September 5, 2011


Tenderness: What Is It?

Kanye West and Jay-Z's "Otis" begins with an out-of-context fragment of deep soul—Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness," one of his greatest recordings, from 1966. (If you'd like to see Redding in action, check out this stellar clip of a TV performance of the song, filmed the day before his death in a plane crash.) And then it starts looping, a low-end bump enters the mix, and Jay-Z steps in. For the rest of the song, though, we're hearing chopped-up snippets of the old record--mostly Redding scat-singing, a chop of Steve Cropper's guitar and a few snaps of Al Jackson, Jr.'s cymbals.

The beat is pretty astonishing, and it's making the rounds: Styles P and Jadakiss have already released their own take on "Otis," for which producer Statik Selektah rebuilt the beat himself from the Redding recording. The force of the Crown-Watchers' flow on "Otis," though, comes from how well they know its source. (Jay, adorably, lip-synchs a little bit of Redding's performance in the opening seconds of the video.)

If there's a song by Redding everyone knows that's not "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," this is it—"Try a Little Tenderness" has been a hard song to escape over the past 45 years. But Redding's performance was so strong that it's all but obliterated the wild history of the song before it came to him.

The first appearance of "Try a Little Tenderness" came in 1932, when the Ray Noble Orchestra recorded it. (The vocal, which shows up about halfway through, is plummily enunciated by British singer Val Rosing.) It was followed by a pair of American hit versions, by Ted Lewis and Ruth Etting, both in 1933, neither of which seem to have any hint of Redding's barnstormer contained within them. How did a Southern soul shouter end up recording a sappy ballad from 30 years earlier?

Redding was an enormous fan of Sam Cooke, who'd been performing the song on stage before his death in 1964, and seems to have picked up the song from him. A version of "Try a Little Tenderness" appears on Cooke's live album Sam Cooke at the Copa, as part of "a medley of songs for all the gentlemen." (Cooke had also recorded a lesser variation on the same theme, called "Tenderness.") But Cooke, in turn, might first have heard the song on Aretha Franklin's 1962 recording. In those days—five years before the breakthrough of her Otis Redding cover "Respect"—Franklin's label Columbia Records was presenting her as an easy-listening artist, or something like one, but she torches the song with some of the grand vocal power she'd reveal on record later. (Her version was as small a pop hit as it's possible to have: it dented the Billboard Hot 100 for exactly one week, at place number 100.)

As for where Aretha got turned on to "Try a Little Tenderness": one listen to Little Miss Cornshucks' stellar 1951 recording should be enough to confirm that she was somewhere in the mix. Born Mildred Cummings, Little Miss Cornshucks (whose onstage schtick involved dressing up like a barefoot country girl) never quite made an impact on the national charts, but this fascinating article suggests that she's one of the great lost figures of R&B. (LaVern Baker, one of the biggest R&B stars of the '50s, called herself Little Miss Sharecropper at the start of her career, in homage to Cornshucks.)

After Otis's version hit, though, the song belonged to him for good, despite a few later appearances on the charts. Three Dog Night's first-ever pop hit, in 1969, was a version of Redding's version of "Try a Little Tenderness"—rearranged to include a few psychedelic acid-rock flourishes, and with its lyrics touched up in a slightly condescending hippie style. ("Women do get weary/Wearing the same shabby dress" becomes "Young girls do get weary/Wearing the same funky dress.") And more than a decade after that, "Try a Little Tenderness" became an R&B hit once more, in a bizarre 1981 funk reading by the Ohio Players. (Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner's vocal performance is clearly modeled on Redding's, although he twists his vowels in the manner of a lot of early-'80s funk.)

Hip-hop producers, on the other hand, haven't used Redding's performance much before Kanye and Jay-Z--the only other example that comes to mind is Masta Killa's 2004 "D.T.D." Clearly, "Try a Little Tenderness" is far from the only historical reference point in "Otis." (Just to mention a couple of obvious ones, the footage of them chopping up a Maybach recalls the piano-destroying antics in Zbigniew Rybczynski's 1984 video for the Art of Noise's "Close (to the Edit)"; the "Jay is chillin', Ye is chillin'" bit is a direct allusion to Audio Two's 1987 hip-hop standard "Top Billin'.")

Still, the source of the sample important enough to this particular track that Jay and Kanye named it after its singer. Its lyrics' message of kindness and forbearance doesn't have much to do with their pointed eight-bar snaps--only Kanye's final couplet ("Lord, please let them accept the things they can't change/And pray that all of their pain be champagne") comes close to generosity, and not very close. It's worth noting, though, that it's called "Otis," not "Tenderness": it's the singer, not the song, that's so soulful. As Jay-Z puts it: "Don't you agree?"