Saturday, March 2, 2019

Sublime trouble

I don't know that anyone needs to add to the words already written about the sounds produced in the Stax Studio, but then I hear a song like "Ole Man Trouble." The lead track on Otis Redding's Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul album was cut in Memphis, Tennessee on July 27, 1965 with old hands Booker T. Jones on organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass, and Al Jackson on drums; Wayne Jackson and Gene "Bowlegs" Miller added trumpet, Andrew Love and Floyd Newman tenor and baritone saxes respectively, and Isaac Hayes piano. That supremely gifted group of musicians play with characteristic restraint and raw elegance, on top of which Redding sings a simple, needful, and dimensional blues-based melody, from the bottom looking up.

These are just words. How can prose translate, approximate even, the elemental beauty and agony of this song? What astounds me today, as it does so often, is Cropper's playing. In Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, Robert Gordon observed that Cropper, in order to write with Redding, bought himself a second Telecaster, “a good used one, because Otis always tuned to a chord, open tuning." He's quoting Cropper now. "Otis was a one-fingered guitar player, so in his songs, there are almost no minor chords—because he didn’t know how to make that form. For things like ‘Try a Little Tenderness,’ I played in standard tuning; for things like ‘Ole Man Trouble,’ the intro was all done with a chord on the second Tele." Characteristically, Cropper plays rhythm and lead, the desperate body and the voice it speaks with. Those muscular, dirty riffs Croppers plays in response to Redding's pleas at the end of each line are pretty nasty-sounding for Stax; they sound like hungover agita, and yet they're menacing and prideful, too, completely and intimidatingly bad ass. When the horns return at the end of the first verse, they're heralding, uplifting, but sound a little wary of the guitar, too—at least they're wise enough to give Cropper a wide berth, let him sort himself out.

Blues, soul, R&B: screw taxonomy. The story's old as dirt, and it sounds somehow as if the recording is, too. Like so much of the music produced during Stax's peak years, the performance feels like it's about to burst out of its own blues and misery—even the elegantly modest Jackson hits an excitable drum roll at the end of the second verse, out of what, impatience? Bravado? Desperation? I'm not sure, even the many times I've listened, except that it sounds inevitable and necessary. "Ole Man Trouble" was "one of the few ballads Otis sang that was not in triplet time, unfolding instead in a steely 4/4 meter set by Steve Cropper's mesmerizing rhythm guitar," Jonathan Gould writes in Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life. "Cropper and Redding would wind up sharing the writing credits on nearly a dozen songs, but it's hard to say why 'Ole Man Trouble' wasn't considered one of them, so thoroughly does Cropper's playing determine the character of the track." Gould too marvels at Cropper's "thickly voiced chords, sliding sixths, muted clicks, and driving bass-note runs," and Dave Rubin, in R&B Guitar Method, writes of Cropper's "telepathic backup"—I love that phrase—and that his playing's a "first-rate example of chords, bass lines, double stops, and triple stops combined to create a full accompaniment."

Again, these are just words, abstractions that attempt to voice what's beyond language: as with the greatest music produced by the Stax players the sound is vital, and of-the-era, post-electric blues and righteously soulful, lovingly assembled and as loose as the weather, and feels as old as the Bible.

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