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Otis Redding: Try A Little Tenderness – and a lot of soul

Updated: May 5, 2020

Phil Shaw

Otis Redding died 50 years ago on December 10. Blessed with an achingly soulful, high-voltage voice and force-of-nature stage presence, he was also a songwriter of distinction.

Otis covered cutting-edge songwriters, tearing up Day Tripper, by Lennon and McCartney, and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, by Jagger and Richards. He gorgeously reworked Smokey Robinson and Ronald White’s My Girl and poured his heart into A Change Is Gonna Come by his idol Sam Cooke.

How curious, then, that what is arguably his signature song was a seemingly dated, cornball confection from the inter-war years. Try A Little Tenderness was co-penned by the duo responsible for the wartime favourite Show Me the Way To Go Home and first recorded by a long-forgotten crooner marketed in the US as ‘the British Bing Crosby’.

Songwriters Jimmy Campbell, from Tyneside, and Reg Connelly, from Essex, collaborated on it with Harry Woods, an American whose credits included When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along. Val Rosing (a man, first name Valerian) was the original vocalist in 1932, with the Ray Noble Orchestra. Bing Crosby soon helped its popularity burgeon.

In the Sixties, Aretha Franklin released what was, by her standards, a middle-of-the-road throwaway, while Sam Cooke included it in a live medley. Otis was reputedly reluctant to record it when the idea was mooted by his label, Stax. He would be following Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, The Platters and Little Miss Cornshucks; the sound of old America, to paraphrase Motown’s marketing slogan. It wasn’t an obvious choice for a man billed as the King of Soul.

He infused every song with his rich vocal style, universal and intimate, tough and tender. When he did record this track, in 1966, it was as if he was an older, experienced man advising a young naïf, rather than a 25-year-old who had married his teenage sweetheart at 19.

Otis’s ‘down-home intensity’, as Craig Werner hailed his treatment in the excellent book A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race And The Soul Of America, transformed it from a Tin Pan Alley curio into a southern soul classic. It became the definitive version, no mean feat given that Sinatra’s smoky-ballad styling had been a staple of his repertoire since 1945.

By modern-day standards, the lyric might be construed as questionable, almost sinister. Is ‘tenderness’ merely part of an armoury of tactics you ‘try’, as a ploy, perhaps, when other overtures or wiles aren’t working?

The sensitivity of Otis’s rendition on Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul banished any such doubts. When he sang the opening lines – ‘Oh, she may be weary/ And young girls they do get wearied/ Wearing that same old shaggy dress’ – the tone suggested sympathy and empathy towards the girl/woman.

He reserved his best versions for live shows. (Not that I ever saw him, being a schoolboy who was aware of Otis because an older brother had Dictionary Of Soul, but whose record collection largely comprised singles by the Small Faces, Who, Kinks, Move and others I’m less keen to admit to.) Some have been captured on posthumous albums, such as Live In London And Paris.

The most compelling came at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967; the so-called Summer of Love. This gathering of the hippie nation at Big Sur, California was a mainly white affair. ‘Summer time,’ sang Scott McKenzie, ‘will be a love-in there.’ A slew of San Francisco bands played, as did The Who. All were eclipsed by the largely unknown Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Black music otherwise had a minimal presence, with only Lou Rawls and Otis carrying the flag. Macon, Georgia’s finest (with apologies to Little Richard) and his band for the occasion, Booker T and the MGs with the Memphis Horns, were Saturday-night headliners.

Their constituency was more Harlem than Haight-Ashbury; theatres and clubs. The Monterey County Fairgrounds was a big open space and the crowd was estimated at 40,000. How would their ‘below-the-Bible-belt-sound’, as guitarist Steve Cropper called it, fare with the new psychedelic-rock audience?

A stage previously awash with kaftans, headbands and flowers was now a mini mohair-fest. Otis wore a tight-fitting blue suit and the musicians were resplendent in chartreuse. Sam Cooke’s Shake kicked things off, followed by a storming Respect.

Decades later Booker T told the Guardian they felt ‘estranged from the counter-culture… the question that night was “would they accept us?” And they did’. Otis was confident enough to ask the throng: ‘This is the love crowd, right?’ ‘Yeah!’ they roared. ‘We all love each other, don’t we?’ Another ‘Yeah!’ I’ve Been Loving You Too Long came next, the pace picking up again on Satisfaction.

Then Wayne Jackson’s trumpet and Andrew Love’s sax combined for a mournful, hymn-like introduction to the 35-year-old Try A Little Tenderness. Possibly trying too hard to please the love crowd, Otis changed the lyric to ‘wearing that same old mini-skirt dress’. If hindsight makes it sound a mis-step, it was the only one. He and the band proceeded to build the intensity. Drummer Al Jackson Jr, having sat out the first verse, came in with a tick-tock rhythm on the snare before suddenly accelerating the beat.

The momentum generated – it was faster than the studio version – eventually led Otis into a flurry of gospel-inflected ad libs. ‘You got to hold her, squeeze her, never leave her, gotta, gotta, gotta… Sock it to me tenderness na na’. He was seemingly out of control yet somehow anchored within the structure laid down by Booker T, Duck Dunn, Jackson et al.

Otis left the stage, the song apparently finished. It was a false ending and he returned for further frenzied secular testifying. Finally, as the organisers fretted about the time they were licensed to play for, he told the beautiful people: ‘I gotta go, y’all. I don’t wanna go!’ The set comprised just five songs and lasted 17 minutes but was rapturously received.

It promised to be the first of many big shows, breaking Otis to a wider audience. Friends said he was exhilarated by the reception. He reportedly immersed himself in Beatles and Bob Dylan albums, a diversion which caused concern among some at Stax.

The Dock Of The Bay, co-written by Cropper and the fruit of a studio session half a half a century ago on December 7, signalled a subtle shift. But three days later, the plane carrying him and the Bar-Kays crashed into a lake in Wisconsin.

Otis, who had never had an American top 20 hit, reached No1 posthumously (and No3 in the UK). Try A Little Tenderness, a mere No25 (UK 46), deserved the same status.


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