Otis Redding

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Otis Redding was one of the most powerful and influential artists to emerge from the Southern Soul music community in the ’60s. A bold, physically imposing performer whose rough but expressive voice was equally capable of communicating joy, confidence, or heartache, Redding brought a passion and gravity to his vocals that was matched by few of his peers. He was also a gifted songwriter with a keen understanding of the creative possibilities of the recording process. Redding was born in 1941, and he hit the road in 1958 to sing with an R&B combo, Johnny Jenkins & the Pinetoppers. In 1962, Redding traveled to Memphis, Tennessee with Jenkins when the latter scheduled a recording session for Stax Records. When Jenkins wrapped up early, Redding cut a song of his own, “These Arms of Mine,” in 40 minutes; Stax released it as a single in May 1963, and the song became a major R&B hit and a modest success on the Pop charts. Over the next four years, Redding would cut a handful of soul classics: “Mr. Pitiful,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” “Respect,” “Tramp” (a duet with Carla Thomas), and “Shake.” In 1967, Redding seemed poised for a major breakthrough with a legendary set at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival that solidified his status with hip rock & roll fans. Sadly, Redding would not live to see his greatest triumph: his most ambitious single, “(Sittin’ on The) Dock of the Bay,” was released little over a month after his death in a place crash, becoming his first number one Pop hit and his signature tune. Redding would become a bigger star in death than in life, and his recordings would be regularly re-released and repackaged in the years to come, as his legend and his influence lived on into the 21st century. Otis Ray Redding, Jr. was born on September 9, 1941 in Dawson, Georgia. His father was a sharecropper and part-time preacher who also worked at Robins Air Force Base near Macon. When Otis was three, his family moved to Macon, settling into the Tindall Heights housing project. He got his first experience as a musician singing in the choir at Macon’s Vineville Baptist Church, and as a pre-teen, he learned to play guitar, piano, and drums. By the time Redding was in high school, he was a member of the school band, and was regularly performing as part of a Sunday Morning gospel broadcast on Macon’s WIBB-AM. When he was 17, Redding signed up to compete in a weekly teen talent show at Macon’s Douglass Theater; he ended up winning the $5.00 grand prize 15 times in a row before he was barred from competition. Around the same time, Redding dropped out of school and joined the Upsetters, the band that had backed up Little Richard before the flamboyant piano man quit rock & roll to sing the gospel. Hoping to advance his career, Redding moved to Los Angeles in 1960, where he honed his songwriting chops and hooked up with a band called the Shooters. “She’s Alright,” credited to the Shooters featuring Otis, was Redding’s first single release, but he soon returned to Macon, where he teamed up with guitarist Johnny Jenkins and his group the Pinetoppers; Redding sang lead with the group and also served as Jenkins’ chauffeur, since the guitarist lacked a license to drive. In early 1962, Otis Redding & the Pinetoppers issued a small label single, “Fat Gal” b/w “Shout Bamalama,” and a few months later, Jenkins was invited to record some material for Stax Records, the up-and-coming R&B label based in Memphis, Tennessee. Redding drove Jenkins to the studio and tagged along for the session; Jenkins wasn’t having a good day and ended up calling it quits early. With 40 minutes left on the session clock, Redding suggested they give one of his songs a try, and with Jenkins on guitar, Otis and the studio band quickly completed a take of “These Arms of Mine.” Stax wasted no time signing Redding to their Volt Records subsidiary, and “These Arms of Mine” was released in November 1962; the single rose to number 20 on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts, peaking at number 85. Redding’s follow-up, “That’s What My Heart Needs,” arrived the following October, and peaked at 27 on the R&B charts, but a stretch of singles released in 1964 failed to make much of impression. Redding’s luck changed in 1965. In January of that year, he released “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” which hit number 2 R&B and 71 Pop, while the B-side, “Mr. Pitiful,” also earned airplay, with the song going to 10 R&B and just missed hitting the Pop Top 40, stalling at 41. Redding’s masterful “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” issued in May 1965, shot to number 2 R&B, and became his first single to make the Pop Top 40, peaking at 21. Redding landed another crossover hit in September 1965, as his song “Respect” hit number four R&B and 35 Pop. By this time, Redding was becoming more ambitious as an artist, focusing on his songwriting skills, learning to play guitar, and becoming more involved with the arrangements and production on his sessions, helping to craft horn arrangements even though he couldn’t write sheet music. He was also a tireless live performer, touring frequently and making sure he upstaged the other artists on the bill, as well as a savvy businessman, operating a successful music publishing concern and successfully investing in real estate and the stock market. In 1966, Redding also released two albums, The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads and Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul; he miraculously wrote and recorded most of the latter in a single day. In 1966, Redding released a bold, impassioned cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” that was yet another R&B and Pop hit and led some to speculate that perhaps Redding was the true author of the song. That same year, he was honored by the NAACP, and played an extended engagement at the Whisky A Go Go on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip; he was the first major soul artist to play the historic venue, and the buzz over his appearances helped boost his reputation with white rock & roll fans. Later that year, Redding and several other Stax and Volt Records artists were booked for a package tour of Europe and the United Kingdom, where they were greeted as conquering heroes; the Beatles famously sent a limousine to pick Redding up when he arrived at the airport for his London gig. The British music magazine Melody Maker named Redding the Best Vocalist of 1966, an honor that had previously gone to Elvis Presley for ten consecutive years. Redding released two strong and eclectic albums in 1966, The Soul Album and Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, which found him exploring contemporary pop tunes and old standards in his trademark soulful style, and a cut from Dictionary of Soul, an impassioned interpretation of “Try a Little Tenderness,” became one of his biggest hits to date and a highlight of his live shows. In early 1967, Redding headed into the studio with fellow soul star Carla Thomas to record a duet album, King & Queen, which spawned a pair of hits, “Tramp” and “Knock on Wood.” Redding also introduced a protege, vocalist Arthur Conley, and a tune Redding produced for Conley, “Sweet Soul Music,” became a million-selling hit. After the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band took psychedelia to the top of the charts and became a clarion call for the burgeoning hippie movement, Redding was inspired to write more thematically and musically ambitious material, and he solidified his reputation with what he called “the love crowd” with an electrifying performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, where he handily won over the crowd despite being the only deep soul artist on the bill. He next returned to Europe for more touring, and upon returning began work on new material, including a song he regarded as a creative breakthrough, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Redding recorded the song at the Stax Studio in December 1967, and a few days later he and his band set out to play a string of dates in the Midwest. On December 10, 1967, Redding and his band boarded his Beechcraft H18 airplane en route to Madison, Wisconsin for another club date; the plane struggled in bad weather and crashed into Lake Monona in Wisconsin’s Dane County. The crash claimed the lives of Redding and everyone else on board, except for Ben Cauley of the Bar-Kays. Redding was only 26 when he died. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released in January 1968 and quickly became Redding’s biggest hit, topping both the Pop and R&B charts, earning two Grammy awards, and maturing into a much-covered standard. An LP collection of single sides and unreleased cuts, titled The Dock of the Bay, followed in February 1968, and it was the first of a long string of albums compiled from the material Redding cut in his seven-year recording career. In 1989, Redding was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he was granted membership into the BMI Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994, and he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. ~ Mark Deming