Major labels still generate big bucks mining old gems in the vaults. Every month in the ton of mail I receive, there are probably just as many reissues as new releases. This week, I check out three reissues -- two genre-busting albums and one oft-sampled jazz-funk set that finally sees the light of the digital age.
OTIS REDDING Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul
When I spin this 1965 album, which Rhino has just reissued as a two-disc set in its Collector's Edition series, it becomes clear to me that Otis Redding was a rock star. Sure, the Georgia legend, who died at age 26 in a 1967 plane crash, will always hold an exalted place in soul's pantheon. But just listen to Otis Blue, Redding's first fully realized album. It's everything today's indie rock wants to be. Feverish with sanctified energy, the music and Redding's sandpapery vocals are raw, unrelenting and perfectly imperfect.
The album's biggest hit was "I've Been Loving You Too Long," one of the most haunting soul ballads ever committed to tape. The collection also boasts the original version of "Respect," which Aretha Franklin has owned ever since she recorded it two years after Otis Blue hit record shops.
The expanded edition includes mono and stereo mixes of the album, live takes and rare B-sides. It's hard to believe that Redding was only 24 when he made this dynamite album. He reimagines everything from Sam Cooke pop ditties to sassy B.B. King blues with a depth and vocal authority that belie his age. Redding sings like a man living on borrowed time, packing every note with unbridled joy and sorrow. Otis Blue is perhaps the best documentation of his genius.
CAROLE KING Tapestry
One of my favorite college professors, whom I now consider a dear friend, introduced this album to me. He was playing it in his office one day when I stopped by. The empty CD jewel case sat on his desk as the music softly played on his computer. "I like that," I told Professor Jordan. "One of the best albums ever made," he said.
While in Wal-Mart later that week, I picked up the CD. By that time, I was probably the 19 millionth buyer. Tapestry became a cultural phenomenon, storming the charts and sweeping the Grammys in 1971, six years before I was born. And it remains a consistent seller because, as Professor Jordan said, it is one of the best pop albums ever made.
The two-disc Legacy Edition from Sony-BMG handsomely repackages the album with rare studio photos and insightful liner notes from Tapestry producer Lou Adler and writer Harvey Kubernik. Disc 1 is the original album clearly remastered. Disc 2, the reissue's selling point, collects live performances of Tapestry. Some of the voice-and-piano renderings were recorded at a 1973 concert in Columbia. Other performances were pulled from shows King did that year in Boston and New York City and a 1976 concert in San Francisco. Save for "Where You Lead," which the singer-songwriter didn't sing live, Disc 2 features unadorned live takes of every song on the album.
With King's slightly raspy young voice anchored by her forceful piano playing, the intricacies of her songwriting shine brighter. Regardless of the incarnation, I don't think I ever get tired of hearing "So Far Away" or "It's Too Late." Although I love King's original version of the latter, I must mention Billy Paul's tortured, uptown-blues remake, included on his 1972 gold seller 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. The brother gave the tune another dimension.
ROY AYERS UBIQUITY Vibrations
My homegirl Josette and I are Roy Ayers groupies. When she came down from Brooklyn, N.Y., to visit a few weeks ago, we chilled to Ayers' music while drinking wine, laughing and talking. A few times, we played the spiritual "Searching" -- one of Ayers' finest cuts, which Erykah Badu nicely redid on her 1997 Live CD. The song comes from Vibrations, an overlooked 1976 LP in Ayers' catalog of more than 80 albums.
The mid-'70s was a creatively fruitful time for the Los Angeles-born singer-songwriter and jazz vibraphonist. Although he was moving further into R&B; and disco, the artist still retained smart, jazzy overtones here and there. On Vibrations, Ayers, a criminally unheralded master of The Groove, even presaged a few styles, including house and hip-hop. The album features several standout cuts ripe for sampling, including "Moving Grooving" and the sun-drenched "Baby You Give Me a Feeling." Though uneven, Vibrations is still a spirited slice of enlightened soul.