Otis Redding was simply one of the finest and most powerful soul singers of all time, and his death in 1967 at the age of 27 not only silenced a gifted artist, it halted a career that seemed poised to break through to major mainstream success after Redding had dominated the R&B charts for several years. However, Redding's considerable gifts as a vocalist and live performer have tended to overshadow his legacy as a songwriter -- he wrote nearly all his best-known tunes, and the earthy but heartfelt emotional immediacy of his songs made them powerful material in his hands, as well as those of other artists. Ace Records have made a compelling case for Otis Redding the songwriter on the compilation Hard to Handle: Black America Sings Otis Redding, which features 24 covers of Redding's compositions from 23 artists (Redding's protégé Arthur Conley gets two numbers), as well as a rare performance by Redding himself. While Aretha Franklin's recording of "Respect" is here (one of the few examples of a singer beating Otis on one of his own tunes), most of the other selections are relatively obscure, but there's plenty of top-shelf talent on deck, including Irma Thomas ("Security"), Percy Sledge ("I've Got Dreams to Remember"), Lou Rawls ("Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa [Sad Song]"), Etta James ("I Got the Will"), and the Staple Singers ("Sitting On the Dock of the Bay"). What's surprising with many of these recordings is how strongly Redding's original performances defined the songs, and how the vocalists and arrangers tend to defer to the originals, even in the case of artists who had strong styles of their own; while most of these singers find something of their own in Redding's songs, his melodic style was so distinct it's hard for anyone to sing something like "These Arms of Mine" or "Hard to Handle" without a bit of Redding showing through (though Judy Clay's transformation of "Mister Pitiful" into "Sister Pitiful" shows admirable spirit). Hard to Handle is a fine testament to the lasting importance of Otis Redding as an artist and a composer, as well as a top-notch collection of deep soul from the '60s into the '80s, indicating how powerful his legacy has been.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming