If the previous album lacked for name material, Otis certainly fixed that problem on this record: he covers some really big tracks including two big Sam Cooke hits (and another Cooke song), “My Girl” and “Satisfaction”. And to it, he adds his growing ability as a songwriter, particularly with the original (and inferior) version of “Respect”. (This is coming from a big Otis fan…) The material here might be the strongest of his career.
But the problem with tackling really big songs is that you are measured up against the original or definitive versions. Otis’ version of “Satisfaction” is quite good. But his versions of “A Change is Gonna Come” (retitled “Change Gonna Come”), though good, is not definitely better than than the original. On a personal level, I like it more, but does it make me forget the original? And the same is true with “Wonderful World”, albeit even more so. That’s a tailor-made Sam Cooke song and it feels a little bit out of Otis’ wheelhouse. Is this version of “My Girl” convincing any fan of the original to take up its cause? I doubt it. Though I haven’t heard Solomon Burke’s original version of “Down in the Valley” but I do wonder about about that one too. (As I said before, his originals are stronger than they were on previous records, though.)
I don’t quibble with the aesthetic at all. I’d much rather listen to this stuff than Motown or Chicago soul. But the choices in songs lead to easy comparisons between these versions and their far more famous originals. When Otis was taking on deeper cuts, it was much harder for the casual fan to have any idea of the similarities or differences. But here, it’s easy. I like this stripped down version of “My Girl” but I suspect most people do not. And having heard a few of these tracks (both originals and covers) performed live, I also know that Otis was a more dynamic performer on stage. Not that he isn’t here, but that he does a better job selling these versions in concert. That’s because of the nature of these recordings – it’s nearly all on him.
And I like that but, I think, in this case, trying to do southern soul versions of some big songs from very polished soul markets, does a slight disservice to what makes this version of the genre the best one.