It seems fairly obvious to start off an article about Otis Redding by pointing out that he has one of the best voices in all of popular music, but here we are anyway. The King Of Soul had a voice that few could match, that few could even try to match. If you’re going to cover a song like “My Girl” you need the pipes for it, and it’s not exactly controversial to point out that Redding had them. And with talent to spare. Yet the truth is, for all that it’s an excellent recording – and it really is an excellent recording – this is, at best, minor Otis Redding. It’s not “Sitting On The Dock The Bay”. It’s not “Try A Little Tenderness”. In fact, it’s so minor it doesn’t even feature on Redding’s Wikipedia page, nor is it on The Very Best Of Otis Redding. And there’s a good reason for that. It’s not the very best of Otis Redding. And yet… it’s bloody Otis Redding singing bloody “My Girl”. It’s great! The fact that a cover this good, and which peaked at our all-important position of Number 11 on the charts, barely even warrants a footnote says something about the strength of the material that does actually warrant inclusion.
To be fair, it’s not as good as the original – how could it be really? The production on the song feels a little… off. That might, of course, be because the original is so utterly entrenched, but even so the percussion feels like it’s a little too far up in the mix, the brass a tad on the perfunctory side. None of it is bad as such, it’s just doesn’t quite carry the breezy confidence of the original. It also just kinda… stops. Both the original and Redding’s cover fade out (and both fairly abruptly, at least by modern standards) but the original feels like it’s done what it needs to and so it’ll be off now, whereas Redding’s feels like it’s got nowhere else to go so slinks away. And again, harsh though that sounds, it’s not like it’s bad, because it very obviously isn’t. It’s great! And for almost any other artist it would be a pinnacle. But not Redding.
“My Girl” also has the unfortunate bad luck to be on the album Otis Blue / Otis Redding Sings Soul. Why is that unfortunate? Well, because Otis Blue is an unbelievably brilliant album. It’s mostly a collection of soul and love-ballad cover versions, brought to life by the animating power of Redding’s voice. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is one of the most devastating songs ever recorded, an utter tour de force. Sorrowful, deeply yearning and impassioned, it’s the sort of song that only the terminally hard-of-heart could fail to be moved by. “Down In The Valley” has enough snaky energy to it there’s a fair chance it could get the dead up and dancing. The cover of the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is equally stunning, proving that Redding can move between genres with ease – Keith Richard’s sleazy, unforgettable guitar line is replaced by brass and does such a good job it very nearly betters the original, and also gives us one of Redding’s all-time great vocals. What chance does a so-so cover of “My Girl” stand against that?
Not a vast amount, let’s be honest, but in a way that does “My Girl” as disservice it doesn’t really deserve. It’s a bit like criticising “Within You, Without You” as the “slow one” on Sgt Pepper. I mean, it is, but also… it’s on Sgt Pepper, a regular contender for the best album of all time. Sure, it’s not “A Day In The Life”, but what is? And that’s the dilemma of “My Girl”. Held to the same standard as the rest of the album it comes up a touch short. But it’s still a song on Otis Blue and for that alone it’s worth paying attention to. But of course, this is a single, so seeing it merely in the context of the album isn’t the only way to view it (and, obviously, not for this series of articles).
“My Girl” reached Number 11 during the last week of January 1966. Since this is our first outing into the magical world of songs that couldn’t haul themselves over the line into the Top Ten it’s worth having a look at the charts just to get a sense of what’s going on in the wider musical world. Now, let’s see… what else do we have? Well, there’s a cover of “Michelle” by the Beatles in the top spot by a band called The Overlanders (nope, me neither). It’s… kinda dull. The Beatles themselves are in at Number 4 with “Day Tripper” / “We Can Work It Out”, a fine example of their non-album mid-60’s output. But beyond that there’s Herman’s Hermits with the excellently-and-accurately titled “A Must To Avoid”. Those far-out anarchist rebels Cliff Richard and Cilla Black are in at 16 and 15 respectively. Ken Sodding Dodd is in twice, once at 19 with “Tears” (terrible) and again at 9 with “The River” (impressively, somehow worse). Oh, and there’s the unspeakably awful “A Groovy Kind Of Love” by the Mindbenders at 18, the sort of song that makes one beg for the oncoming apocalypse. It’s not all trash (there’s a good Kinks song in there, and who can resist Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass?) but most of it is. In that context, “My Girl” doesn’t look like a bit of an also-ran towards the fag end of an amazing album, it’s head and shoulders above almost anything else around.
And that’s kind of the point. For all that this isn’t Otis Redding’s best work his level of “that’ll do” is better than almost anybody else’s best efforts. With the exception of that Beatles single and The Kinks – it’s “Till The End Of The Day”, incidentally, in case the tension of which Kinks song it is was getting too much for you – there’s nothing in the Top 20 that can touch “My Girl”, or even really get close. And if you extend that out to the Top 40 the only other thing worth a damn is Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking”, though there’s some minor Bob Dylan and past-his-best Roy Orbison in there too. Context remains a critical part of understanding how a song works, and in this case Redding’s got things pretty much sewn up because contextually there’s almost nothing else even close to being in his league. Why this song peaked at Number 11 when substantially less worthy tracks leapfrogged him is a mystery that will go unanswered, and that a cover this strong couldn’t crack the Top 10 when a substantially less good cover sits at Number 1 feels telling, if in fairly nebulous ways (and as for the rest of the Top Ten… seriously, people though Herman’s Hermits were more worthy of purchase than this?).
So that’s where our journey to chart the songs that couldn’t quite crack the Top Ten begins – with a song that absolutely should have. Redding himself remains an indelible part of music history, destined to live just one more year of recording before dying in a plane crash in 1967. Who knows what he might have achieved had his career extended into the 70’s, when funk and soul went even more mainstream? Otis Blue as an album was a huge crossover success but just imagine how far that could have taken him. That will always be a point of speculation, but at least what he leaves behind is an incredible body of work. And if “My Girl” isn’t that work’s pinnacle, it at least deserves a worthy place on the slopes.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
The Beatles, funnily enough, though not directly. They never had anything peak as low as Number 11 once things were underway – not even “Real Love” managed that – but the first two Number 11 songs after Mr Redding on the UK chart were both covers of Beatles songs. Firstly there’s David and Jonathan with a close-harmony version of McCartney’s “Michelle”, which as observed in the main article, was a song already sitting at Number 1. Harmonies aside, it’s pretty much indistinguishable from the original, though astonishingly it’s produced by George Martin and has arrangements by Tony Hatch, which is quite the pedigree for such an average cover version. Anyway, it’s followed by St Louis Union’s version of Lennon’s “Girl” (unremarkable, despite a slightly wheezy saxophone). Neither are worth very much and both rather forgotten by history for all the right reasons. Elsewhere, there’s a smattering of familiar 60’s names – Seekers, Mamas and Papas – but little that need detain us further (still, unremarkable as this year’s selection is, just wait till we get to 1970).
What Else Was Hovering About In The Charts?
Well for this article that’s pretty much been covered, but this will become a regular feature going forward. Suffice to say – very nearly a hundred percent of fuck all this time out.
Next Time On We’re Number 11…
Bonding over dreamy strings.
- “My Girl”, Otis Redding