‘Pretty raw, and pretty fresh': On the first-take genius of Stax stars like Otis Redding

The wonder, in listening to ageless sides from Stax Records stars like Otis Redding, was how often they came from one-take performances. Too, these songs were typically written just days, or even hours, beforehand.

“We kind of recorded a lot of stuff, especially with Otis, under pressure,” longtime Stax producer, composter and sideman Steve Cropper tells The Five Count. “We just didn’t have a lot of time, and we had to accept some of the takes — because we didn’t have time to spend all day on it. That’s probably what keeps the feeling of it pretty raw, and pretty fresh.”

Of course, there wasn’t a lot of overdub technology available at their tiny Memphis studio, even if they’d wanted to endlessly tinker. But the real truth was simpler still: “I got to write with Otis very seldom,” Cropper says, “because we didn’t get him too often. He was always on the road. There was a big demand for Otis for live shows. He would come in one day, check into the motel — and we’d write literally all night long.”

They might take a quick nap or, if things had gone late enough, simply get cleaned up and head straight into the studio for an 11 a.m. session to put it all to tape. They’d then work as long as they could, trying to get the music down before Redding would head out for more concerts. Typically, by 6 p.m., the studio was dark again.

On one memorable occasion, they even had to return to Stax after a gig, congregating around the mics and sound boards at 2 a.m., trying to get an album completed before hitting the road again. “Otis and I wrote right up until that time,” Cropper says, adding that long-time bass-playing friend Donald “Duck” Dunn called that one of his all-time favorite sessions.

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