Various Artists “Hard To Handle – Black America Sings Otis Redding” (Ace CDCHD 1352)
By Pete Nickols
Albert Washington & The Kings ~ These Arms Of Mine; Judy Clay ~ Sister Pitiful; William Bell ~ I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now); Maxine Brown ~ Baby Cakes; King Floyd ~ Think About It; Mickey Murray ~ Shout Bamalama; Irma Thomas ~ Security; Percy Sledge ~ I’ve Got Dreams To Remember; Buddy Miles ~ Give Away None Of My Love; Mitty Collier ~ I’m Missing You; James Carr ~ I Can’t Turn You Loose; Bettye Swann ~ Chained And Bound; Clarence Carter ~ Just One More Day; Arthur Conley ~ Wholesale Love; Tina Britt ~ Hawg For You; Otis Redding ~ Loving By The Pound (Take 2); Patti Drew ~ Hard To Handle; Arthur Conley ~ A Year, A Month And A Day; Lou Rawls ~ Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song); Jackie Hairston ~ Monkey On My Back; James & Bobby Purify ~ Keep Pushing Me; Donald Height ~ Good To Me; Aretha Franklin ~ Respect; Staple Singers ~ (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay; Etta James ~ I Got The Will.
Otis Redding may not be best remembered as a songwriter but in fact he wrote prolifically within a fairly short-time span and Ace’s compiler Tony Rounce points out that he indeed wrote some 80 per cent of the songs on his own posthumous albums, with some 25 of these songs having been penned within a matter of weeks during his last summer.
His untimely death may have prompted more than the usual share of cover versions but, to be fair, many of these songs were of the requisite quality to always be likely to attract the attention of other performers and producers. Indeed some of Otis’ works were covered many times over and the specific performance chosen by Ace to feature in such cases is probably down to the (subjectively) best version for which they have - or have obtained - rights.
“These Arms Of Mine” was well-covered by Sam & Dave but here we have a very creditable version, cut for Fraternity in late-1966, by bluesman Albert Washington.
“Mr Pitiful” became a short-lived nick-name for Otis himself and the catchy opus was paired on 45 with Otis’ inferior but still creditable version of O.V. Wright’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”. Here we get the very good cover of “…Pitiful” by the always-impressive, gospel-honed Judy Clay, which saw release on Atlantic in 1969.
The multi-covered deepie “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” brings another always-impressive singer to the fore, namely William Bell, whose album version from his “The Soul Of A Bell” set is accurately summarised by Tony Rounce, when he says that it “might lack the intensity of Otis’ cut but it has a quiet elegance that makes it an equally rewarding listen”. It might surprise some readers to know that my own favourite version of this fine song is by Ike & Tina Turner on Blue Thumb.
“Respect” was an Otis song that Aretha (whose proto-girl-power version appears here) virtually made her own; whereas Bettye Swann seems to simply pay due homage to Otis on her suitably intense version of his fine ballad “Chained And Bound”, cut in LA for her Capitol set “Don’t You Ever get Tired Of Hurting Me”.
Etta James’ version of the up-tempo “Security” is probably the cover which most fans remember from her sessions at Fame but around the same time and at the same studio Irma Thomas produced her equally fine interpretation, which is the one chosen here.
We then get the unfinished James Carr Goldwax version of Otis’ super-fast “I Can’t Turn You Loose”. It’s OK and Carr’s superb baritone is always worth a listen but he was much happier on ballads and I don’t think it proved a great addition to his generally impressive repertoire.
There appears to have been only the one cover of Otis’ excellent deep ballad “Just One More Day” and that was from Clarence Carter on his self-produced mid-70’s ABC album. I’ve never been a fan of extended spoken intros and Clarence’s goes on a bit but, when he sings, he keeps pretty close to the meaning and intensity of the fine original.
Another great Otis slowie was “Good To Me” and, although the Donald Height Shout-label version featured here is OK, Irma Thomas’ more intense reading at the same Fame sessions which produced her take on “Security” was much better.
Ace couldn’t get rights to Loretta Williams’ terrific Jotis sides, the driving “Baby Cakes” and the super-deep “I’m Missing You”, so we make do with Maxine Brown’s Fame cut of the former (which is excellent and rivals the original) and a previously unissued version of the latter from Mitty Collier, also cut at Fame in 1969. Whilst this is a great find and I am a big fan of Ms Collier’s vocal abilities, her deeper-voiced and less histrionic version does suffer a tad in comparison to the outstandingly ‘deep’ reading by Ms Williams.
“Hawg For You” showcased Otis’ bluesier side and it was therefore apt that the blues-edged soul singer Tina Britt should include it on her very fine “Blue All The Way” set, which also featured a cover of Otis’ “My Lover’s Prayer”.
I’m not mad about Lou Rawls’ too uptown version of “Fa 6 (Sad Song)”; whilst, conversely, the Staple Singers’ version (nay tribute) to Otis’ “Dock Of The Bay” has got to be one of the best and most sincerely-expressed covers of his works.
Running it close for me is Percy Sledge’s much later but quite beautiful version of “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” from his 1995 “Blue Night” CD. Meanwhile, Patti Drew released her cover of “Hard To Handle” only some month’s after Otis’ own appeared, it too becoming a deserved hit in its own tight on Capitol in early 1969.
“Think About It” was more of a Don Covay song than one of Otis’ as Don had already demoed it before the Big O reworked the opening verse. Clarence Carter cut a fine version in 1968 but here we have the later, more ‘pleading’ version by Chimneyville’s King Floyd.
Etta James’ stomping version of “I Got The Will” stems from her 1988 “Seven Year Itch” set; while drummer Buddy Miles provides a happy-go-lucky piece of funky vocalising on “Give Away None Of My Love”. The same performer also cut a version of Otis’ “Wholesale Love”, but Otis wrote that particular song for Arthur Conley and here we have Arthur’s potent Fame-cut interpretation of it from 1967.
This CD also includes three Otis songs which the big man never recorded himself. Frankly, you can see why. “Keep Pushing Me” was written for its performers, James & Bobby Purify but James didn’t like it much and, as Papa Don Schroeder implies in the sleeve-notes, it shows, the song staying unreleased at that time. Also unimpressive is the chant-like “Monkey On My Back” from organist Jackie Hairston, cut at Fame in early 1967; while “A Year, A Month And A Day” is quite a forceful ‘dancer’ cut by co-author Arthur Conley, also at Fame and as a possible follow-up to “Sweet Soul Music” although, again, this one duly remained unissued.
Which just leaves Mickey Murray’s SSS-International version from 1967 of Otis’ first successful attempt at writing a song, namely the in-your-face and atypical “Shout Bamalama”; and also a previously unissued take by Otis himself of the ‘dancer’ “Loving By The Pound”, another take of which first appeared on Ace/Stax’s “It’s Not Just Sentimental” collection of unissued Otis sides.
This CD contains rarities and some good soul music but, as with all cover versions, some are better than others. The sleeve-notes by Tony Rounce are very informative and historically interesting in themselves. For songwriting ability you’d have to give Otis maybe 9 out of 10 - musicwise, in respect of the cover versions on offer, I would rate the CD 7 out of 10.