Read the review at Pitchfork.
“We’re hoping that this be one of the greatest albums that ever come out.”
Otis Redding says these words just before launching into “Respect” on April 8, 1966, wrapping up the first of seven sets he’d play over the course of three days at Los Angeles’ Whisky A Go Go. A few songs earlier, he first informed the crowd that they were recording the concert with plans of releasing it as an album, playing the newly-written “Good to Me” for the second time in nine songs simply because it was the single and they needed to get it right. For his ’66 stint at the Whisky A Go Go, he was backed by his road band, the Otis Redding Revue—a ten-piece group similar to the bands who supported him whenever he toured the south. This is the residency that is captured in its entirety on Stax’s six-disc box Live at the Whisky A Go Go: the Complete Recordings.
Redding’s residency was a deliberate attempt on the part of the singer and his management to move him out of the Chitlin Circuit and into the mainstream. The idea wasn’t to have Otis record pop music, but rather bring his act straight to the rock audience. So they set up shop right on the Sunset Strip, home to such hip rock‘n’rollers as the Byrds, Love, the Turtles and the Doors, figuring there was no better place to introduce Redding to a white audience.
Otis managed that crossover but not at the Whisky. It happened later at the Monterey International Pop Festival in ’67—backed then by Stax/Volt house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s—because he benefitted from the festival setting. In the open air, excitement spreads like fire. Indoors there is a different dynamic, particularly if it’s a crowd confronted with something they’ve never seen before, which was certainly the case of the Los Angelinos that headed to the Whisky to see Otis Redding that April weekend in 1966.
Once Otis hit the stage on April 8, the applause was polite but not enthusiastic. He had to work to win that crowd, which he does by the end of the set, by which point they’re cheering “Respect.” At that point, Redding wasn’t unknown, particularly in R&B quarters—he had three Billboard R&B Top 10s, with a fourth soon to follow—but such gutbucket soul shows simply weren’t played in mainstream rock venues like the Whisky A Go Go.
That alone made the three nights at the Whisky a step forward from Redding, who was hungry to become a star on his own terms. But the concerts alone weren’t the main thing: These shows were designed to be the primary source for an album, one that could capture the raw power of Redding on wax and hopefully bring in a wider audience. Throughout the seven full sets captured on Live at the Whisky A Go Go: the Complete Recordings—a box that doubles Stax’s 2010 set Live on the Sunset Strip, which contains about half of the sets from that April ’66 stint—Redding reminds the audience they’re cutting a record and, in a way, the sets are structured as recording sessions. Over the course of the seven shows, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is played no fewer than ten times, a sure sign that Redding wanted to be sure he nailed this song for the album. A few other songs appear nearly that often (“I Can’t Turn You Loose,” “Good to Me”) but he also made sure to play almost every song he and his Revue knew, throwing in covers of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” along the way—anything that could snag new listeners.
Once Volt/Atco heard the tapes, they decided the performances were too raw to release. Not only was fidelity poor, but the band sometimes seemed ragged, veering out of tune and maybe not locking in on a groove. Stax/Volt founder Jim Stewart decided to shelve the record for reason, bringing out a version of it ’68 called In Person at the Whisky A Go Go only after Otis had died and the market demanded more Otis. The Whisky A Go Go tapes served that very purpose over the years, popping up on vinyl in 1982 as Recorded Liveand almost a decade later on CD as Good to Me: Live at the Whisky A Go Go, Vol. 2, with some tracks popping up as bonus tracks on a 2008 deluxe edition of 1965’s Otis Blue. The double-disc Live on the Sunset Strip seeming like the last word in 2010.
Live at the Whisky A Go Go: the Complete Recordings, however, trumps them all. It simultaneously emphasizes the consistency of Redding and his Revue along with their quirks. Listening to the sets back to back, it’s hard to hear where the band allegedly strays off path: Whatever flaws that may exist in a given track tend to melt away in the context of a full set. There’s an electricity to the performances even when they bring the tempo down for the slow-burners, and a great thing about this box is that there’s plenty of space for the band to play.
On the 1968 LP, the longest number topped out just over five minutes but here performances routinely clock in between six and eight minutes, giving the band room to vamp while Otis works the crowd. It’s not only invigorating, but it suggests how Redding’s southern soul was tied to James Brown’s nascent funk. Listen to how he closes out Saturday’s first set with a marathon eight-minute “Satisfaction” then picks up the next set with the same song, stretching this version out to nine minutes via interlocking horn solos—it’s nearly 17 minutes of white-hot down-home vamping that is earthier than Brown and the J.B.’s but undoubtedly comes from the same source.
Nevertheless, the greatest thing Live at the Whisky A Go Go: the Complete Recordings offers is so much vital live soul from an era where the sound was in its prime but was rarely recorded. Perhaps Booker T & the M.G.’s were a tighter outfit than the Otis Redding Revue, but the rawness heard on Live at the Whisky A Go Go: the Complete Recordings has its own singular virtues, particularly because so little of these southern soul acts were recorded in the ’60s. That alone would make this a worthy historical document but, better still, it remains exceptional because it captured a moment when a premiere showman worked his hardest to win over new fans. Decades later, these 1966 concerts at the Whisky A Go Go still possess the power to convert skeptics so seems that Otis Redding did indeed get his wish: He made one of the greatest albums that ever came out.