Thursday, September 25, 2008

Big O Scratchin'!

Otis Redding - Scratch My Back

Although many people - present company included - often complain that modern R&B and hip-hop "sounds all the same," one thing that must be noted is that when an artist performs a tune, it is highly unlikely that it will be covered. I suppose part of the reason, especially in the case of hip-hop, is that the artists's style makes the song too intertwined with the performer to give another person a chance. This is not to say that classic R&B singers didn't make songs "their own," but the song itself had a bit more currency in those days (maybe it's a statement to the fact that the songs were better, or at least better-crafted?) Whatever the reason, many '60s R&B albums contained covers as a means for "filler" or as an attempt to ride the momentum of a hit.

Some singers were master interpreters of songs and could make any cover version "their own" with ease. Wilson Pickett comes to mind right away ("Land of 1000 Dances," "Mustang Sally," "Funky Broadway," "Hey Jude," "Hey Joe," "You Keep Me Hanging On," "Sugar Sugar," etc.), but Otis Redding was also one who knew how to work someone else's song. Otis' 1966 LP The Soul Album found Redding doing quite a few covers, and his take on Slim Harpo's "Baby Scratch My Back," one of the more "filler"-oriented cuts on the album, shows the process by which Redding could rework a song. The jaunty groove of the original is replaced with a Memphis slow drag sound - Steve Cropper's tremoloed guitar work does, however, capture some of the "swamp" feel of the Harpo record - and Otis uses the spoken lyric as a springboard for lots of improvisation. The best part of the arrangement, however, is the horn chart, which takes the "chicken-scratching" guitar riff from the third verse of the Harpo hit and makes it central to the tune. By the end of the tune, Redding is scatting along with it, and it's clear by then that he has conquered yet another tune!

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