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High art from Stax/Volt

Dreams to Remember: The Otis Redding Anthology
Dreams to Remember: The Otis Redding Anthology
By Otis Redding

Rhino / Atlantic Records: 1998

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Time Is Tight
Time Is Tight
By Booker T. and the MGs

Fantasy Records: 1998

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These reviews first appeared in the November 7, 1998 edition of the American Reporter.

More than anything, it was the groove. A couple bars and you knew who it was. The soulful organ, a few well-placed guitar licks. And, if you were lucky, the greatest soul singer who ever lived.

That was what defined the Stax sound – Booker T. and the MGs backing Otis Redding. Or solo. And the songs that came out of Stax helped define the '60s: "Green Onions," "(Sittin' On) The Dock of The Bay," "Respect," "Hip Hug-Her." Most of it in the six-year period 1962-67.

Stax was a label – a less slick, earthier Motown that, along with sister label Volt, pretty much epitomized the hip side of soul in the late '60s. Or at least until Redding's death in a 1967 airplane crash.

Booker T. and the MGs began life as the studio band at Stax. Booker T. Jones on organ and Steve Cropper on guitar, later joined by Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass and Al Jackson on drums. Influenced everyone who came on the soul scene after them. Still around with Cropper and Dunn playing themselves in the Blues Brothers Band.

Otis Redding was simply the greatest soul singer of all time, an artist who, if he hadn't died at age 26, would have been bigger than all of the giants: Sam Cooke and Ray Charles and James Brown. Sang heartache better than anyone this side of Sinatra – Sinatra had the unfair advantage of living longer and so having more experience at having his guts ripped out. Had he lived, Redding would have been The Chairman's equal.

Two new box sets bring out all the music and glory of those times. "Dreams to Remember" from Rhino is a two-disc anthology of Redding's career; "Time Is Tight" is Fantasy's three-CD compilation of Booker T. and the MGs. Both are four-star treats of music, photos and essays.

Bill Dahl, the longtime critic and contributing editor for Living Blues magazine, provides a literary, evocative bio of Redding for the 50-page booklet of "Dreams", while fairly complete recording info is provided in the sleeve of each disc. All of the big hits are here, some in several versions (original studio hit and live at Monterey): "Mr. Pitiful," "My Girl," "Try a Little Tenderness," "Glory of Love," "Ole Man Trouble," "These Arms of Mine."

All in all, it's a worthy tribute to one of the greatest vocalists to grace our national stage.

The Booker T. and the MGs collection takes advantage of a vertical package to provide larger (and more) photographs than the Otis set. The 48-page booklet has comprehensive recording session info and a history of the band by Rob Bowman.

While the band was, as already pointed out, the house band for many (if not most) of the hits to come from Stax/Volt, this collection focuses on the material they put out under their own name. Outside of the Ventures, no other band in the rock era has had so many instrumental hits, nor such a knack for covering other bands' hits and still making them immediately, distinctively their own. What other (self-respecting) band in the '60s would have done an entire album of Beatles covers? Or made it work so well by both putting their own imprint on each song yet staying true to the original?

What's most surprising – and perhaps it shouldn't be – is how well the music on both collections holds up. Neither comes off as period music or "oldies." Rather, like great music from any era – Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis to Little Feat – Otis Redding and Booker T. and the MGs produced classic, timeless performances.

They made art.