Otis Redding: Lonely & Blue
These are not songs for daylight.
Don’t misunderstand me: the answer to “Should I be listening to Otis Redding right now?” is always yes. But the tracks on Lonely & Blue are not the Redding songs you’re going to turn to while the sun is still out.
No, these are the tunes for the end of the night, the ones that pop and hiss on your turntable as you pour yourself one last drink, sit on the foot of your bed, kick off your shoes and wince a little as you rub where they had been digging into your heels. They’re the ones that come pleading through the speakers before last call at a smoky bar, when the evening’s revelry is winding down and you can no longer tell if the couples on the dancefloor are swaying in sweet embraces or simply propping each other up.
Described in press materials as “the best album Otis never made,” Lonely & Blue is a compilation of the soul legend’s best ballads, lovingly put together and sequenced by producer David Gorman—who also designed the record’s artwork, complete with 1960s-style typeface to make it look like something you’d find collecting dust in your parents’ basement, and penned its liner notes in the present tense as a fictional DJ. It’s clear Gorman loves Redding as much as the rest of us, and instead of feeling like it’s coming from a studio executive in a bad suit with dollar signs in his eyes, Lonely & Blue feels like a mix CD from a friend, that Otis obsessive you know who really wants to make sure you get the deep cuts—so much so that he’s hand-labeled it and annotated each track for you.
The record begins with an entreaty: “Please, let me sit down beside you,” he implores on “I Love You More Than Words Can Say.” “I’ve got something to tell you you should know.” Anyone who’s seen a romantic comedy can predict the big declaration that’s coming—only nothing’s funny here. Otis is serious as a heart attack, saying his piece as only he can, with the kind of emotional vocal straining that makes you stop and catch your breath even though you’re just a spectator.
“Gone Again” and “Free Me” continue the mood, with Redding telling a former lover he’s been “a river with no place to flow” since she left on the former and some gorgeously mournful organ backing him as he begs to be cut loose on the latter, before “Open the Door” switches gears ever so slightly. Here, Otis takes charge—demanding rather than pleading—as he knocks on his girl’s door (illustrated surprisingly subtly by drumsticks rapping against a snare) to confront her about running around on him. He’s angry and urgent, sure, but there’s something about the way he hits the word “ease” during the chorus—“let me in, let me in, let me eaaaaassssse on in”—that would indicate he’s not just talking about being let into her apartment. It’s a song about a fight, but it sounds like the soundtrack to the makeup sex.
The two most recognizable hits on the record—“These Arms of Mine” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)”—serve as its centerpiece, a sort of delayed one-two punch to carry us from side A to side B. While their inclusion is obvious, it’s also warranted. Lonely & Blue is supposed to be a portrait of a legend perched smack dab in the middle of his wheelhouse, doing what he does best, and these two songs remain among his all-time greatest performances. There’s a reason the horn swells on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” still give you chills decades later, or why anyone who’s seen Dirty Dancing (or Roadhouse for that matter—the Swayze-Redding connection runs deep) knows that when you put “These Arms of Mine” on late at night with a girl in the room, you mean business. And that reason is the same reason these songs are the heart of this compilation.
Most of the songs remain in their original glory, but the one “rarity” on Lonely & Blue is an alternate take on “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” that features some darker lyrics, of course—if we can make Otis Redding sound any more melancholy here, why not? It works, and then it steps aside and allows “Send Me Some Lovin’” and “My Lover’s Prayer” to bring it on home.
Lonely & Blue is aptly titled, but don’t be fooled by the cold connotations of its name; if anything, these songs burn, like a blue flame—the hottest kind—or like the spot of skin where the one you’re pining over brushes your arm and their touch lingers, or the heat that rushes to your face as you try to play it cool.
Is it a sad record? Sure—it’s doubly sad when you think of how many more incredible songs there could’ve been had Redding not been cut down in his prime. But ultimately, passion is the key word here. There isn’t a single track on Lonely & Blue where he’s not absolutely yearning—and while that’s miserable and affecting, there’s something comforting to it as well. Pop it on after the sun goes down and take solace in knowing you’re not the only one who’s burning up.