On “Try a Little Tenderness” by Leesa Cross-Smith
I don’t know if I can remember a time when Otis Redding wasn’t my favorite voice. I have other favorites too like Stevie Nicks and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and Miranda Lambert and Nina Simone. But, Otis. Who sings like Otis? No one before and no one after. So often when I listen to Otis, I turn to my husband, my kids and go who sings like Otis? No one.
There isn’t a song by Otis Redding that I don’t like. But “Try A Little Tenderness” was my personal gateway to all things Otis. My dad’s favorite song is “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” and my dad isn’t really a music person. My mom loves Otis. Who doesn’t love Otis? No one. Who sings like Otis? No one. I thank Otis Redding in the acknowledgements of my debut novel Whiskey & Ribbons. My characters dance in the kitchen to “Chained and Bound.” Back in 2000, right before my husband and I left for our road trip honeymoon to Santa Fe, I bought a double-disc Otis Redding album to take along with us because being in the car for twelve hours a day means listening to Otis. When I gave my kids my old iPhones to load up with music, Otis was already on there.
In Pretty In Pink, “Try A Little Tenderness” comes on and Duckie beats on the wall, slides into the record shop in his dusseldorf-mustard blazer to perform his lip sync song and dance. It’s what he does. He sings to Andie, throws himself into it completely. He spins, wildly throws his arms out, pulls them back again because it’s all he can do to get his body to match Otis’s voice. He grabs the railing and humps the air. When I hear “Try A Little Tenderness” I am Duckie. A lot of us are Duckie. Otis warrants this. Otis demands that we sing our hearts out, our souls out. Otis sings every song as if it’s his last. Otis was taken from us far too soon. Otis will live forever.
“Try A Little Tenderness” is easily my favorite song. It is tied for that spot with “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. They are both songs of heart and sweetness. Otis’s “Try A Little Tenderness” begins like a gentle suggestion and by the end, it has turned into a desperate, fully-gutting, not-tender-at-all bit of pleading. There’s a point when he sings you got to try na na na got to and he doesn’t even really need the lyrics anymore, because you can just feel what he’s trying to say. “Try A Little Tenderness” begins with horns and Otis singing “Oh she may be weary. Young girls, they do get wearied wearing that same old shaggy dress. But when she gets weary, try a little tenderness” while the organ and piano play underneath him. A guitar, another horn. Then the metronomic clock-drum kicks in as he sings “You know she’s waiting. Just anticipating…” and then Otis goes hard early on when he sings “the thing that you never never never never possess, yeah” he tenders that immediately by singing “but while she’s there waiting without them, try a little tenderness” over the churchy organ and adds “that’s all you gotta do” in a spoken voice. The song has a slow, steady build until around the 2:00 minute mark of the single version when it quickly picks up steam. Otis sings “young girls they don’t forget it. Looove is their whole happiness.” By 2:30 the whiny horns and drums are playing all at once, no longer taking turns. “Squeeze her, don’t tease her, never leave her.” And by 2:50 Otis completely owns the song. This is Otis’s song forever no matter who else records it. Who sings like Otis? At 3:04 Otis drops the got to try na na na and I think who sings like Otis? Who? Who doesn’t love Otis’s version of this song? Wait. Don’t tell me. I never want to know.
“Try A Little Tenderness” isn’t Otis’s song. He didn’t write it. Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods did. The song has been recorded by performers like Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and Michael Bublé, among many others. “Try A Little Tenderness” existed before Otis sang it. But in another, much more real way, “Try A Little Tenderness” is Otis’s song and “Try A Little Tenderness” didn’t exist before Otis sang it.
The internet tells me Otis was reluctant to record the song. It’s hard to believe when you listen to it because it sounds like God wrote the song first, then created Otis in all his glory and splendor to sing it specifically for Him. Otis singing “Try A Little Tenderness” is akin to David playing the secret chord that pleased the Lord. The internet also tells me it is the most popular and most highly-ranked Otis song among Otis-lovers. And Otis has a lot of really good songs. Proof:
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long To Stop Now.” (The way he begs at the end “I’ve been loving you a little bit too long. I don’t want to stop now no, no, no. I’m down on my knees please, don’t make me stop now. I love you with all of my heart. And I can’t stop now.”)
“Pain In My Heart”
“I’ve Got Dreams To Remember”
“That’s How Strong My Love Is”
“Can’t Turn You Loose”
“Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”
“The Happy Song (Dum-Dum-De-De-De-Dum-Dum)”
“These Arms Of Mine”
I’ll end with another important Otis Redding movie moment. Johnny Castle attempts to teach Baby to dirty dance to the sounds of Otis singing “Love Man” at the after-hours staff party in Dirty Dancing. Otis’s sexy stutters of “cau-cau-cau-cause I’m a love man” fill the smoky, hormone-sweaty air soon after Baby awkwardly tells Johnny I carried a watermelon because she can’t think of anything else to say. All this passion, all this heat and Otis is there.
I grew up on Otis and don’t remember a time before him, which is a blessing. I grew up on these movie moments, these songs. I make and live my life underneath this powerful drug-like nostalgia. The songs that can instantly take me back to being a little girl, sitting on the floor watching movies. A little girl singing into the handle of her jump rope in front of the full-length mirror in her pink bedroom. I did this a lot to Disney soundtracks and Michael Jackson and Madonna. Tiffany and Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block. But Otis stands out. Who can sing like Otis? He is unrivaled when it comes to singing from the gut, when it comes to raw passion. “Try A Little Tenderness” is my favorite song. How could it not be? And it will stay that way. How could it not? He is gone from us, but the recording remains. It is a national treasure. He was a Georgia gem, a national treasure. Who can sing like Otis?
About the Author:
Leesa Cross-Smith is a homemaker and has been a finalist for both the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Iowa Short Fiction Award. She is the author of Every Kiss A War (Mojave River Press, 2014) and the forthcoming novel Whiskey & Ribbons (Hub City Press, March 2018). She lives and writes in Kentucky. You can find her website at: LeesaCrossSmith.com.