Try a Little Tenderness by Otis Redding
Written by Irving King and Harry M. Woods. Performed here by Otis Redding. You can listen to the Otis Redding studio version here and an electric live performance here and another live version from London here. You can buy the studio version from iTunes here.
A classic soul performance that starts out slow, even melancholy, and builds, Redding unwinding his voice a little more with each chorus, Booker T and the MGs providing the fuel, until we reach the furious R&B ending with Redding fully engulfed in the passion of the song. It makes for great music and great theater.
Otis Redding demonstrates the full force of his singing in this cover, taking an old big band ballad and recreating it, climbing into the song until he possessed its very spirit. “Try a Little Tenderness” first appeared in 1932 recorded by Ray Noble Orchestra with vocals by Val Rosing. Other crooners followed, including Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, not exactly the pedigree of a song that would be a hit in the 1966.
One version that caught Redding’s ear came from Sam Cooke, who sang it live, though never released a studio version. (You can hear a live version on Live at the Copa that he sings as part of a medley). The story goes that the executives at STAX records wanted Redding to cut his own version, but he resisted. Funny, how the record company prevails in these cases. So Redding entered the studio backed by Booker T & the MGs, the house band, with the sessions helmed by Isaac Hayes (a producer of many classics, you’ve heard his ”The Theme from Shaft” and maybe caught his character Chef on South Park).
There are claims that Redding said he’d record the song in such a way that STAX would never release it. Maybe these circumstances gave him some freedom, for what he laid down proved so electrifying, that it can still leave you trembling. Listen to the mournful horns that introduce the song, the sad voice telling of how “young girls they do get wearied/Wearing that same old shaggy dress.” Like a shaman working his magic, Redding’s voice conjures this Cinderella, let’s us feel how she’s longing for what she can never have:
You know shes waiting
The thing that she’ll never, never, never, never possess
The beat picks up, the percussion grows more prominent, the organ a little louder. We hear Dr. Redding’s prescription for lifting her up, for connecting, for loving this woman:
She has her grieves and care, yeah yeah yeah
But the soft words they are spoke so gentle, yeah
It makes it easier, easier to bear, yeah
Like a preacher consumed by the spirit, the love, the eroticism of which Redding sings begins to take hold, to possess him. The intense intimacy that opened the song starts to slip away. A frenzy begins to build, the lyrics hardly mattering, simply providing sounds to carry the emotions. It’s as if the man bursts into flames. The recording flames out with Redding reduced to raw emotion. Try a little tenderness.
Contemporaries of Redding recorded the song, Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin cut cover versions and Three Dog Night had a hit with it, but Redding so took possession that it can be hard to listen to other versions.
I have an odd and quirky personal connection to Ray Noble, who originally recorded this song and that connection offers a glimpse into building a stage name and a musical career. My wife’s uncle is a pianist, singer, songwriter and has perfumed at nightclubs lounges for many decades. He changed his name to Bud Noble many decades ago.
In the mid-80’s, Bud Noble was performing at an old New York club, Jimmy Weston’s. Excited by his taking the stage in the City, the whole extended family descended upon the act, including my father-in-law, who is Bud’s brother, the one not named Noble. Now stage names are not new, but my father-in-law learned much about Ray’s family ties. It turns out not only did Bud adopt a new name, but he adopted some new family as well. Bud Noble explained that he was actually related to Ray Noble and when Henny Youngman stopped in for a few minutes, Ray Noble introduced Henny as his uncle. The fact that his real brother sitting in the audience knew otherwise had no bearing on the evening.
It turns out that Bud took the name Noble and claimed the new heritage as a way of standing out in a crowd of performers. He keeps up the claim to this day. In fact, in 1996 he accepted the deceased Ray Noble’s induction into the songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
What does all this mean? I’m related by marriage to both Ray Noble and Henny Youngman.