Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

How 'Try A Little Tenderness' Got Its Soul (And Lost It)

"Sounds so soulful, don't you agree?"

That's Jay-Z, breaking in to admire the long, pitched-down passage from "Try A Little Tenderness" that opens "Otis," the second official leak from Jay and Yeezy's Watch The Throne. The track on "Otis" alternates between interpolation and staccato bursts, as if torn between literalism (reverence?) and avoiding a lawsuit (its own kind of nostalgia). Since it's 2011, and Otis Redding's estate is well advised of its rights and powers, Redding is credited as a featured artist on the track, a featured role that almost makes it seem like "Otis" is the King of Soul's posthumous tribute to himself, "Unforgettable" minus the filial right, or attachment, to the seance. Except "Otis" isn't about Otis Redding at all, and the use of "Try A Little Tenderness"—a song that hardly begins and ends with Redding's 1966 studio recording—has come to represent "soul" in a way that nearly contradicts the spirit of Hov's ad-lib.

In its original form, "Try A Little Tenderness" was anything but "so soulful." Written by James Campbell, Reginald Connelly and Harry M. Woods, it was recorded in 1932 by Ray Noble and his Orchestra. Many great things happened during the Swing Era, but "Tenderness" was not one of them. Mawkish, stilted and perfectly forgettable, it comes off as a courting lesson on how to gain permission to put hand on knee and stare just a little too long. (Contrast this to what the song would become in Redding's hands, when, as a bolt of pure feeling, it would advise men to not only show they cared, but show that they could care.) Noble's Orchestra was also responsible for "Cherokee (Indian Love Song)," the ode to interracial love out on the prairie that Charlie Parker would use as the source material for 1945's blistering "Koko," a crucial text of bebop at its most brainy and nearly unhinged. It's awfully tempting to insert a comparison to sampling here, but if anything, "Otis" is moving in the wrong direction (Note: Kanye's subtle use of Redding's "It's Too Late" for "Gone" belongs in an entirely different conversation.)

As nice a story as it'd make, Otis Redding didn't transform "Try A Little Tenderness" from campy relic to anthem in a single stroke. The process was more gradual, maybe more compromised. Bing Crosby took a go at "Tenderness" in 1933, and in the process injected some humanity into it. No less paternalistic, his interpretation stressed the duties of manhood, the weakness of women, and how love was about being strong by pretending to be vulnerable. Maybe that's a little too much psychodrama to pull from a performance that, for all Crosby's sly phrasing and attempts at straight talk, is still relatively light fare. But it was enough for "Tenderness" to catch on as a minor standard, an especially useful one to have in the songbook for black entertainers looking to cross over in the '50s and early '60s and perform at “classy joints." Selling records to white kids was one thing; eons before anyone thought to let youth guide the industry, appealing to white adults was the real meal ticket.

Sam Cooke invented soul music, unless you believe Ray Charles did. Sam Cooke badly wanted to achieve total world domination, gunning for every imaginable market and insisting on self-determination when it came to publishing rights, ownership of masters and, eventually, the label itself. Whether he was conflicted, versatile or mercenary is beside the point. Sam Cooke was a businessman who refused to settle for just being an entertainer. "A Change Is Gonna Come," Cooke's deepest song, was recorded in 1963 and released in 1964. Its social protest allegory, inspired by Dylan-envy, proved once and for all that searing, liquid vocals could tap into something other than ecstasy, heartbreak or the urge to boogie. Yet in 1964, Cooke was also in front of the audience at the Copa, playing to his supper club audience with genteel fare like "Tenderness". He makes it hint at seduction, but make no mistake: Neither Sam Cooke nor Aretha Franklin (who recorded it in 1962) made the song their own. If anything, “Try A Little Tenderness” was part of a strategy to reach consumers who still clung to the song’s goofy pedigree.

The same year Aretha recorded "Tenderness," Stanley Kubrick used an especially airy orchestral version of the song for the opening credits of Dr. Strangelove. It was, above all else, silly, in that deathly way that so much of Dr. Strangelove is. On the most basic level, the atomic bomb-throwing planes as ticklish lovers was too good a gag to pass up. It helped that "Tenderness," at that point, was not only innocent, but foolish to boot.

Redding recorded "Try A Little Tenderness" because Sam Cooke had. Everything Cooke touched had a golden quality; he made other singers see potential everywhere, even in material that Cooke himself hadn't exactly pushed to the limit (If restraint was Cooke's most potent weapon as an interpreter, it was also code for all that he stood for as a stylist). In the studio, Otis amplified Sam Cooke's "Tenderness," turning it from a handy little number into a vehicle for, well, soul (he nearly did the same with "Tennessee Waltz") and splitting its plaintive core wide open. The more tenderness Redding tries, or suggests trying, the more he found it already waiting there; along with strength, passion and the clarity that the daily grind and macho posturing can block from view. In Redding's hands, "Try A Little Tenderness" became a celebration, not only of romance, but of honesty and self-discovery. Redding, who isn’t even talking about his woman but gets just as caught up as if he were, makes the song about discovery, not problem-solving. For the narrator, “Tenderness” is an occasion to tear the house of self down.

Or, as it turned out, just to tear the house down. "Try A Little Tenderness" joined "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)" as Redding's live show-stoppers. The two songs could not have been more different, but they shared the same smoldering, meandering pace, with a grand finale that was both inevitable and open-ended. They could go on forever, and one imagines they sometimes did. The studio version of "Tenderness" was an experiment—how would Otis Redding interpret a song suggested by Sam Cooke? But performed live, "Tenderness" and "I've Been Loving" took on their own soaring independent lives and developed their own rituals, as the audience moved along with the performer even as he called on it for strength and support. Cooke had sought to break in with white supper club audiences. By the time Redding got his shot, at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, he was playing to the first wave of flower children. "Tenderness" became a banner of authenticity (take that, Ray Noble!), the definition of "love" expanded, and Redding the embraced, albeit as a racial caricature whose “soul” they could only aspire to. See also: Jimi Hendrix, the other big winner at Monterey that year, who lived long enough to see how complicated his relationship with this crowd would become. He got to their hearts by turning his guitar into a burning phallus and, by the time of his death, was trying like crazy to get black audiences to care about his music.

Redding died in 1967, and his legacy crystallized around this song (it's no shock that a song titled "Otis" would choose to sample it out of all the songs in the Redding catalog). With Redding installed as raw soul's G.O.A.T., "Tenderness" came to stand for soul itself. The Commitments, which was kind of like The Blues Brothers but about being poor and Irish instead of fat and awesome, treated "Tenderness" as a sacred object, faithfully recreating Redding's performance as the film's inconclusive, if rewarding climax. This was theme-park soul. Ray Noble had debuted "Tenderness" as a socializing agent, an instruction manual. Crosby turned it into a ballad of manners. At Monterey, it was a counter-cultural jam. In The Commitments, soul is the beautiful music of the disenfranchised and funky. Its respect for tradition is matched only by its laziness. Most of this could be said of "Otis," too. What is soul? Why, it’s Otis Redding singing “Try A Little Tenderness." Anything else would be less powerful and towering, not to mention less obvious and definitive. There’s also an element of commodification here, and listeners know it. The lyrics of “Otis” are mostly about fancy stuff, but as Jay-Z warns of a “new watch alert," licensing “Try A Little Tenderness” is like buying the Statue of Liberty. Unimaginative, and impersonal, but boy, will people get the point—and probably start wondering how much it all cost.

In this, "Otis" isn't all that different than Shrek, a kids movie that pulls out Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” as if it were Bing Crosby’s idea of the song, albeit with some evidence of all the song has evolved into. A donkey with an attitude needs to get at his emotionally repressed ogre friend, so he breaks into song. Just listen to the voice. It sounds so soulful, don't you agree?

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of as well as the Twitter account @freedarko.

32 Comments / Post A Comment

Art Yucko (#1,321)


Murgatroid (#2,904)

How you wrote this entire piece without mentioning Duckie even once, I'll never know.

Art Yucko (#1,321)


Murgatroid (#2,904)

@Art Yucko Pretty sure you've always wanted to see me naked..

Art Yucko (#1,321)

"I always ask that of all my prey."

Murgatroid (#2,904)

@Art Yucko I'm feeling pretty adventurous today.

thomas_ (#11,923)

linked version is crazy sped up. this might help

JoshUng (#11,371)

I got into Otis Readding young, and could only find a CD of greatest hits, which I bought soley for Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay, I've never heard of any of his other work (hell, I didn't even know he did RESPECT). I fell in love with this song, and as I learned about it, I realized I just found out something much of the world already know, which is a little deflating.

On that CD, my favorite track was Tramp, but wouldn't you say Dock of the Bay is Otis's most famous song, not Tenderness? (Though, I do agree Tenderness should be the most obvious choice for a tribute).

I can't get into the Jay-Z version, when I hear it, I think, "Shut Up and let Otis sing!!"

LondonLee (#922)

He WROTE 'Respect' too.

'Dock of The Bay' is both his softest, poppiest single and the one released when he died so naturally it became his best-known. Especially when his whistling exit at the end sounded so poignant given his death.

Shoals (#7,895)

@JoshUng @LondonLee "Dock of the Bay" may be his biggest hit, the most famous song he recorded, and the Otis Redding most likely to be played on oldies stations. But I don't think it stands for Otis, or soul in general, the way "Tenderness" does. It's almost an aberration.

LondonLee (#922)

@Shoals I didn't say it did stand for Otis. Having spent most of my life submerged in old soul music I know exactly what purists think of 'Dock of The Bay', that it's too light and soft* – the 'what if?' question is always is that the direction he was going in?

*I still love it though, gorgeous record

Shoals (#7,895)

@LondonLee You know, you didn't, but I realized I probably should have addressed "Dock of the Bay" in the piece. Sorry about that. If anything, you were already making a case against it. It should probably should have been @JoshUng, since while I was jumping in on the exchange, I was really addressing his point.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

@JoshUng Why can't these rappers write their own songs

Matt (#26)

@Brad Nelson Rappers can't even play instruments did you know that? They are not musicians.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

@Matt They can't even sing. They just talk.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

@Art Yucko I guess what really bothers me is how it's fundamentally not music.

Shoals (#7,895)

Murgatroid–He was in my outline, but didn't make the cut. Sorry.

thomas–Thanks for catching that. I pulled a link at the last minute and was apparently too harried to notice that it was sped up. Funny, seeing as the first sentence of the piece is about the sample being slowed down.

babakgolshahi (#18,104)


Dave Bry (#422)

This is really good.

But I disagree with slighting "Otis" as lazy. (And of the critique, that I've been hearing frequently and unsurprisingly in sould-music-fan circles, that, "I'd rather just listen to Otis sing." I mean, you can. There are very few things in the world better than listening to Otis Redding sing. But that's not really a valid critique of ahat Kanye's done with this source material. To my ears, he has made a very good new song out of a super great old song. And he has actually made a new thing. Rather than just picking a familiar section of the song and putting it on loop—as is too often done for rap radio single (see: "Can't Touch This" or Puffy.) He chopped up the elements and rearranged them into something different. That big bass drum thwomp becomes central to the song in a way to give the thing a very different feel than that of '60s soul. It makes it sound real hip-hop. And the vocal snippet it the very part of the song where Otis is clearly feeling himself in a very strong way. So it makes sense to recast it into a super-bragodocious ego-pump party jam. I like it a little more with each listen. (And Kanye out-raps Jay on a collaboration again, too. That's like the third time in a row, right?)

Shoals (#7,895)

I probably should have been more clear on my "issues" with "Otis". I rather like the tightly-looped part, and as you point out, those drums make it kick like a motherfucker. It's catchy, and lively, and even if it's no "Gone", it fits everything you're saying. It might even be in my head right now. But the sample doesn't have to be Otis, or call attention to the fact that it's Otis. That's all about the longer passage, the part that sticks in my craw and seems to necessitate, and invite, all the IT'S OTIS feelings, good and bad. The short sample doesn't make me think about its context in "Tenderness", or taking it further, its context in soul history. I've said before that I would have rather had an all-out Ghostface karaoke joint. At least that would be straightforward about its intentions, and also weird to negotiate, not just awkward.

Dave Bry (#422)

I could see that. It is using the non-musical element of listener's knowledge of IT'S OTIS! And I think you're right to make the point about buying the Statue of Liberty.

But the vocal clip, the "Got t', got t', na na na…" that part does have to be Otis, doesn't it? No one else sounds like that. And that is part of the joy, as I hear it. The reveling in self, even as Otis went so much in the other direction with the song, as you pointed out.

Shoals (#7,895)

@Dave Bry I agree, but there's a difference between using a recognizable voice because no one else sounds like that, or made that particular bit of music, and wanting extra credit for having done so.

NDHopper (#13,615)

The use of Otis' name as the title (and sampling those first lines) reminds me of just randomly dropping GSH's "Comment #1" at the end of MBDTF. As Shoals said, it just feels like Kanye is brown-nosing; and at the same time he never reaches both lyrical and sonic coherence with what he's sampling.
While in "Who Will Survive in America" there's more conceptual congruity in the lyrics than going from "Love is their home/Happiness yeah/Squeeze her, don’t tease her/Never leave her" to standard Z and Ye boasting, it's frustrating that instead of trying to come up with words as powerful as GSH's, Kanye just cut 'n' pasted them in. And while yeah, the "na na na"s in "Otis" make my head go on auto-rock-n-shake, there's just so much verbal dissonance between the "never leave her" and everything else being said.
Yes the "Otis" beat sounds great, but, like he did at the end of MBDTF, I don't think Kanye should be allowed to piggy-back and call himself the greatest at the same time.

reggiejax (#7,147)

There was nothing random about GSH following "Lost in a World" (or preceding "See Me Now"). And: Ye and J have both made soul sampling the foundation of their own sounds going all the way back to "Reasonable Doubt" and Ye's earliest production work (well before "Gone"), and the effect is more complex than simple lyrical congruity. This is the music they grew up around, a link to their individual pasts and the continuum of black music in America — and in every case they build on/transform it into something all theirs . It's not brown-nosing and their connex to the work they sample is deeper than an extra-credit project. Deep enough that they don't have to justify it by rapping about tenderness per se or footnoting it with a history lesson; that said, it's not lacking in love and tenderness — similar to Jay and Big in Brooklyn's Finest, the literal content is less important than the giddy wordplay and tender brotherhood in the exchange. What would Hova do?

Shoals (#7,895)

@reggiejax I get what sampling is; how and why soul is used; how its presence in hip-hop as reconfigured tradition is something that no mere music writer could every hope to question. That's why I said, for the short loops, or the way more artful "Gone", I don't think there's anything wrong with using Otis Redding (or anyone instantly recognizable.) The sound is the sound, and while maybe hip-hop has gotten away from fetishizing obscure samples, that's just allowed any and everything to be used in creative ways. The problem, for me, comes when productions rests on the laurels of the sample. Do you think "Otis" works seamlessly? Fine. I happen to think that it's awkward, and as interested in letting "Try A Little Tenderness" play as figuring out how to fold it into a new piece of music. I really don't think that the content of the original song should matter, unless there are words sampled, or there's some very obvious inside joke/cross-reference.

Dave Bry (#422)

There's another song that probably belongs in this conversation: one of the Good Friday releases that preceded Kanye's last album, my favorite of those, "The Joy."

Also a famous soul sample (Curtis Mayfield's "The Makings of You"), also referenced explicitly as such in Jay's intro to his verse. And also used to achieve a tone very different than the original. Kanye especially, takes the innocent, hippie era loveliness and nasties it up. And Pete Rock does some of the same with his production. Best of all, it's being included as a bonus track on "Watch the Throne." It's sort of a companion piece to "Otis," maybe. And I think I might like it even better.

NDHopper (#13,615)

@reggiejax It wasn't random for GSH to follow "Lost In The World" conceptually, but I was disappointed that Ye just took large chunks of it instead of actually trying to attain its genius in his own voice. It felt to me like a cop out (others might call it a nod; I disagree).
And I get that this is the sound they grew up on; I love how it's used with the "na na na"s. And I'm not saying they have to justify every sampled song with topical coherence. I get there's an indescribable feeling and history to those sounds that should just be accepted and not explained. But to introduce the song with all those lines? And then have those other lines signal the end of verses? Am I not supposed to hear those words or think about them?
I'd love it if their wordplay incorporated and related to all the song's elements. That'd take it to a complete other artistic level—beyond "Oh, Otis' voice still chills me when chopped up" and "Jay and Ye have some great one-liners."

iantenna (#5,160)

i heard rumor of an american version of the commitments. that will undoubtedly be the nail in "tenderness"' coffin.

Andrew Piccone (#7,185)

I'm very interested to hear what Watch the Throne will sound like. H.A.M. was super over the top, braggadocio for it's own sake to the soundtrack of the Super Bowl Halftime Show. When Jay brags about playing the staring game with an 18-wheeler, it left me scratching my head. Then I heard this Otis track, and it's like they said 'OK H.A.M. was the banger, let's make this the summer jam', I mean getting the Redding sample doesn't make the song work, it acts only as a base. I'm giving them the benefit of the reasonable doubt that the album will be good, but these tracks have left me hoping for the best, but expecting another Blueprint III.

JohnLindsay (#20,565)

"Its social protest allegory, inspired by Dylan-envy…"
JohnL: What the hell is that supposed to mean?!

Joe Mares@facebook (#260,338)

Not only didn't he mention Ducky, but no mention of Nuke LaLoosh either!

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