Death came too soon for too many of the 1960s' musical talents, but there's a special tragedy to Otis Redding. When Redding's Beechcraft H18 airplane crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin on December 10, 1967, the singer and songwriter was only 26 years old; Redding died at a younger age than Jimi Hendrix, than Janis Joplin, than Brian Jones, than Jim Morrison. That fact becomes even more remarkable when we consider how prolific Redding was. He scored his first national hit, These Arms of Mine, in 1962, at the age of 21, and by the time of his death he had placed 20 more singles into the Billboard charts. In the two years after his passing he would place an additional 10.
All of them and more can be found on Shout! Factory's newly released Complete Stax / Volt Singles, a three-disc set that collects every Redding performance released on 45rpm by the legendary Memphis label where he spent almost the entirety of his career (Redding released two singles before arriving at Stax, Shout Bamalama and Gettin' Hip, neither of which charted). The Shout! box is by no means Redding's complete recordings–many a terrific album track go uncollected here–but, as with most musicians of his era, singles were the driving medium of Redding's career. The Complete Stax / Volt Singles is testament to an artistic journey that ended too soon but was nonetheless extraordinary for its scope, ambition, and consistent brilliance.
Like all of the greatest singers, Otis Redding was utterly unique. He lacked the technical virtuosity of his idol, Sam Cooke–another '60s musician whose death came much too early–but made up for it with flawless taste and musical intellect. Despite his well-earned reputation for incendiary live performances–most famously on display in his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, six months before his death–Redding was never the frenzied pyrotechnician of later "soul man" parodies. In fact, his greatest gift may have been his command of restraint and understatement. The best singers are also masters of silence: The moments that Ray Charles doesn't sing–when he's just about to sing, just finished singing, or taking a breath (especially when he's taking a breath)–can be as electrifying as any notes coming out of his mouth. Otis Redding understood and used this power as well as anyone. Critic Dave Marsh once wrote that Redding's performance of I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now) sounds "as though each line is coming to him only the instant before he sings it, quavering notes as if in the grip of an undeniably exquisite passion that must be consummated–now!" a description that itself dwells in pauses, anticipation, the thrill of ensuing discovery.