Otis Redding was a busy guy. By 1967, between frequent concert appearances throughout the US, the legendary soul singer would briefly stop at whatever recording studio he could find to cut a few more tracks that would later be assembled into albums. He was writing and recording with such fervour that, upon his tragic passing in December of that year, his record company, Stax, was able to create a number of posthumous releases.
The secret to Redding’s extreme work ethic was simple: he worked quickly. Rarely one to attempt second takes, Redding would whip his band into a fury, bark out any words that he could think of (regardless if they made any sense or not), and often created magic on the first try. This is how it went with classic tunes like ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ and ‘Respect‘, and it remains a testament to Redding’s unmatched talent.
The only downside to working so quickly is that when things weren’t quite right, there wasn’t any time to fix them. A frequent feature of Redding’s songs is that they would fade out just as they reached their emotional climax. Apart from leaving the audience wanting more, the fade-outs were usually due to the fact that no ending had been prepared and takes usually broke down not long after Redding gave all he had.
When Redding recorded ‘Hard to Handle’ in 1967, he took his usual fast and funky approach. Utilising his classic backing group of the Stax house band, complete with Isaac Hayes and members of Booker T. and the MG’s, Redding and the musicians busted out a quick and loose version of the song. The soul singer seems almost caught off-guard upon entering with his vocal, and the horns alternate between playing the song’s riff either on the beat or on the offbeat. The result is supremely soulful if a bit slapdash. Unfortunately, Redding wouldn’t get the opportunity to refine the track.
Redding’s death triggered a wave of grief among music lovers, one of whom was the Grateful Dead‘s Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan. A blues lover at heart, Pigpen was also a noted fan of R&B and soul, often bringing in songs like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s ‘Turn On Your Love Light’ or The Rascal’s ‘Good Lovin’ to perform with the Dead in concert. Pigpen’s signature style was to add raps and improvisations during the breakdowns of these songs, his version of the psychedelic jams that his bandmates would dive into that owed more to classic stage antics of the bluesmen he adored than to jazz or rock.
Pigpen had previously covered Redding’s ‘Pain in My Heart’, while he and the Dead opened for Redding on December 20, 1966, almost exactly a year before his death. The band’s first performance of ‘Hard to Handle’ took place at the San Francisco Hilton’s Black and White Ball on March 15, 1969, as the show’s opening number. Pigpen would continue to sing the song until August 26, 1971, and after Pigpen’s own passing in 1973, the Dead retired ‘Hard to Handle’ apart from two performances with Etta James and the Tower of Power horn section in 1982.
‘Hard to Handle’ failed to take on the same resonance as Redding’s other songs until it was revived by a couple of white boys from Redding’s home state of Georgia: The Black Crowes. Speaking with Howard Stern in 2019, singer Chris Robinson called Redding “the greatest R&B/soul singer that ever was. The cool thing about ‘Hard to Handle’ at the time was that it was a B-side. So it wasn’t like I was singing ‘These Arms of Mine’ or something.”
Robinson mentions how playing the song solidifies the two artists’ southern connection and remains reverent to the original, saying, “Every time I do it, every time I sing it, I always know Otis is the greatest. I always know I’ll never do it as great. But I don’t think we attempted to re-do it.” Redding’s original recording became a jigsaw puzzle for other bands to put together regarding the song’s riff and arrangement, so The Black Crowes simply polished it up, retained its wild edge, and put it on tape.
The result would catapult the band into superstardom, reaching number one on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart and number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100, a notable improvement on the performance of their first single from Shake Your Money Maker, ‘Jealous Again’. The cover would become permanently associated with The Black Crowes, and the band continued to perform it throughout their career.
Check out the three most prominent versions of ‘Hard to Handle’ and determine who made the best version.