Music Features

The Great Otis Redding

No one can deny the impact of the mid-sixties British Invasion, but there's always some dumb critic spreading the notion that there was nothing else going on in popular music. The fact is, a musical revolution was already underway on American shores before the Beatles booked their first flight. As revolutions go, it was less lauded, certainly less televised, igniting far from the power centers of New York and Los Angeles. It happened in Detroit, Michigan with the foundation of the Tamla/Motown labels; and in Memphis, Tennessee, where the cross-cultural exchange of country and R&B made Stax/Volt a natural outcome. These regional labels started small, but their music set new paradigms, striking a chord with listeners without the persuasion of big-money marketing.

There was, however, a marked contrast in philosophy between them that had little to do with the North and South border. Motown's owner, Berry Gordy, was a slick strategist who went after the teen market from the get go, releasing great music under his tight rein with industrial regularity. Swinging to a slower groove, the music produced at Stax/Volt Records was looser, rougher around the edges, favoring human emotion over musical efficiency. Founded by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, the Stax/Volt complex was run in a converted movie theater, an oasis of integration in a segregated city. If Motown artists carried a whiff of old show-biz, Stax artists moved freely without coaching or choreography. They won their audiences without calculations, letting self-expression prevail. Stax/Volt seemed to be one of the few labels where spontaneity was still valued. As such, it was the perfect place for Otis Redding, who was waiting in the wings to be someone.

When Redding signed up with the Volt label, his style was fully formed, but it had taken him some time to get there. His idols were Little Richard and Sam Cooke, and their influence would never leave him. However, he had found his own voice in the rough and tumble environment of the Chitlin' Circuit. All he needed was to trust his instincts, and Stax owner Jim Stewart detected this immediately. They came together by happenstance, when Redding showed up at Stax as the driver for guitarist Johnnie Jenkins, who'd been summoned for an audition. Jenkins didn't make the cut, but an on-the-spot performance by Redding got Stewart's attention. In those days, most label heads had a musical ear and knew how to develop talent. Stewart didn't just sign up Redding; he focused on his strengths, steering him towards soulful material and encouraging his songwriting talent.

Written by Redding, These Arms Of Mine became a sizable hit in March 1963. The song is anchored in a ballad structure favored by doo-wop groups, yet the vocal approach is pure Southern soul, hovering between gospel abandon and blues intensity. There's raw emotion in Redding's voice, his performance dynamic throughout, shifting at ease between highs and lows, giving the simple lyrics the emotional release of a Tennessee Williams drama. This wasn't teenage stuff; it was music of lush melancholy that sounded mature, though the singer was only 21 at the time. Redding would follow this pattern through his brief recording career. However, as he gained confidence as a recording artist, the breakup songs would become darker and more nuanced, evident on juggernauts like That's How Strong My Love Is and Just One More Day.

The music produced at Stax/Volt lacked the embellishments of Motown. Team effort and off-the-cuff ideas kept stagnation at bay, and this organic environment allowed Redding to come into his own. He was a no-gimmicks vocalist who eschewed background singers, echo, and double-tracking. As a young teen, he played drums for gospel groups, and his sense of timing shined on up-tempo tracks like Love Man and slow jams like My Lover's Prayer. Backing him was a group of legendary players who worked out the song arrangements with him, consisting of Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald Dunn on bass, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums. Added to the mix were the Memphis Horns, which actually provided the musical counterpart to Redding's voice with distinctive patterns. Like Sam Cooke, he was a vocalist who thought as a musician, always focusing his attention on band dynamics. Hence the band would be ahead plowing the field before Redding worked a sweat. On tracks like Ole Man Trouble, the horns add punctuation to every verse, heightening the mood of existential fatalism. On I Can't Turn You Loose, the propulsive thrust of the band comes barreling at you like a freight train. With this powerhouse behind him, Redding looked beyond the singles market. Otis Blue (1965) and The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966) can be counted among the best albums of all time.

Redding was the kind of singer who could turn a song inside out. His covers of Shake and (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction had an emotional intensity that surpassed the originals. He transformed a croon-in-your-ear standard like Try A Little Tenderness into an adrenalized rush towards sexual jubilation. By contrast, his version A Change Is Gonna Come honored Sam Cooke's memory with a heartfelt delivery that made palpable the feelings of hurt and frustration. With Cooke's death in 1964, Redding filled the vacuum, but his own journey would be short.

Crossover hits like I've Been Loving You Too Long broadened his white fan base. A hit single with My Girl in the UK and a successful European tour as part of The Stax/Volt Revue in early 1967 proved that his music had international appeal. In America, however, the media was slow to catch up. All that changed with Redding's amazing performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, which made him a superstar overnight. Redding, who'd worked hard to support his family since his teens, didn't seem to have much in common with the carefree hippie generation, yet there was a sincerity and directness to his music that cut through the psychedelic din. Nevertheless, he wasn't immune to the changes taking place around him. His last song, written on a San Francisco houseboat, is a testament to this.

Released posthumously, (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay would be Redding's sole number one hit. The song had just been recorded when Redding went back on the road with the Bar-Kays, his touring group. On December 10, 1967, the plane that was carrying him and his band went down into the cold waters of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. Dock of The Bay, which expressed the mood of those who came of age in the 1960s, would have catapulted him to a new stage as an artist.

Soul music didn't die with Redding. Aretha Franklin, who took his song Respect and made it her own as a female empowerment anthem, filled the void along with up-and-comers like Isaac Hayes and Sly Stone. Redding, who missed the most profitable years for soul labels, would neither be around for the rapid changes that would take over black music. What he would have made of disco, rap or hip-hop is anyone's guess. One thing for certain is that he would have remained true to himself, because he had opened a realm that kept expanding. His legacy continues to inspire new generations. It's a deep well that never goes dry.