Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and soul fans of a certain age long ago got bored with seeing this predictably named as a Top 100 album, the token soul set in lists compiled by trendies who surely never bought it at the time.
True believers would say that in his short but explosive life Otis recorded plenty of material as good as this, and some might cite, say, his The Soul Album as a more deeply “soulful” record.
But Otis Blue remains The One, the soul album that sealed his world reputation as the soul singer. The one whose title, with hindsight, probably did most to establish the use of the word “soul” to define the music previously known as R&B. Listening to it yet again, now a staggering 43 years after it was made, even the purest purist would have to say that yes, Good God Almighty, it’s good.
This Collector’s Edition offers little (how could it?) that is genuinely new, but is done with Rhino’s typical thoroughness, presenting the original album in both mono and stereo versions, plus bonus live tracks (from Live At The Whisky A Go Go and Live In Europe) as well as some unissued alternate takes.
Otis Blue was the closest Otis got to making a “proper” album, in the sense that all but one of the tracks were laid down, virtually live, in just one session on 7 July 1965. Man, what would you give to have been there! To witness Steve Cropper’s stinging licks, the sweet thunder of Al Jackson’s drums, Duck Dunn’s fatback bass, the churchy keyboards of Booker T and Ike Hayes, the holy horns of Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, Floyd Newman and Gene Miller.
So spare, so strong, not a note wasted, defining the very spirit of 60s soul and never sounding better. And riding it all, that amazing voice, that unique fusion of pain and pride, of yearning and percussive drive.
The passage of the years, the way that soul/black music has gone on to conquer the world, the endless reinvention and repackaging, the rip-offs and the samples, the sheer stereotyped familiarity of the concept of the “soul singer”… all this has done nothing to diminish the fact that Otis was the real deal, The Man. The voice that reached back, past Sam Cooke and Little Richard, to the blues and gospel roots, but infusing them with a fiery, whipcrack modernity and sense of drama.
The way he could stamp his authority on a song was awesome, even (as here) on material that had already been done brilliantly, like Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, Solomon Burke’s Down In the Valley, BB King’s Rock Me Baby, The Temptations’ My Girl, William Bell’s You Don’t Miss Your Water and the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction. But it is his own songs that give this album its extra power: the brooding, uncompromising opener, Ole Man Trouble; the agenda-setting, genre-defining Respect; and, most of all, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long. This song, written with Jerry Butler (and with echoes of Butler’s earlier gospel-soul hit For Your Precious Love) is surely one of the most spine-tingling, cathartic moments in the whole of popular music.
Like the whole album, it represents a moment in time when, soul, with its fusion of black and white, represented a new hope, a new religion. Its power endures.