankfully, only a few years later, I had the best shopping day of my record buying life, at the former Cheap Thrills outlet on Bishop Street (the store on Metcalfe, the second one to open, is still open). There, in front of my eyes, were original pressings of Otis's first two albums, and some of the posthumous releases that drew mostly from his very productive last months in the studio before his tragic December 1967 plane crash. At prices of between $2 and $4.75 (even in late 1980s money and I was still in university then), I snapped them up.

Of course, nowadays, everything Otis recorded is easily available on CD and digitally, and in better sound than that 2-LP set. For instance, that stereo Shake I mentioned is more commonly available in superior mono.

But the one album not available any more (except used) is that 2-LP set that launched my Otis-mania. On one hand, it's understandable, every song on it is easily obtainable.

On the other hand, it was rather unique — three of the album's songs had originally been recorded in mono (Stax Records was not fitted for stereo until mid-1965, and the stereo Shake was recorded at that time), but in an unusual move, some of the original musicians were brought in to replicate their original parts to create new stereo recordings, and they sounded fairly convincing.

Of course, for those who really miss that set, just go onto Spotify and sequence some Otis material in the same album sequence. You just won't get the stereo re-creations of These Arms of Mine, Pain in My Heart and That's How Strong My Love Is. But, in my opinion, add Mr. Pitiful, that was an egregious omission from that 2-LP collection, and was, sort of, Otis's theme song and nickname.

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