55 Years Ago: Otis Redding Sets a New Standard With ‘Otis Blue’
When Otis Redding entered Stax Studios on July 8, 1965, he had a single R&B Top 10 single on his resume. By the time he emerged a day later, he had recorded his best album, beat the Rolling Stones at their own game and templated a future chart-topping song for Aretha Franklin.
Otis Blue, also known as Otis Redding Sings Soul, arrived on Sept. 15, 1965, with 11 total tracks, all but three of which were covers. Sessions went from 10AM to 8PM on a Saturday, and then from 2AM to 2PM the next day. The live nature of things gave the proceedings a crackling energy, as Redding attacked it all with a gushing fervor.
Some moments of genius grew out of pure happenstance. For instance, he literally stumbled into the Rolling Stones' new "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," basing the album's stand-out update on a run-through from a single that guitarist Steve Cropper just purchased.
"If you ever listened to the record, you can hardly understand the lyrics, right?" Cropper later told Rolling Stone. "I set down to a record player and copied down what I thought the lyrics were and I handed Otis a piece of paper, and before we got through with the cut, he threw the paper on the floor and that was it."
At one point, Redding unleashes a delirious off-script riff: "I keep on runnin' round in my sleep / I keep on messin' up any beat." It's not the only one. "I use a lot of words different than the Stones' version," Redding once merrily admitted. "That's because I made them up."
He even fiddled with the title. "You notice on 'Satisfaction' that Otis said 'fashion' not 'faction,'" Cropper said in 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music. "I love it. That's what made him so unique. He'd just barrel right through that stuff, unaware of anything. He just didn't know the song. He hadn't heard it, as far as I know."
Listen to Otis Redding's 'Satisfaction'
Keith Richards, who co-wrote the Stones' breakout hit, was mesmerized. "The way Otis Redding ended up doing it is probably closer to my original conception for the song," Richards later told Guitar World. "Otis got it right. Our version was a demo for [his version]."
Redding's take became the standard, so much so that the Rolling Stones were once accused of appropriating the track, former bassist Bill Wyman noted in Stone Alone.
Backed by Stax house band Booker T. & the MG's, Redding kept tearing through songs, becoming more confident, it seemed, with every verse. They only paused for evening gigs that had already been booked by some of the sessions players, which also included Isaac Hayes on piano and members of the Mar-Keys and the Memphis Horns.
They covered three songs by Sam Cooke, no doubt still enveloped in grief over his recent murder. They recast a Temptations song. They smartly redid "I've Been Loving You Too Long," even though Redding had just rode it to No. 2. They paid tribute to Solomon Burke, with whom Redding had recently toured, by doing a new take on "Down in the Valley." They completed the original "Ole Man Trouble" and covered B.B. King, too.
But one last original, titled "Respect," ended up changing everything for Aretha Franklin. As with the rest of Otis Blue, the song came together on the fly.
Booker T. & the MG's drummer Al Jackson said Redding wrote it after they had a conversation in which he told the singer: "You're on the road all the time. All you can look for is a little respect when you come home." Redding later surmised that "Respect" took "a day to write, 20 minutes to arrange and one take to record."
Listen to Otis Redding's 'Respect'
Franklin made it her own almost as quickly. She immediately began performing the song in concert, then finally recorded "Respect" a couple of years later – but only after a deft change in gender roles. Tom Dowd served as engineer on both recordings, but Franklin took "Respect" to a different place entirely; it soared to No. 1 as an anthem for female empowerment.
"The original version by Otis Redding is a great song," David Ritz, author of Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, told The Washington Post in 2018. "He sings the hell out of it but Aretha, in her reinvention, personalizes it: 'You are going to give me respect when you come home.' It becomes a woman thing. But her version is so deep and so filled with angst, determination, tenacity and all these contradictory emotions. That is how it became anthemic."
By then Redding had earned all the respect he'd ever craved. His third album confirmed his arrival, becoming Redding's first to reach the top of the Billboard R&B chart, while reaching the Top 10 in the U.K. More than that, Otis Blue had already emerged as one of soul music's undisputed masterpieces.
Still, he never quite got over how closely "Respect" became associated with Franklin. Her version topped the charts as Redding took the stage for 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, prompting him to inform the crowd: "This is a song that a girl took away from me, but I'm still going to do it anyway."