Reviews: Pain in My Heart by Otis Redding

Otis Redding’s debut album is rarely considered his best. Most critics argue that he reached the peak of his powers a year or two later with Otis Blue, The Soul Album, or Dictionary of Soul. When compared to Redding originals like “Respect” or covers like “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the tracks on Pain In My Heart can seem a little tentative or expected; Redding’s influences haven’t quite gelled into his own perfected style. The album is good, everyone agrees. But it’s not yet great.

That’s not exactly wrong; later Otis albums are wonderful. But there’s an undeniable and unreplicable exuberance to Pain In My Heart as Redding and Booker T., and the MGs amble through early 60s rock and soul, learning on the fly where each apparently disparate piece is supposed to go.

The album’s song selection is simultaneously commercial—the band covers proven chart toppers—and strikingly courageous. Redding doesn’t have anywhere near the range or vocal control of Ben E. King or Sam Cooke, nor the mercurial elastic vocal pyrotechnics of Little Richard. But he’s not deterred.

“You Send Me” is slowed down from the already laid-back original, while Redding’s rougher voice turns Cooke’s innocent joy into something much more openly seductive. On “Stand By Me” Redding plays with the listeners knowledge of the hit and with his own vocal limitations, letting the band chug through the changes as his rough-and-ready voice pauses and shrugs and nods towards King’s soaring style in a more earthy, less certain counterpoint.

King is brazenly confident you’ll stand by him, but Redding can merely hope. “Darling, darling,” he calls, and then, where King blasted right into the chorus, he pauses and lets the MGs provide a horn fill before he goes on, like he’s nervous about getting to the declaration. Redding performs a similar magic on Little Richard’s “Lucille,” retooling it from a manic shout into an easy roll courtesy of some spectacular playing by the band.

Steve Cropper provides tough blues licks on guitar, Packy Axton throws on a righteous tenor sax solo halfway between gut-bucket and Ben Webster smooth, and the bassist Donald Dunn adds the kind of dexterously funky bottom that would haunt Paul McCartney’s dreams. “Louie Louie” is even more impressive, turning the grinding Kingsmen trash classic into an ode to hip horniness.

When Redding syncopates “I love every girl I see on the street,” you can see him strolling along with those women, making nonsense into flirtation. Even this early on, though, Redding’s own originals are the highlights. “Security” would become a barn burner of his live shows, but it’s treated with a surprising lightness here, Redding’s voice digging in hard only occasionally while the horns try to find a space for contemplation above the unsettling heavy of Al Jackson Jr’s drums. “That’s What My Heart Needs” is a wonderful Otis ballad. But “These Arms of Mine,” his first Stax single, is even better.

Redding starts off singing the first couple of words acappella before the hushed band comes in. It’s one of Redding’s purest vocals; there’s only a hint of his characteristic hoarseness around the edges, and he doesn’t do much of the soul shouting he perfected on later ballads. You could see the restraint as a sign that he hasn’t found his own voice yet, I suppose. But to me the delicacy feels both airy and tightly coiled.

Towards the end some of the later Otis starts to slip through and he reels it back in, like he’s trying not to scare his lover or his audience off. More than any of his other albums, Pain In My Heart shows Redding discovering that he could take anything—Cooke, the Kingsmen, even uncertainty—and make it into his own inimitable soul.

Leave a Comment