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The history of “Try A Little Tenderness”: from Tin Pan Alley to Watch The Throne

Jun 20, 2014

The history of “Try A Little Tenderness”: from Tin Pan Alley to Watch The Throne

One of my favorite songs is Otis Redding’s cut of “Try A Little Tenderness.” Here he is doing it live in 1967.

The song has an interesting history. It’s first incarnation was written in the Tin Pan Alley heyday, in 1933, by the songwriting duo Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly with composer Harry M. Woods. It was first done by Ray Noble and his orchestra:

Ted Lewis had a minor hit with it, and other artists later in 1933 recorded it, like Ruth Etting and Bing Crosby:

And then a bunch of artists did it over the years, including Frank Sinatra. But Aretha Franklin was the first well-known black artist to record it, in 1962:

From Soulsville, USA: The Story Of Stax Records:

Columbia records was attempting to market Franklin as a pop singer and consequently recorded her singing any number of Tin Pan Alley standards replete with pop string arrangements. These records were a far cry from her later Atlantic rhythm and blues hits in terms of instrumentation, arrangement, and performance style. That said, Franklin cannot and does not completely shed her gospel background and consequently, at least to a small degree, transforms the song when compared to the Crosby and Sinatra recordings.

When Sam Cooke heard it, he chose to sing it at the Copa, “attempting to appeal to an older white, middle- and upper-class audience”:

And now we’re getting somewhere. Otis Redding’s manager, Phil Walden, had been trying to talk him into doing the song for a while. Walden recalls:

I remember he called me late at night and he said, “You know that song you’ve been on my ass about recording, ‘Try A Little Tenderness’? I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I cut that motherfucker. It’s a brand-new song.

And so it was. But get this lineup: the Stax label’s house band was Booker T and the MGs, and Isaac Hayes was producing and arranging (and playing the organ) with the Mar-Key horns.

More from Soulsville, USA:

Isaac Hayes was responsible for much [of the arrangement], including the three-part contrapuntal horn line in the intro (inspired by the strings on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”) and the cymbal break in the climax (which Hayes later reused on “Theme from Shaft”). The idea of having Al Jackson lay out during the first verse and then come in on the second verse of the song simply by tapping quarter-beats on the rim of the snare came about accidentally when the drummer idly tapped along while Redding was running down the tune.

There’s also a ton of ad-libbing by Redding, some of which incorporates lyrics from the Duke Ellington song, “Just Squeeze Me (But Don’t Tease Me)”:

The song took only three takes. Here’s the final result:

And of course, about 50 years later, Kanye West and Jay-Z sampled the song for their track “Otis,” off Watch The Throne:

31 notes

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  6. mcnamee said: One of my favorites. 1st heard it in the movie the Commitments.
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