Redding’s attentiveness to both lyrical meaning and musical possibility made him a brilliant interpreter of other artists’ songs, from Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, other great African American artists covered songs by white writers (Ray Charles’s “Georgia on My Mind,” Aretha Franklin’s “Let It Be”), announcing the sound of soul while symbolically reversing the process by which white artists had appropriated and profited on black musical innovation.
Redding’s 1966 version of “Try a Little Tenderness” was his most stunning such coup d’état. First popularized by Bing Crosby in 1933, this paternalistic ballad about the power of male affection to revive female morale had been covered by Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke in the years preceding Redding’s version. But whereas Franklin and Cooke maintained the song’s basic ballad structure, Redding revolutionized it. His version begins in the usual maudlin mode: Interweaving horn lines arranged by Isaac Hayes set the scene as if drawing a stage curtain. But when Al Jackson Jr. strikes up rim shots on the drum like a metronome, the band starts to build the kind of suspense the song’s lyrics describe:
You know she’s waiting, just anticipating
For things that she’ll never, never, never, never possess, yeah yeah
But while she’s there waiting, without them
Try a little tenderness
The recording owes its drama not just to Redding’s throaty vocals and lyrical embellishments—hold her, squeeze her, never leave her!—but also to the synergy of the band as a unit. As Jonathan Gould writes in his wonderful new biography Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, “the track is … a musical microcosm of the Stax sound, a seamless synthesis of the pleading ballads and pounding grooves that [Stax artists] played better than anyone else.” Gradually, like a group of friends adding their voices to a single appeal for kindness, the rhythm section fills in the space between the spare drum beat and Redding’s vocals: Here comes the churchy organ, crossed with an acoustic piano, both soon joined by a chicken-scratch guitar, blaring horns, and hard-driving drums. At this point, Redding manipulates the lyrics to match the wordless intonations of the band: Got to try—ma nah nah—try—try a little tenderness!
The song was even more intense in live performance. As the bring-down-the-house closing song of his sets, “Tenderness” became Redding’s signature hit and a vehicle for his electric persona. The musicians often rushed through the curtain-drawing introduction like a formality, picking up speed until Redding was shouting, jumping, and stalking around the stage like a stiff-limbed preacher while demolishing the lyrics: ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-gotta-tenderness! In a crowd-pleasing church trick that showed Redding in thrall to his own momentum, the group often “ended” the song only to strike it back up again.