First published – July 6, 2020
Otis Redding’s first release was a song entitled “These Arms Of Mine” recorded in August 1962. The final song he recorded before his death was (“Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” in December 1967. In those five years he became the mainstay of Stax Records and a global star of Memphis Soul.
Redding was born in Dawson, Georgia, in 1941, moving to Macon at the age of two. He left school at fifteen to pursue a career in music and later joined a local group Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, as a singer. He also took on driving duties, which led to his first big opportunity. In August 1962 Johnny Jenkins was invited to Stax Records in Memphis for a recording session, accompanied by Redding, who did the driving. When Jenkins had finished his set, backed by Booker T & the MGs, Jim Stewart (Stax’s co-owner) asked Redding to sing two songs, “These Arms Of Mine” (with Jenkins playing guitar and Steve Cropper on piano) and “Hey Hey Baby”. “These Arms Of Mine” impressed Stewart enough for him to sign Redding and release the song in October on the company’s Volt label, with the second song “Hey Hey Baby” on the B side. The single went on to sell over 800,000 copies. Redding said that two of his biggest influences were Little Richard and Sam Cooke and there is a clear echo of their work in these songs.
Otis had made the first breakthrough courtesy of his driving licence, but it was two years before Stax released his first album, “Pain In My Heart”, featuring a typical Otis Redding slow ballad called ..“Security”. A disc jockey (A. C. Moohah Williams) picked up on the sadness of the song and referred to Redding as Mr. Pitiful, which inspired a new song from Redding and Cropper. “Mr. Pitiful” duly appeared on Redding’s next album “The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul”, which was released in March 1965. This was a very productive year for Redding, as he also released his cover of the Sam Cooke song “A Change Is Gonna Come” and his third album “Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul”, with the classic tracks “Respect” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, co-written by Redding and Jerry Butler. Most of the tracks were laid down in a twenty-four hour period, July 9th and 10th.
Otis Redding 1967
The following year Redding was back at Stax to record his next album “Complete& Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul”. The stand-out track is “Try a Little Tenderness”, backed by Booker T & the MGs, with Isaac Hayes contributing to the arrangement. The song was not new. It had been written in 1932 and had been recorded by both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Redding added a new dimension to the ballad, taking it into the Billboard Hot 100 Chart at number twenty-five and the R&B Chart at number 4. For Jim Stewart, who had given Redding his first big break, this performance was very special:
“If there’s one song, one performance that really sort of sums up Otis and what he’s about, it’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. That one performance is so special and so unique that it expresses who he is.”
Stewart came up with the idea of a duet album with Carla Thomas for Redding’s next project and recording took place at Stax in January 1967. They recorded six tracks together, with the remaining four completed over subsequent days by Redding over-dubbing Thomas’ tracks. The album “King & Queen” was released in March, charting at number five on the Billboard Pop Chart and number thirty-six on the R&B Chart, receiving gold certification. The two most successful singles of the three taken from the album were “Knock On Wood” and “Tramp”.
Later that year Redding appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival as the headline act on day two. He had always been an outstanding performer on stage, but his fan base delivered mainly black audiences. Monterey now gave him the chance to show a mainly white audience what they had been missing. Otis had with him an excellent backing band and a good horn section, Booker T & the MGs and the Mar-Keys’ horns, and he was ready to move his career up a notch or two. The set-list included “Respect”, Sam Cooke’s “Shake”, “I’ve Been Loving You” and a surprising version of the Rolling Stones song “Satisfaction”. He closed the show with “Try a Little Tenderness”. It was to be his final major concert.
Booker T Jones has commented on the performance and its importance for Redding and his fellow musicians: “I think we did one of our best shows, Otis and the MGs. That we were included in that was also something of a phenomenon. That we were there? With those people? They were accepting us and that was one of the things that really moved Otis. He was happy to be included and it brought him a new audience. It was greatly expanded in Monterey.” (Quoted in Brown, 2001)
Towards the end of the year, Redding returned to Stax to record some tracks, including a new song that he had written with Steve Cropper. Some of the Stax team didn’t think the song suited the Memphis Soul style, but Redding was looking to expand his repertoire and build a wider fan base. He thought it was one of the best songs he had written. He had started writing the song in August 1967 whilst on a visit to California, sitting watching the boats in the bay area of San Francisco. Cropper then came up with the idea of adding the sound of waves breaking, developing the sense of melancholy that the lyrics created.
On 10th December 1967 Redding was due to play in Madison, Wisconsin, backed by the Bar-Kays. Despite the poor weather conditions, Redding’s plane took off and flew to Madison. Just four miles from their destination, the plane crashed, with just one survivor, Ben Cauley of the Bar-Kays.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” was released in January 1968 and sold four million copies. It was the first posthumous number one single on the US charts, achieving over eight million air-plays. Over the next four years four more studio albums were released, with a fifth appearing in 1992.
Trying to pin down what made Otis Redding special is not easy. Booker T Jones has spoken of his singing as energetic and emotional but with a limited range. Peter Buckley (The Rough Guide to Rock) writes of his “gruff voice, which combined Sam Cooke’s phrasing with a brawnier delivery”. Otis himself describes the simplicity of his music: “Basically, I like any music that remains simple and I feel this is the formula that makes “soul music” successful. When any music form becomes cluttered and/or complicated you lose the average listener’s ear. There is nothing more beautiful than a simple blues tune. There is beauty in simplicity whether you are talking about architecture, art or music.” (Labrie 1968)
Maybe the most important aspect of Otis Redding’s music is its appeal to everybody and anybody, with its frequent focus on loneliness and sadness, but having the ability to raise your spirits. He saw music as something that could bring all people together and that, above all, is why he is one of the greats.
Stax Records 1967 (Wikimedia Commons)