In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
This year, a lot of musical artists turn 81 years old. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Aaron Neville, Paul Simon, David Crosby–the list goes on. But it’s one shorter than it should be. Otis Redding would be 81 today if he hadn’t died in a plane crash almost 55 years ago. Thinking of how much potential we never got to see fulfilled is a fool’s errand, so let’s focus on what Redding did give us in his 26 years and change.
Redding brought a voice full of emotion, an electric stage presence, and sheer drive to the sweet soul music of the ’60s. His work ethic got him to the top; his talent kept him there, long after he passed away. He’s one of those singers who’s always ripe for discovery; for an encouraging look at our future, search “first time hearing Otis Redding” on YouTube to find the next generation doing just that.
Nobody covers an Otis Redding song to make the listener forget Otis Redding (welllll, maybe Aretha); the list of his covers shows people out to show their love. There’s lots of love in the following five covers, and all of them find different ways to ssssssock it to you.
Grateful Dead – Hard to Handle (Otis Redding cover)
In Bill Graham Presents, Graham said that when Otis Redding played three nights at the Fillmore in December 1966, Janis Joplin was waiting in front of the building at three in the afternoon on opening day. “Every artist in the city asked to open for Otis,” Graham said. “The first night, it was the Grateful Dead.” The Dead were big fans–Pigpen sang “Pain in My Heart” at the Fillmore a month before–and now they got to see him up close. “I was pretty sure that I’d seen God onstage,” said Bob Weir, and in Jerry Garcia’s words, “he tore the place apart.”
The band went on to pick up on the posthumous release “Hard to Handle,” covering it 90 or so times before Pigpen’s death. Their August 6, 1971 performance is one of the two or three best. It starts off slow but builds to a great Garcia solo and the crowd helps push the band to another level. (For more on the 89-odd other versions, click here.)
Ike & Tina Turner – I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (Otis Redding cover)
This is the kind of video that leads you to ask, Should I be watching this? If Tina Turner treating her microphone like it’s not a symbol but the real McCoy doesn’t make you squirm, Ike Turner being as lewd and lascivious as he wants to be surely will. Word is that Tina hated singing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”; I imagine she got through it by making it the tribute to Otis Redding that it is, not the tribute to Ike that it wasn’t.
ZZ Top – Tramp (Otis Redding & Carla Thomas cover)
“You’re country.” Carla Thomas spits the words as if she’s swearing. “S’alright,” a laconic Redding responds. She tries again: “You straight from the Georgia woods!” And Otis says, “That’s goo-ud.” ZZ Top aren’t from the Georgia woods–they’re from that Texas town, with occasional visits to that home out on the range, and they’re just as proud of it. If you stopped listening to the band shortly after “Sleeping Bag,” you missed out on a batch of good songs, their thick, chunky “Tramp” among them.
Karen Dalton – I Love You More Than Words Can Say (Otis Redding cover)
Karen Dalton got tired of people comparing her voice to Billie Holiday’s on a constant basis. But the resemblance is inescapable, and the way she uses it is equally worthy of a spot next to Lady Day. “I Love You More Than Words Can Say” may not be a song one would expect from a New York City folkie, but Dalton is more than up to the task, bringing her pain and confusion home with plenty of her own brand of soul.
Al Jarreau – [Sittin’ on] The Dock of the Bay (Otis Redding cover)
“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” is Redding’s only record to get to number one on the Billboard charts, and it’s far and away his most covered. It doesn’t seem right to call Al Jarreau’s version a cover; rather, it’s an impression. Jarreau is watching a different tide roll away from a different dock, and by evoking Redding rather than copying him, he has a song that pays tribute and goes its own way at the same time.