Whither soul? Nowadays, any poseur with a whiskey-voiced rasp gets tagged as a soulster, but even with such credible singers as Sharon Jones and Bettye Lavette working within the critical confines—blaring horns backed by a thunderous rhythm section—nobody in this age of prefabricated cool (with the exception of Mary J. Blige) willingly mines the depths that true soul requires. Even Aretha—yes, she’s still the Queen—hasn’t gone gut-bucket in years.
It’s a shame, because as these reissues prove, nothing sounds more vibrant, urgent, and alive than this music. Recorded on July 9, 1965, Otis Blue showcases the premiere soul singer at his zenith. Backed by members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Redding’s gritty genius overcomes the bloat of this double-disc, 40-track “special edition,” featuring mono, stereo, and live versions of the same 13 songs. Mercifully, he’s so great that he makes the constant repetition—six versions of “Respect,” for example—worth it. He brings gravitas to “A Change Is Gonna Come,” one of three Sam Cooke covers; a percussive singer, Redding vocally stutter-steps through “Wonderful World,” gleefully teasing the word “biology” out to “bye-ow-low-gee” just to fit the meter. He transforms “Shake” into a romping duel with drummer Al Jackson Jr., while his intuitive interplay with the band makes the Stones’ “Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No)” all his own. And ballads don’t get better than “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” wherein Redding musters up more pure feeling in the fade-out than today’s warblers eke out during their climaxes.
A similar spirit infuses Marie Queenie Lyons’s Soul Fever. Released in 1970 on James Brown’s King label, it was her first and last effort—according to the liner notes, she disappeared shortly after its release. That’s unfortunate, because Lyons had an exceptional voice, able to instantly shift from a sultry croon on “Daddy’s House” to the gospel shout of “I’ll Drown in My Own Tears.” Another strength is her unbridled fury, which keys ribald tracks like “Your Key Don’t Fit It No More” and “I Don’t Want Nobody to Have It but You.” Plus, her take on the Godfather’s “Try Me” aches to the bone. These days, such truthful artistry is long gone: 38 years later, Soul Fever‘s cover—a beautiful black face, surrounded by encroaching darkness, struggling to be seen—has become a sadly apt metaphor for modern-day soul.