Sunday, November 1, 2009

Redding and Cooke

I'm not a tremendous fan of either Otis Redding or Sam Cooke.

Otis Redding is best known for his posthumous single "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay". Since the song is about my town I feel some connection to it, and its popularity bespeaks to some extent the emotional connection many feel when listening to it.

Redding's best album, essentially universally acknowledged, is 'Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul'. This album is very good, but has always bugged me. See, out of 11 tracks Redding wrote: 2 and a half. That's a bit of a discrepancy. Most of his songs were covers of tracks by the likes of BB King, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson, or Sam Cooke.

Cooke appears three times on the album, more than anyone else. Redding was a huge fan of Cooke's and covered some of his best-known songs on the album: "Shake", "Wonderful World", and Cooke's masterpiece, "A Change Is Gonna Come".

Then again, everyone used to cover, and the number of folks who covered the latter is quite high. So I shrugged it off.

Besides, Redding was known for his gravelly voice and pleading style while Cooke had a voice with a smoothness far surpassing silk. In that regard I figured Redding's covers were fine: his vocal talents are so different from Cooke's that it is almost like listening to a unique song.

But they weren't actually that different.

For the past few weeks I've been listening to "Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963". For a live album the energy is pretty good, but not comparable to Brown's live album the year before. The performance is in Miami. As the liner notes say, and I must wholeheartedly agree, "It's a different Sam Cooke." Sam is feeling the deep soul. And his voice?

Pleading and gravelly.

I was stunned. He was out-Redding Redding. Why?

The simple truth was stark and unavoidable: Redding knew Cooke personally, and must have seen and heard him live. Cooke wasn't imitating Redding, Redding was imitating Cooke; so much so that he even copied Cooke's voice. It just wasn't the voice most listeners knew.

Most who listen to Cooke know his studio cuts, but this live performance, while not amazing, is very telling. It reveals a new angle to the performer and helps clarify the sound distinction between the legend and his protege, Otis Redding. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In that case Redding was the greatest flatterer of all.

I still listen to "Otis Blue", after all it is still a good album, but you can be sure that "The Harlem Square Club" has left me reevaluating just how 'great' an artist Otis was.

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