Otis Redding’s soul-infused pop classic “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay” topped the US charts 50 years ago. The song was recorded only days before the tragic plane crash that claimed Redding’s life at age 26. Had he lived, “Dock of the Bay” might have launched Redding’s dominance of the vibrant pop music scene of the 1960s. It had long been Redding’s goal to successfully crossover from the R&B/soul audience into the mainstream pop realm. Though Redding didn’t live long enough to savor his position at the top of the mountain, Stax Records’ stunning 6-CD box set Live at the Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings allows us to hear, over half a century later, the historic beginning of his uphill climb.
The set contains every show that Redding and his 9-piece band played at the famed Sunset Strip venue over the weekend of Apr. 8 thru Apr. 10 of 1966: two shows each on Friday and Sunday, and three on Saturday. Having conquered the R&B/soul scene with his incendiary live shows and multiple hits with Stax Records, it was a strategic move for Redding to appear at a venue normally reserved for pop/rock acts like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. But Redding and the band sound unconcerned with career strategies here. From the first downbeat on Friday night they hit it good and hard, bringing three nights of raw, uncut, unfiltered soul to the Sunset Strip.
Selected Redding/Whisky tracks have produced live albums in the past (1968’s In Person at the Whisky a Go Go and 1993’s Good to Me: Live at the Whisky a Go Go, Vol. 2). But listening to these six new discs chronologically is a revelation: you can hear and feel Redding and the band working their asses off that weekend, doing whatever it takes to win over the 250-capacity room. They change up the setlist from show to show, and no two sets are alike. You might not think you need to hear seven different performances of “I Can’t Turn You Loose” until you witness the song’s evolution: it’s a tight opener to the first set on Friday, but by Saturday night it’s closing the second set as a 6-minute workout featuring a post-Coltrane tenor sax solo. No two audiences are alike either, but Redding and the band are ready for them, whether they are lukewarm (possibly stunned by what they’re witnessing) or hooting and hollering. It’s a master class in soul and professionalism, from a time when artists couldn’t leverage social media to shape their public image; they had to get up and do the work, and Redding works the Whisky like a man on a mission.
Sonically these recordings are better than ever, with thick rich bass and cracking snares and Redding’s voice cutting through with grit and clarity; you can practically hear him sweat. And LA-based writer Lynell George won a well-deserved Grammy earlier this year for her liner notes, which comprehensively detail this seismic event in American music history. If six CDs feels like too much to digest, Stax has also compiled highlights from that weekend in ’66 into a 2-LP edition of Otis Redding Live at the Whisky a Go Go. But honestly, you can’t go wrong with either collection; besides its deep historical significance, it’s a set that just explodes with prime soul music from a master at the peak of his powers. Fourteen months later, Redding would steal the show at the Monterey Pop festival, and six months beyond that he would leave this earth and pass into “legendary” status. Live at the Whisky a Go Go: The Complete Recordings is red-hot and is a worthwhile investment for any serious music lover.
Photo Credit: This public domain image is courtesy of Stax Records.