Otis Redding – circa 1965
“They call me Mr Pitiful / Baby, that’s my name / They call me Mr Pitiful / That’s how I got my fame” – ‘Mr Pitiful’ (Otis Redding, Steve Cropper)
The singer completes his recording session earlier than expected. It ‘didn’t go well.’ With forty minutes of time remaining, he agrees to a request from the man who drove him to the recording studio to allow the driver to record a song he has written. It’s a generous gesture. The singer booked into the Stax Records recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A. on this day in 1962 is not Otis Redding. The session is for Johnny Jenkins. Otis Redding is the person who drove Jenkins to the studio. The song he records is ‘These Arms Of Mine’ and it catches the ear of producer and Stax Records boss, Jim Stewart.
Otis Redding (9 September 1941 – 10 December 1967) is born in Dawson, Georgia, U.S.A. His parents are Otis Redding, Senior, and his wife, Fannie Redding. Otis Senior is a gospel singer, sharecropper and part-time Baptist minister at Robbins Air Force base. Fannie is a housekeeper. The family moves into nearby Macon, Georgia, where Otis spends most of his childhood in a housing project in that city.
Young Otis Redding begins singing in the church choir and at school. “I sang spiritual songs in my father’s church from about the age of 7 up until I was grown. Then I started singing rhythm and blues,” Otis recalls. He attends Ballad Hudson High School. “As I was growing up, I did a lot of talent shows. I won fifteen Sunday nights straight in a series of talent shows in Macon,” he claims. It is at one of these talent shows that Otis first meets his future wife, Zelma Atwood. By this time, Otis is 19 and Zelma is 15.
The father of the young singer doesn’t want his son to sing rock music, but Otis Redding is not easily dissuaded. Still, the part-time preacher must take some consolation from his son’s later testimonial: “Whatever success I had was through the help of The Good Lord.” ‘Success’ is still some time in the future. The 19 year old works a string of low-paying jobs. He only stays at them long enough to get a pay cheque before moving on to something else. Amongst his very temporary vocations is a stint at a petrol station as an attendant filling the vehicles with fuel. “I used to be a [water] well driller,” Otis says. “I didn’t have that much experience.” His mind is elsewhere. “If you want to be a singer, you’ve got to concentrate on it twenty-four hours a day. You can’t be a well driller, too.” Otis tells Zelma, “One day, I’m gonna be rich.” Unimpressed, the practical girl tells him he just needs to get a job.
Part of the reason for Zelma’s concern becomes clear when, in summer 1960, she gives birth to their son, Dexter. In mid-1960, Otis Redding moves to Los Angeles, California, with his sister, Deborah. It doesn’t last long. He returns to Georgia and, in August 1961, marries Zelma.
Otis Redding ‘records various sides over the next few years for various small labels’, sometimes as a soloist, sometimes with an act called Otis And The Shooters. None of them are successful. These songs include the 1961 singles ‘Shout Bamalama’ and, on Alshire Records, ‘Gettin’ Hip’.
Phil Walden, a white school friend from their days at Ballad Hudson High School, gets Otis Redding work with a local rhythm and blues group, Johnny Jenkins And The Pinetoppers. Although it’s fairly informal at this stage, Phil Walden becomes Otis Redding’s manager. In 1962 Redding works with Johnny Jenkins’ outfit as a ‘roadie, general assistant and occasional singer.’ Otis Redding is sometimes described as Jenkins’ ‘chauffeur’, but this is a distortion. It is true that Redding drives Jenkins to Stax Studios on that fateful day in 1962, but that is just part of his general duties. Johnny Jenkins has been asked to make some recordings for New York’s Atlantic Records. Atlantic has an arrangement with the Stax label in Memphis, so it makes sense for them to direct Jenkins (from Georgia) to that studio in the southern part of the U.S. (Tennessee) rather than pay to bring him up north to New York. As it turns out, the occasion proves much more significant for Otis Redding than Johnny Jenkins.
Otis Redding is identified as the ‘King of Soul.’ Redding is African-American and ‘soul’ music is the latest label – following ‘race’ music, ‘blues’ and ‘rhythm and blues’ – to be applied to a style originating in the black community. His major influences include Little Richard and Sam Cooke. A pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, Little Richard (like Otis Redding) hailed from Macon, Georgia. Little Richard’s influence can be heard most clearly on Otis Redding’s early recordings. Sam Cooke’s influence is more lingering. Like Redding, Sam Cooke was the son of a Baptist minister who elected to record secular material. However, Cooke’s vocal style was high, light and silky, a model of sophistication. By contrast, Otis Redding is a gruff and earthy shouter, with his own instinctive grasp of how to maximise the effect of his performance.
What distinguishes soul from, for instance, rhythm and blues, is a stronger gospel influence. Soul makes use of the impassioned vocal approach of revivalist preachers and often employs an organ, a keyboard sound reminiscent of the musical accompaniment to a church choir. Solomon Burke’s 1961 hit, ‘Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)’, is generally considered the first soul record. Sam Cooke’s career (1957-1965) pre-dates soul, though in its latter half there is some overlap so, to some, Cooke is considered a soul act. There is no such hesitation about classifying Otis Redding as a soul performer since his 1962 breakthrough comes after soul’s creation in 1961.
Soul music, in its purest form, is the music of rural, southern African-Americans, while its cousin, rhythm and blues, is more closely associated with urban, northern African-Americans. The headquarters of soul is the Stax record label in Memphis, Tennessee, an operation allied to the more nationally focussed Atlantic Records. Stax is founded by Jim Stewart and his elder, married sister, Estelle Axton. The company name is derived from the first two letters of their respective surnames (Stewart + Axton = Stax). Stewart and Axton are white, as are the founding members of the label’s original house band, The Mar-Keys. Midway through 1962 – about the same time Otis Redding enters the picture – The Mar-Keys fracture into two separate acts: Booker T. And The MGs (MG stands for Memphis Group) and The Memphis Horns. Both are racially integrated. Booker T. And The MGs are two white men – Steve Cropper (guitar) and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (bass) – and two black men – Booker T. Jones (keyboards) and Al Jackson (drums). Although The Memphis Horns starts out as a sextet, the membership chops and changes until it is two men: the white Wayne Jackson (trumpet) and black Andrew Love (saxophone). Discriminatory racial practices are, sadly, still commonplace in the south in the 1960s, but Stax is a little oasis of racial harmony. Booker T. And The MGs and The Memphis Horns play on most of Otis Redding’s recordings. Jim Stewart creates the Volt subsidiary label specifically for Otis Redding’s recordings.
Otis Redding’s output is divided roughly evenly between original material and cover versions of songs originally recorded by others. The original songs can be further split in approximate halves between songs Redding composes alone and those on which he shares credit with guitarist Steve Cropper. When it comes to cover versions, Otis Redding counsels, “Don’t ever do a song as you heard somebody else do it.” In other words, do your best to put your own imprint on the material. Redding’s catalogue also has an approximate fifty-fifty split between slow, smouldering ballads and uptempo stompers.
Returning to his breakthrough moment, this is how it happens in the words of Otis Redding: “I was taking a friend of mine to Memphis, Tennessee, to record a record. His name was Johnny Jenkins and I took him up there. I think they paid me ten dollars to take him up there. So when I got there, after he finished the session, I asked him to let me do a song called ‘These Arms Of Mine’ and the record came out and it was a pretty big record.”
‘These Arms Of Mine’ (US no. 85) backed with ‘Hey Hey Baby’ is released in November 1962. In this slow burning number, Otis Redding advises, “These arms of mine, they are lonely / Lonely and feeling blue.” The song is composed by Redding himself.
At home, Otis Redding’s family is increasing. He and his wife, Zelma, already have a son, Dexter (born 1960), but they are now the parents of a daughter as well, Karla (born 1962). They will go on to have a third child, Otis III a.k.a. ‘Junior’ (born 1964).
‘Between 1962 and 1964 [Otis] Redding records a series of soul ballads characterised by unabashedly sentimental lyrics usually begging forgiveness or asking a girl to come home.’ First is the staccato ache of ‘Pain In My Heart’ (US no. 61) in 1963, a song written by New Orleans master craftsman, Allen Toussaint, under his pseudonym of Naomi Neville. Redding’s own ‘Security’ (US no. 97) better harnesses and focuses his talent with its hard-headed, more upbeat variation: “I want security / Without it, I had a great loss.” Along with ‘These Arms Of Mine’, these two songs are included on Otis Redding’s debut album, ‘Pain In My Heart’ (1964) (US no. 103, UK no. 28), in January. Produced by Jim Stewart, this includes covers of songs by Redding’s idols: Little Richard’s 1957 hit ‘Lucille’ and Sam Cooke’s 1957 hit ‘You Send Me’.
Otis Redding’s 1964 singles ‘Come To Me’ (US no. 69) and ‘Chained And Bound’ are on his next album, ‘Soul Ballads’ (1965) (US no. 75, UK no. 30) in March. More important is a double sided 1965 single that also makes this set, ‘Mr Pitiful’ (US no. 41) b/w ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ (US no. 74). Co-written with Steve Cropper, ‘Mr Pitiful’ finds Redding playing up his own early reputation amidst blaring horns: “They call me Mr Pitiful / That’s how I got my fame.” ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ is a cover of O.V. Wright’s 1964 song. Its importance comes with British group The Rolling Stones also covering the song – or covering Otis’ version of it – on ‘Out Of Our Heads’ (1965). Otis Redding struggles to cross over from the black community and this proves a decisive step in Redding (and soul music generally) being adopted by a white audience as well. ‘Soul Ballads’ is co-produced by Jim Stewart and Booker T. And The MGs.
The next album by Otis Redding is his finest. ‘Otis Blue’ (1965) (US no. 75, UK no. 6) is released in September. Jim Stewart shares production credit with Isaac Hayes and David Porter. In the hard and choppy ‘Respect’ (US no. 35), Otis Redding insists, “All I’m asking / Is for a little respect when I come home.” Although Redding writes the song himself, the 1967 version by Aretha Franklin is perhaps better known. Even Otis himself is said to admit that her take is so authoritative that it’s as if ‘the woman has stolen his song.’ ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’ has a high-stepping show-band brass section. If these two songs embody Otis Redding’s uptempo side, ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ (US no. 21), co-written with Jerry Butler, represents his slow ballad persona. A guitar teases the tidal surge of the song as Otis vows, “I’ve been loving you too long / To stop now / You are tired / And you want to be free / My love is growing stronger / As it becomes a habit to me.” The words tear at his lungs like thorns in this majestic display. ‘Otis Blue’ also contains cover versions of two 1964 Sam Cooke songs, ‘Shake’ and ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, The Temptations’ 1964 hit ‘My Girl’ (UK no. 11) (written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White), and a tip of the hat to The Rolling Stones with their 1965 song ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ (US no. 31, UK no. 33). The last named boasts a stronger guitar track than is common to soul, even if it is unlikely to convert anyone in the black community to becoming Stones fans. “I use a lot of words different than The Stones’ version,” Otis acknowledges. “That’s because I made them up.” ‘Otis Blue’ is rightly hailed as ‘the definitive Redding album.’
In March 1966 Otis Redding gives a concert tour in the United Kingdom. He is warmly received. “I think the English kids want to get more of the rhythm and blues music,” Redding observes, “and I think they want to make a little change or something and hear some of the soul music.”
Otis Redding invests some of his new found financial prosperity in real estate. “I own a four hundred acre farm in Macon, Georgia,” he says proudly. “I raise cattle and hogs. I own horses, too.” His wife, Zelma, shakes her head in disbelief at Otis’ ambition to be a real farmer as well as a singer.
‘The Soul Album’ (1966) (US no. 54, UK no. 22) in April is most notable for the lowing, late night blues of ‘Coffee And Cigarettes’.
More significant is ‘The Dictionary Of Soul’ (1966) (US no. 73, UK no. 23) in October. ‘Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)’ (US no. 29, UK no. 23) is inspired by Otis Redding trying to explain to co-author Steve Cropper how he imagines the saxophone line should go in the song. Otis alone composes the bruised and throbbing ‘My Lover’s Prayer’ (US no. 61, UK no. 37): “This is my lover’s prayer / I hope it’ll reach out to you, my love.” Though it becomes one of his signature performances, Otis Redding has considerable difficulty securing the publisher’s permission to record ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ (US no. 25, UK no. 46). Originally recorded in 1932 by the Ray Noble Orchestra, it is probably better known for the 1933 Bing Crosby version. Despite the problems, the effort proves worthwhile with Otis Redding’s compassionate approach rising in intensity as the song progresses. A more contemporary cover proves less bothersome as, having delivered his reading of a Rolling Stones tune, the soul great moves on to Britain’s other chart sensation of the time, knocking out a version of The Beatles’ 1965 hit, ‘Day Tripper’ (UK no. 43). For some, this disc, rather than ‘Otis Blue’ is his ‘artistic fruition.’ In any case, it’s another triumph.
If Otis Redding is Stax Records’ leading male talent, then Carla Thomas is probably the leading female recording artist on the label. Thus, their album of duets, released in March, is titled ‘King & Queen’ (1967) (US no. 36, UK no. 18). The highlight is the pair’s interpretation of Lowell Fulson’s ‘Tramp’ (US no. 26, UK no. 18), recorded originally by Fulson earlier in the same year.
Early in 1967, Otis Redding begins working live with a regular backing band, The Bar-Kays. Their line-up is: Jimmie King (guitar), Ronnie Caldwell (electric organ), James Alexander (bass), Carl Cunningham (drums), Phalon Jones (saxophone) and Ben Cauley (trumpet).
In March-April 1967 Otis Redding headlines a package tour of Europe and the U.K. by the Stax/Volt artists. The Bar-Kays, Otis’ regular band, have to sit this tour out because Booker T. And The MGs are aboard and providing backing for the whole night’s line-up at each show. ‘Live In Europe’ (1967) (US no. 32, UK no. 14) is a recording of Otis Redding’s performance at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, France, on 21 March 1967. The album exudes ‘warmth, humour, and high spirits.’ This is supported by Otis’ own reports to his wife, Zelma, as he claims, “I’m having so much fun…I’m getting a whole new audience.”
Returning to the U.S.A., things don’t look quite so rosy. The casual racism of the south in the 1960s is still all too apparent to African-American recording artists who have been feted in Europe without any such discrimination being directed towards them. Additionally, there is some jealousy over Otis Redding’s top billing throughout the tour.
Heedless of this development, Otis Redding achieves another milestone. He appears at the Monterey Pop Festival on 16-18 June 1967. This is one of the first major rock gatherings. Otis Redding owes his inclusion to The Beach Boys dropping out of the show, leaving him to headline on Saturday night. The crowd is predominantly white and composed of long-haired hippies. But, just as he did in Europe, Otis Redding wows them with his showmanship and crosses over to a wider audience again. “I killed them out there,” Redding crows to his wife. “I got ‘em.”
A further marker of Otis Redding’s ascension is him topping the October 1967 poll in the British music publication ‘Melody Maker’ for best international male vocalist. In doing so, Redding displaces the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Elvis Presley.
The singer marvels at this fortune. He once told his wife that, one day, he was going to be rich. Now, at 26, he has a four hundred acre farm and two private airplanes…and no college degree.
The only dark cloud on the horizon is the development of throat polyps, nodes on his vocal chords. This results in an enforced six weeks break. Otis is frustrated at being unable to sing and can’t even speak for two weeks. However, he puts the time to good use. Otis spends time with his family on the farm, absorbs The Beatles’ landmark album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967), and writes thirty new songs for his next recordings.
Otis Redding returns to the recording studio on 6 December 1967.
Four days later, he is back on tour with The Bar-Kays. The entourage is set to travel in a light plane. The aircraft has a carrying capacity of seven persons. With pilot Richard Fraser and Otis Redding, there is room for five more, but The Bar-Kays are a six-piece band. Bassist James Alexander takes a different flight. As it approaches Truax Field near Madison, Wisconsin, something goes wrong. The plane carrying the rest of The Bar-Kays plunges into Lake Monona on 10 December 1967. The only survivor of the crash is Ben Cauley, the trumpet player from The Bar-Kays. Aged 26, Otis Redding is dead.
Producer Steve Cropper oversees three posthumous Otis Redding albums. The first of these is ‘The Dock Of The Bay’ (1968) (US no. 4, UK no. 1) in February. It contains Otis Redding’s finest song, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’ (US no. 1, UK no. 3). This experiment in ‘soul folk’ was recorded on 6 December 1967. Co-written by Redding and Cropper, this languorous song is a strangely attractive mixture of frustration and contentment. “I left my home in Georgia / Headed for the ‘Frisco Bay,” Otis sings autobiographically (San Francisco was the centre of the late 1960s hippie culture Otis was beginning to conquer). “’Cos I had nothin’ to live for / And looks like nothin’s gonna come my way,” he adds prophetically. Although Redding’s purer soul music recordings are more representative, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’ offers a tantalising glimpse of what the singer may have gone on to achieve. It is more accessible to the neophyte and serves as an ideal introduction to new listeners. With this song Otis Redding becomes the first recording artist to have a posthumous no. 1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
‘The Immortal Otis Redding’ (1968) (US no. 58, UK no. 19) in June is perhaps the strongest of the posthumous albums by the King of Soul. It includes ‘The Happy Song (Dum-Dum) (US no. 25, UK no. 24) and ‘Amen’ (US no. 36) b/w ‘Hard To Handle’ (US no. 51, UK no. 15). The last-named, co-written by Redding, Allen Jones and Alverts Isbell is one of the singer’s strongest uptempo barn-burners. “Pretty little thing, let me light your candle / ‘Cos mama, I’m sure hard to handle,” Otis bellows as punchy horns chorus behind him. ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’ (US no. 41) is co-authored by Redding, his wife, and Joe Rock and begins life as a poem written by Zelma Redding.
‘Love Man’ (1969) (US no. 46) is home to ‘A Lover’s Question’ (US no. 48) and the title track, ‘Love Man’ (US no. 72, UK no. 43). A Redding original, ‘Love Man’ is frantic but radiates confidence. “Six feet, one, weigh / Two hundred and ten / A long hair…real fair skin,” Otis sings in a piece of self-description. Actually he was six feet, two inches (1.88 m) and weighed two hundred and twenty pounds (100 kg). There’s a lovely vocal touch in the song where Otis puts on a fake stammer to warn, “’Cau, ‘Cau, ‘Cau / ‘Cos I’m a love man.”
The surviving Bar-Kays, James Alexander and Ben Cauley, rebuild the act and have some funk and disco hits in the 1970s.
Otis Redding’s big break came at the end of Johnny Jenkins recording session, but to credit his success purely to good fortune is not completely accurate. Redding was ambitious. He worked hard to get himself to a point where, when opportunity arose, he was ready to seize it. Through the 1960s he continued to exert himself making soul music popular, converting audiences in England and Europe to his sound, and then reaching out to a homegrown hippie audience. Luck alone would not have been enough for such a career. Otis Redding was a self-made man. Although his music was flexible enough to encompass a 1930s standard like ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, British beat group hits like ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Day Tripper’, and his own ‘folk soul’ masterpiece ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’, it never sounded watered-down or compromised. He remained the ruler of his own soul music kingdom. ‘Otis Redding did more than anyone else to popularise soul music in the mid-1960s…’ His work is characterised by ‘hoarse, gritty vocals, brassy arrangements, and an emotional way with both party tunes and aching ballads.’
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 46, 50, 53, 54
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Soul’ by Peter Guralnick, ‘The Sound of Memphis’ by Robert Palmer, ‘Otis Redding’ by John Landau, ‘Aretha Franklin’ by Russell Gersten (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 261, 268, 273, 275, 335
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 49, 132, 176, 254
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 38, 59, 191
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 21 October 2013
- wikipedia.org as at 21 October 2013
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 18 December 2013
- Otis Redding radio interview (1965?) reproduced in 10 (below)
- brainyquote.com as at 18 December 2013
- ‘Otis Redding – Soul Ambassador’ – U.K. video documentary by James Jones (1995?)
- ‘American Bandstand’ (U.S. television program) – Otis Redding interview conducted by Dick Clark (1965?)
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 77, 131
- ‘The Dock Of The Bay – The Definitive Collection’ – Sleeve notes by John Tobler (Atlantic Records / WEA International Inc., 1987) p. 2, 4
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 88
- lyricsfreak.com as at 15 December 2013
- huffingtonpost.com – Article by Karla Redding Andrews (10 September 2011)
- ‘People’ (U.S. magazine) – Article by Leo Sacks (21 September 1981) (reproduced on people.com)
- allmusic.com, ‘Otis Redding’ by Richie Unterberger as at 9 December 2013
Song lyrics copyright Greenwich Music Ltd. with the exceptions of ‘Respect’, ‘My Lover’s Prayer’, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’ (all three Warner Bros. Music Ltd.); ‘Love Man’ and ‘Hard To Handle’ (both Carlin Music Corp.)
Last revised 16 January 2014