Everyone knows Otis Redding’s 1966 take on “Try A Little Tenderness”. The anticipation, the buildup, and the progression into double-time transformed this pop standard into a soul staple. Some may be aware that Aretha Franklin covered the song on her third album, 1962’s The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin. What most don’t know though, is that Aretha’s version of “Try A Little Tenderness” inspired Otis to cover the song.
Phil Walden, who was Otis Redding’s manager, confirmed to David Ritz that Aretha’s version of “Try A Little Tenderness” was the reason Otis decided to take on the song. “Otis had (The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin)… he was trying to channel Aretha (on “Try A Little Tenderness”)… It was Aretha, along with Sam Cooke, that got Otis Redding into standards, which is ironic since it was Aretha’s redo of his ‘Respect’ that turned his little R-and-B tune into an enduring standard.” We can consider this Aretha paying it forward for what she would do to “Respect” in 5 years.
There are nuances of Aretha’s very straight-forward arrangement that can be heard in Otis’ take, specifically when he sings the line “young girls they do get weary wearing the same old shabby dress” with timing and inflections similar to Aretha’s (though a slightly different lyric). The instrumentation is all different though. Aretha’s version hinges on strings, piano, and light percussion, while Otis’ is driven by the sounds of soul: brass, guitar, a punchy piano, and a driving drum beat.
Notably, Aretha doesn’t even really go all the way off on “Tenderness”. There are a few momentarily vocal bursts, but she largely uses her restraint and gives a somewhat understated vocal performance. The power of that voice is, as always, evident despite not being fully utilized.
It’s a trip to imagine what Aretha might have done with “Try A Little Tenderness” if she followed Otis’ definitive reworking, but that daydream isn’t possible based on the order of events. Aretha’s version didn’t become even a fraction as known as Otis’, hers did crack number 100 on the charts for a week when it was released.
While Aretha rarely revisited many of her Columbia sides, she did revisit “Try A Little Tenderness” at least once. During her 1986 “Queen of Soul” special, she broke into just about a minute of the song during an “Old Time Medley” of Columbia songs, starting around the 13:08 mark.
Listen to Aretha “Try A Little Tenderness”: