Everybody knows, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “These Arms of Mine,” and “Try a Little Tenderness,” but if you can’t name more than two songs outside of those three, then you really need to do a deep dive into the Otis Redding discography. If you do, you’ll find some real incredible gems that are, frankly, transcendent of oldies radio shows. They’re deeper, rawer, and simply more powerful than most of the bubble gum jams on those stations. Don’t get me wrong, I love those stations, but when it comes to Otis, he strips everything down into its essence. What you get is an unfettered, rich, textured look into life, whether or not you’re ready for it.

The following 10 will probably be highlights on your journey through his music:

While you’re at it, listen to the tracks on Spotify while you read about them:

1 – Nobody’s Fault But Mine

  • Year: 1967
  • Written by: Otis Redding
  • Album: The Immortal Otis Redding
  • Label: Atco Records

I first went to hear this song because I thought it was somehow related to the same lyrical tree as Led Zeppelin’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Zep’s song is a derivative / adaptation of the Blind Willie Johnson classic, It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine.

Otis’ version isn’t from that tree. His version is only similar in title, and that ends up actually a good thing. What you get from his version is a great Memphis soul dance step with a surprising rock twinge of sounds, very similar to the Muscle Shoals-like funk sound. It’s my favorite type of funk-soul sound.

2 – Hard to Handle

  • Year: 1968
  • Written by: Otis Redding, Al Bell, and Allen Jones
  • Album: The Immortal Otis Redding
  • Label: Atco Records

This is one of two I hemmed and hawed on because although the song isn’t on the most basic greatest hits albums, it’s still very popular today because of the surprising number of people who have covered the song. From The Black Crowes to The Grateful Dead to Etta James, it seems like everyone had more success with the song than did Redding.

Not like it was Redding’s fault. The song was released posthumously.

3 – Cigarettes and Coffee

  • Year: 1966
  • Written by: Jerry Butler, Eddie Thomas, and Jay Walker
  • Album: The Soul Album
  • Label: Atco

I’d question whether or not a person has really lived if they don’t think they know this experience firsthand. Not that you have to be a smoker and / or a coffee drinker, but there’s something about winding down in the twilight, when the world is mostly quiet, leaving their ideas for us to labyrinth.

It’s not the cookie-cutter song. It’s poetry.

As Johnny Cash once said when he asked what he thought Heaven was:

“This morning, with her, having coffee.” source: vanityfair.com

4 – Champagne and Wine

  • Year: 1968
  • Written by: Otis Redding, Roy Johnson, Allan Walden
  • Album: The Immortal Otis Redding
  • Label: Atco

I knew Etta James’ version. I always loved it. Imagine my surprise when I found out who really wrote it: Otis Redding and company.

It took me a couple times to get Etta’s voice out of my head in order to properly listen to this version, but once I did, I quickly considered it part of my essential Otis Redding collection. Another posthumous jam.

5 – Direct Me (alternative version)

  • Year: 1969 (June)
  • Written by: Steve Cropper and Otis Redding
  • Album: Love Man
  • Label: Atco

I was at the gym doing light weights when I was going through the last of my list of previously never-heard Otis Redding albums when I heard following line in this song:

Ten thousand dollar reward for the first the one that finds her.
When I get my hands on her, y’all, I’m gonna just chain and bound her.

I about spit my gum at the stroke victim on the horizontal press machine across from me.

There’s no way in Hell I’d ever get away with such lyrics. I don’t know who could and yet maintain a squeaky-clean image. Talk about different times.

See these rare Otis Redding songs in action on YouTube:

[Remember, several of these songs were released posthumously so you won’t see animation. But there are are a few in this.]

6 – I Can’t Turn You Loose [Live on The Sunset Strip]

  • Year: 1966 (released in 2010)
  • Written by: Otis Redding
  • Album: Live on the Sunset Strip
  • Label: Atco

There are several live versions of this song. Hell, you can get several of them on this album. These are by far my favorite cuts of them. Especially when you get to the line:

Hip shaking mama, I told ya, I’m in love with only you.

When he sings it, the drummer thumps the bass drum four times. When the drummer thumps the bass drum four times, the song builds up an incredible sensuous static charge that just jolts the listener into thinkin’ evil. Pure, wonderful evil.

7 – Day Tripper [Live on The Sunset Strip]

  • Year: 1966 (1965: studio)
  • Written by: Lennon & McCartney
  • Album: Live on The Sunset Strip
  • Label: Atco

I really don’t know which I like more: Otis’ originals or Otis’ covers. He makes all his songs so infectious, so energetic, and so powerful that all one can do is tip their cap and thank him. Just thank him for his efforts. But when it comes to his covers, there’s already a baseline of excellence before you hear his take on them.

Then you hear his take on them and nothing is the same.

Here’s a tip: when you’re listening, if you squint really, really, hard between your heels, you can see where the previous standard sliced its way through the ground beneath your feet.

There hasn’t been an Otis Redding cover I heard that didn’t spoil the original for me. He just takes every song to a higher place. Not even the Beatles had a chance once Otis got ahold of Day Tripper.

I picked this one over his cover of “Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No)” because, to me, it’s the slightly lesser-known of the two. It’s still incredible, especially the way he ad-libs lyrics at the end and the band just goes off. I never heard The Beatles do that with the song.

8 – I’m Sick Y’all

  • Year: 1966
  • Written by: Steve Cropper, David Porter, Otis Redding
  • Album: Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul
  • Label: Volt

This was another one I first heard at the gym. The moment I heard the groove, I immediately added it to my Favs playlist. It got me to swerve my head and think a little evil.

I think it’s the guitar riff that offsets the otherwise mundane horn intro that gets slightly distorted by the recording that really helps cut the edge of the song, allowing for the groove to take over.

9 – Respect

  • Year: 1965
  • Written by: Otis Redding
  • Album: Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul
  • Label: Volt (Atco)

This was the other one I seriously hemmed and hawed on using. It’s almost too-trendy for it to be one of the rare cuts, but given that Aretha Franklin’s version is the one that dominates the airwaves, we thought we’d give this one a little homage. If you haven’t heard this version, make it a point to listen to it (there’s a playlist above).

Reverting the gender roles in Redding’s rendition completely takes the empowerment out of the song. It really shows classic southern / Bible belt cultural norms. Not to eisegesis too much, but listening to it makes one wonder if Redding knew how to be vulnerable off stage. Either way, it’s powerful storytelling. A riveting, unabated interpretation of the story.

10 –Something Is Worrying Me

  • Year: 1964 (January 1st)
  • Written by: Otis Redding, Phil Walden
  • Album: Pain in My Heart
  • Label: Atco

Like most musical journeys, I started from the beginning of Otis Redding’s discography. The first album, Pain in My Heart, is a good album. The only thing is that you have to be in a mellow mood. I was starting to get a little antsy until Something is Worrying Me came on. It’s the 9th track on the album. When it kicked in, I felt myself enjoying a little bit of that soulful funk that I’ve come to expect from Otis’s jams.

Something Is Worrying Me was the first song that stood out to me during my deep dive. It made me realize there were going to be more gems to find other than the ones on the greatest hits compilations. It also made me realize that I was going to see a true evolution in Redding’s songwriting.

Nothing like ending the list with the first song I found.

Honorable Mentions

  • Satisfaction [I Can’t Get No]: Because The Bealtes always beat The ‘Stones.
  • Knock On Wood: They turned this cover into a duet with Carla Thomas. I don’t really like any version of this cheesy innuendo song, but he made it palatable.
  • Happy Song [Dum-Dum]: Otis made two great songs with filler notes in the chorus: “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” on Sad Song and “dum, dum, deedle dee, dum dum” on Happy Song. And, the crazy part: he made it work.

How did I do? What would you have included?

photo credit: Piano Piano! on Flickr via Google Creative Commons image search

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