(originally posted August 9, 2007)
“Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding (1966)
Written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods
By the time Otis Redding was cajoled into recording “Try a Little Tenderness,” it had already been recorded by Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and even Bing Crosby. The song, after all, had been around since the 1930s, but Redding’s manager Phil Walden thought it would be a good “weeping ballad” for Otis in 1966.
Before each recording session, Redding often sang or hummed little bits and pieces of tunes, variations of melodies of the songs he was about to record. If he put together something he liked, he’d teach it to the horn section, as he did with the “Try a Little Tenderness” intro. As the horns fade, there’s just a bit of a pregnant pause, a silence that suggests that Otis may just have something soulful up his sleeve, just before he sings “Oh, she made me weary/Them young girls they do get wearied.” The accompaniment is all very hushed, very distant.
But at the second verse, drummer Al Jackson shifts into a sneaky double-time with rim clicks on the snare drum, turning up the intensity. The piano (played by Isaac Hayes) and organ (Booker T. Jones) become more prominent. By the third verse, Steve Cropper’s guitar…
turned more funky; the organ and piano began swirling in and out; the horn section played long, sustained single notes….Finally, as Otis approached the end of the verse, it all meshed together. Al executed a quick drum roll and began to pound his drums with fury as the song soared with the power of a humming engine that is suddenly downshifted and revved. The final minute of the song was a furiously charged performance. The band played a powerful series of ascending notes that rose up and up and up while Otis breathlessly screamed out: “Squeeze her! Don’t tease her! Never leave her!” The song reached a climatic moment, then briefly hovered on a series of chords before leaping back into another round of the ascending notes. …… Otis stuttered out nonsensical words as if he was too beside himself for coherence: ‘Got-ta! Try! My-my-my! Try! Try a little tenderness.’*
Redding recorded for the Memphis-based Stax Records, a much smaller (and some would say a much grittier) label than the giant Motown. Most of the Motown-era records were squeaky-clean, slickly-produced, often somewhat formulaic. That’s not to diminish the quality of the Motown artists: many of them were superb, recording a long string of pop and soul classics. But Stax was all about songs filled with raw energy, emotion and excitement. Otis Redding was one of the few artists (of any era) that could transform a song from soulful ballad to an absolute emotional frenzy in the space of three minutes. “Try a Little Tenderness” proves it.