In June 1993, Essence magazine published the results of a listener poll conducted by WBGO-FM’s Felix Hernandez, host of the weekly rhythm & blues marathon called Rhythm Revue.
Three hundred thousand tri-state-area fans of the Newark, New Jersey-based station were asked to list their favorite R&B classics. When the votes were tallied, the only artist to score two singles in the Top Ten was Otis Redding. “Try A Little Tenderness” copped the Number One slot, while the ballad from his very first Stax recording session, “These Arms Of Mine,” came in at Number Nine.
It seems odd in retrospect that Redding, who died when his tour plane crashed on December 10, 1967, should triumph this way over the entire field of his contemporaries, including Percy Sledge (whose Muscle Shoals-produced “When A Man Loves A Woman” became the first unadulterated Southern soul record to top the pop chart) and totemic forerunners like James Brown. But Otis continues to pop up as both paragon and paradigm of everything everyone admires about the legacy of soul music. From the way Animal House slyly invokes his days of touring the white college circuit to the completely over-the-top filmic tribute The Blues Brothers pays the entire Stax oeuvre, something about the sound preserved on the recordings contained in this box just won’t be forgotten.
What makes the persistence of the Otis Redding production formula even more miraculous is that while it was being developed (1962-67), it had fierce commercial competition from both the British Invasion and Motown. Otis Redding and his road band were still barnstorming one-nighters on the chitlin’ circuit in 1964 when The Beatles scored their first television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. In ’64 the Rolling Stones were touring America with Patti La Belle & The Blue Belles, doing their best to assume the outlaw/white nigger mantle from Jerry Lee Lewis, and “Little” Stevie Wonder was enjoying national exposure via hugely successful movies like Muscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach, singing “Happy Song,” Hollywood’s shameless “Fingertips” rewrite (which nonetheless served to reignite sales of Wonder’s already massive pop instrumental). Redding may not have had the muscle of national media immediately on his side, but the close-knit team of promoters, musicians, and management that coalesced around him — first in his native Georgia and later in Memphis, Tennessee — understood how to work their regional market with a thoroughness that would carve them all a permanent riche in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The filial management team of Phil and Alan Walden began as teenagers, hanging out at the roadhouses, scouring black talent contests, and pulling every Brer Rabbit trick in the book to guarantee support for their artists. By contemporary standards (now that lawyers, accountants, and the federal government have come to dictate what is possible and proper in rock ‘n’ roll) much of what was standard operating procedure in those early days would be considered extortion. Artists used to think nothing of giving percentages of their creative equity away to DJs, record-company owners, promoters, and anyone else in a position to offer all-important support at radio, booking, and retail levels. Such accommodationist tactics were part and parcel of “getting along” in the deep South, in philosophical harmony with the Through The Looking Glass logic of Southern racial politics. To accomplish all he did in five very tumultuous years recording for a white-owned Memphis-based independent label, Otis Redding was a very lucky black man indeed.
In 1961 Phil Walden roped Atlantic Records’ regional promo guy, Joe Galkin, into picking up an instrumental single, “Love Twist,” featuring local guitar hero Johnny Jenkins, via splitting the management contract on the whole band with Galkin 50/50. “Love Twist” appeared on Gerald, Galkin’s own custom label, and the Galkin/Walden Brothers team solidified their working relationship by making the single sell. Jenkins’ band, The Pinetoppers, happened to contain a promising young singer named Otis Redding, and the unit toured substantially courtesy of Phil Walden’s college frat connections and overall booking strategy. Once Galkin moved 25,000 units of the single with his bullish approach to regional radio, Atlantic was only too glad to pick up the act for inclusion in its two-year-old distribution and development pact with Stax Records in Memphis.
The year was 1962, and Stax sessioneers Booker T. & The MG’s had just scored their first pop-crossover hit with the instrumental “Green Onions.” Naturally, it was thought to be a smart move to pair new Stax signees with the MG’s (whose initials simply stood for “Memphis Group”), the better to piggyback the band’s sudden mainstream notoriety. According to Atlantic VP Jerry Wexler, Galkin twisted his arm for the production money to cut demos at Stax on Jenkins and The Pinetoppers. After all, one couldn’t just shoehorn a group Stax had no prior involvement with into the busy and already profitable production schedule at the East McLemore Street studios — not and expect chief engineer and Stax president Jim Stewart to absorb the demo costs himself. So, driven by his friendship with the Waldens and his belief that something about The Pinetoppers was worth a fortune, Galkin cut some clever deals all around.
First, Redding was slipped 30 minutes of recording time at the end of the unexpectedly unproductive Johnny Jenkins demo session. Then 50% of the publishing on Redding’s first single (“Hey Hey Baby” b/w “These Arms of Mine”) was given to Stax to sweeten their outlook on the project. The record would have remained a blip on the screen had it nor been for “John R” Richbourg, a powerful Nashville DJ who alerted Jim Stewart to the B-side ballad’s hit potential. John R was subsequently assigned Stax’s portion of the publishing in recognition of his promotion of a song whose uniqueness no one else had seemed to understand. John R played “These Arms Of Mine” regularly on his popular R&B show for six months before it finally began to sell and, eight months after his initial session, Otis was invited back to Stax to record again.
Because the radio market during the ’60s was completely singles-driven, artists were given plenty of time to build a fan base and craft quality follow-ups. Unlike today, when singers are expected to decant an album’s-worth of hits every nine months out of a vacuum of self-indulgent navel-gazing, the tunes that writers like Redding, Isaac Hayes, Steve Cooper, and the whole Stax collective came up with were derived from constant live club exposure and daily jam sessions. They weren’t guessing what the public would react to, they knew from personal experience.
“It’s a big community project on every song we cut,” guitarist Steve Cropper told an interviewer during this period. “The main arrangers for Stax would be Booker T., Isaac Hayes, and myself.” Booker T. Jones, whose organ and piano licks were honed in college, tended to leave the technical side of recording to others: “When Steve [Cropper] isn’t operating the board, Jim Stewart takes care of it . . . [Jim’s] the spearhead for the whole thing in a subtle kind of way.” Al Jackson Jr. would tell the same magazine that the secret to the Stax rhythmic groove was simplicity, spontaneity, no multitracking, and no signal processing: “[Motown] uses echo and we don’t,” Jackson stressed. “We cut our drums flat. I don’t use any muffling or anything, I just play the way I feel, [and] I play with the butt end of my left stick.” Bassist “Duck” Dunn admitted to idolizing Motown bass players James Jamerson and Eldee Young from Ramsay Lewis’ band.
The frequency with which certain members of The MG’s would refer to jazz sources points to their own love of improvisation. Because they habitually composed around the idiosyncrasies of individual singers, never relying on written charts, Stax players had to be able to arrange spontaneous variations on repetitive motifs, much like the jazzmen. And the inspiration for most of their inventions came from the human dynamics of club performance and daily life. For these musicians the time lapse between a great club gig, a great bout of sex, the next songwriting session, and the next big backyard barbecue was so short that every peak social encounter joined seamlessly with the next. The studio telepathy and emotional rapport so remarked upon by everyone who visited Stax during that era was the result of this rich and intimate participation in the immediacy of daily experience.
Nowadays greed and conformist peer pressure are more likely to drive a recording session than the desire to express communal wit or even just to have fun. “We work very hard to create a mood,” Booker T. Jones told Hit Parader magazine. “When people listen to Stax records, they’re able to feel it. None of use are extraordinary musicians. We concentrate on letting people know how we felt when we were playing.” They used virtually no overdubs and only rarely employed backup singers (usually, according to Jim Stewart, because good ones were either unavailable or too expensive!).
With Otis Redding sessions in particular, songs were often written and cut the same day, even though Otis would seldom arrive with more than one verse and a title. After a short adjustment period, the players — or most often Otis himself — would flesh out the basic idea with innovative horn riffs, guitar licks, and other melodic fills as the mood and lyric moved them. On “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” the titular hook is actually Otis’ vocal blueprint for a horn part that Redding and Cropper decided not to replace with the real thing.
Each session would generate two to five takes of each song, from which group consensus would select the final version. It was a very democratic system. The only truly external influence on the Stax sound was the occasional veto from the parent label up north, which sometimes asked for less “laid-back” mixes and often thought Stax producers recorded their lead vocals too low in the mix. The latter was held to be the case with the posthumous release “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” The version collected here shows the normal Stax approach, with the level of the lead vocal and the backing track sounding almost equal. The version most people continue to hear on the radio is an alternate album mix, whose grudging concession to Atlantic’s taste was to raise the level of the lead vocal higher than the instrumental.
The Stax/Atlantic deal was made before there were any precedents on which to base such an arrangement. But it yielded such instant results that it became a model for many subsequent deals between large and small recording companies. Many of the clauses that turned up in a contract struck in 1965 to memorialize what had literally been a handshake agreement between the two labels became the cause of bitterness when Stax left Atlantic in 1968. Couched in serpentine legalese, the essence of the deal was that Atlantic was granted the right of first refusal to purchase any master that Stax recorded or released after payment of $1,000 advance in 1960 for Carla Thomas’ first single. That is, Stax would record a single and release it locally. It if showed regional sales, or Atlantic decided they liked it, they would pick it up for national distribution, paying further pressing, packaging, and marketing costs, and paying Stax a royalty on copies sold (they would also reimburse Stax for any prior pressing and packaging expenditures prior to national release). Eventually, the masters of certain artists’ recordings would be sent to Atlantic before release to determine whether they would receive national distribution. Atlantic was not required to pay any up-front moneys to acquire the masters of any artist in the Stax stable. But for their post-production and marketing contributions they gained permanent ownership of any Stax recording they chose to distribute. In the early days, these contractual terms could be finessed and even ignored on a case-by-case basis. But, ultimately, there was no escaping the fine print.
Most Otis Redding singles and albums appeared on the Volt label, a Stax subsidiary. Joe Galkin may have owned a share in it, and as Redding was one of the first Volt artists, there was a longstanding hype that the imprint was minted to be the singer’s own vanity press. Since most of their projects started as regional priorities, Stax did all the expensive, exhaustive spadework. Atlantic didn’t have to pick up the ball until it was to their advantage to do so. Yet Stax would never have been able to get its artists on the national charts without Atlantic’s help. Atlantic distribution turned thousands of sales into hundreds of thousands of sales within the first year of release, an enviable feat even by today’s marketing standards.
In the current era of high-tech, gimmick-ridden studio magic, it is sometimes hard to remember just how influential those early, live, “one-take” soul singles were as they emerged in profusion out of Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama during the ’60s. The small, bucolic city of Macon, Georgia became home base to not one but three of the seminal talents of the age: Little Richard, James Brown, and Otis Redding. Something about being a backwoods Georgia country boy (to paraphrase Redding’s send-up of Southern stereotypes in “Tramp”) seems to have invested all three men with organizational and creative abilities far in excess of what was expected of poor, black, male citizens of pre-desegregation America. Little Richard amassed (and spent) a personal fortune generated by a string of million-selling singles he recorded before the end of the ’50s. Before the end of the next decade, reform-school graduate James Brown had acquired an empire that included several radio stations, a chain of restaurants, and a private jet. And from a recording career that was barely six years long, Otis Redding established the publishing holdings, 300-acre ranch, and ancillary businesses that still support his wife and three children comfortably today. With the lucidity of hindsight, many social scientists recognize that forced desegregation destroyed as much opportunity as it created. Being unwelcome in white communities usually meant that black genius and dollars continued to circulate among the black people that needed them most. The ragged network of black hotels and nightclubs that supported early black performers suffered mightily once they had to compete for clientele with formerly all-white establishments. Often so much energy was expended striving to integrate a restricted locale that blacks would have nothing left with which to maintain their own institutions. By the time people figured out that black schools were sometimes better for black children than white ones, the number of quality black schools had already been irreparably diminished.
The life of Otis Redding embraced all the paradoxes of his time in history. Here was a black man in the segregated South whose closest friends and business partners were white; a charismatic, successful male performer in his sexual prime who was especially solicitous of his wife and children; a headlining star who would divert time and effort from his own recording schedule to help struggling novices like Arthur Conley get a leg up the entertainment ladder.
Like most black kids growing up in the rural South, Otis understood early that the key to success was to listen to everything, learn a little of everything, and do a little of everything. The term “jackleg” is used to refer to someone who did a little of everything with some sort of self-taught proficiency, and Otis’ father appears to have been this sort of man. A jackleg preacher and gospel singer of some repute who did all sorts of blue-collar work on the side until bad health got the better of him, Otis’s father must have accustomed his son from the cradle to think of musicianship as just another kind of day job worthy of pursuit. Indeed, one of Otis’ more profitable gigs as an adolescent was a Sunday-morning stint playing drums for local gospel groups live over the air for a local radio station. What better way to start learning the mechanics and politics of session recording? And if, as legend has it, the station really paid the boy $6 every Sunday for this trouble, music made a large contribution to paying the Reddings’ weekly grocery bill.
One of the Reddings’ neighbors, Claude Sims, owned a neighborhood saloon that was sort of a demitasse Plantation Inn. Over the objections of his father, a 15-year-old Otis, tired of competing in amateur-level talent shows for little or no money, and unwilling to do rural day labor for the rest of his life, asked Sims if he could sing on Fridays with the house band at his place. Sims agreed and Redding won his performance spurs by jumping right into the grueling routine of tin-roof club-hopping, like his idol Little Richard had done half a decade before.
A big kid for his 15 years and more than able to hold his own in rough company, Otis started stockpiling the touring experience that would ensure local renown. Phil Walden first heard about “Rockhouse” Redding as the kid in the weekly WIBB-sponsored talent contests that was always beating out one of Walden’s groups for the first place.
“He was a great imitator in his early days,” the elder Walden recalled. “He sounded particularly like Little Richard, who was a Maconite as well. But then there are times you can hear a James Brown influence . . . Sam Cooke . . . Ray Charles . . . or Jackie Wilson.”
Many critics have pointed to Redding’s frequent Sam Cooke covers and an early penchant for Little Richard’s florid New Orleans-tinged vocal riffs as proof of an intentional similarity between the young singer and his admitted cultural heroes. I believe a closer listen to early tracks like “She’s Alright” and “Shout Bamalama” reveals a vocalist striving for a grittier timbre than Cooke, and a less hyperbolic delivery than Little Richard. If Redding consciously imitated anyone on his way to a personal style; the parameters are more likely to have been Ray Charles and James Brown than Penniman and Cooke, if only because Redding — like the former pair — was naturally less inclined toward what producer Jerry Wexler always termed “the pop compromise.”
It was under the guidance of Phil Walden, while backed by a loyal and talented bank like The Pinetoppers, that Otis Redding felt secure enough to express the full breadth of his range as a singer and songwriter. Being a vocal chameleon is a matter of survival for a singer-for-hire. But once in a stable touring unit, with management to make sure the public didn’t forget about him, Redding was ready to take more creative risks in seeking those star qualities that would give him a unique appeal.
Once Otis found his technique, it wasn’t long before he became the standard for others to copy. In judging how Otis’ innovations impacted singers who came after him, it is worth noting a particularly interesting branch of the soul tradition created in ’64 and ’65, when black American R&B revues came regularly through virgin territories like Jamaica, inspiring a generation of Caribbean teens. Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths, and Rita Marley speak often of being compared to The Sweet Inspirations, while The Mighty Diamonds copped harmonies from New Orleans-based vocal groups. When Toots Bibbers left The Maytals and ultimately fulfilled a career-long desire to record with some of the original Memphis sessionmen, he covered Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember,” the only song Redding ever wrote with his wife Zelma. Listen to the original Jamaican versions of Wailers tunes like “Screwface” and “Soul Shakedown Party” and you’ll hear Bob Marley syncopating his verses and adding vocal ad-libs and quavers to the melody line in a brilliant approximation of Redding’s more idiosyncratic leads.
Contemporary standards for black male vocals are far less demanding than they were two decades ago and are evidently based on a definition of modernity that necessitates that models change — for better or worse — every decade. Among black American youth Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson set the commercial high-water mark in the ’60s. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder did the same for the ’70s. In the ’80s Luther Vandross and Prince became the most-imitated soul stylists before being gradually eclipsed by new-jack soul men like Aaron Hall and Keith Sweat. What is interesting about this decade’s pretenders to the R&B throne is how, in their calculated blend of glibly executed gospel technique and rap’s brute manipulation of beat and melody, they unconsciously attempt the same organic synthesis of grit and emotion that was effortlessly present in every track Otis Redding ever cut.
“When Otis went to California to record,” says Zelma Redding about her 20-year-old boyfriend’s pilgrimage to L.A. in ’60 to record the four originals that became his first two singles, “I was three months pregnant with Dexter. He said he was going to California, and he was going to be a star and going to come back . . . [with] all this money, and we going to get married, and I’m like ‘Sure you is’.”
But demonstrating the strength of character that would remain the hallmark of Redding’s personality all his life, he was true to his word, returning to Georgia just before his son was born. Zelma was taking on whatever work she could to help keep things going while her man struggled to establish his career.
“So I worked and paid the little rent and put a little bread on the table,” Zelma continues, “And things worked. We got married, and then things started pulling together. That’s when he went to Memphis . . . and he cut ‘These Arms Of Mine’ . . . and then everything started to gel.”
Gelling, unfortunately, required constant touring in order to make any real money. Phil Walden, and later his brother Alan, would accompany Redding on an endless series of frat parties and ballroom gigs, sleeping in cars or whatever hotels would have them at a time when Jim Crow looked unkindly on integrated groups bunking together. Alan Walden would later claim that because he and Phil drove with Redding on most of his early gigs through the South, they were often mistaken for one of those pesky salt-and-pepper civil rights teams infiltrating the area at the time. If true, it could only have been a momentary impression: Once either of the Waldens opened his mouth, his “good ol’ boy” accent would have justified most anything they might be doing with a “nigger” (of any gender or description) in their car.
Since the backbone of the Walden management business was booking, and since there were no huge recording advances from Stax on which its artists could live, Redding’s group soon became the flagship of a large roster of the best local black talent, many of whom the Waldens would steer back to Stax. As tour packagers the Waldens became the dominant agency for R&B, so it was easy for them to take on even the biggest national acts, like Sam & Dave and Percy Sledge. When the big tours went out with Otis as headliner, Redding was given a percentage of the net gross, just like a partner.
Phil and Alan reached the point where they could book up to $200,000 of individual gigs in a week with no problem at all. And as to how much money the Otis Redding Revue alone became worth, the last package show tour did more than $300,000. And this was in 1967!
But collecting the big bucks also meant driving or flying hundreds of miles through all types of terrain and weather to make each concert, something that had already proved the death of more than one famous entertainer. Aside from the money, Redding felt a personal obligation not to disappoint his fans and would risk anything to make a date. The small planes that were used — even on a commercial rental basis — for short hops were seldom bigger than the first Piper Cub Redding bought. But the convenience of owning an airplane was hard to resist: Why haggle over shoddy Jim Crow accommodations when you could fly to your gig and return the same night to sleep in your own bed?
Otis bought the plane that would ultimately crash in Lake Monoca as insurance against the inevitable. Everyone thought the larger Beechcraft would be safer than the little Piper. Of course, conspiracy theories were rife in the post-JFK/COINTELPRO ’60s, and many obscure details were allowed to distract from the rave reviews and international exposure Otis had achieved for his art in Europe and at Monterey Pop, as well as the universal esteem in which he was held by anyone who’d ever really known him.
Even though the poetry of the blues is characteristically melancholy, Otis Redding always used to love as a metaphor for redemption from the wages of sin and injustice. Those who accused his music of being escapist or Uncle Tom-foolery were incapable of reading the allegories behind his simple truths. The lyrics of “Chained And Bound” (’64), “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” (’65), “Free Me,” and “Direct Me” (both ’67) were full of imagery that took the idea of bondage — whether to a thought, a habit, an idea, a person, a system, or a nation of fools — and played with the permutations of how a person of strength and character might react. All popular music claims on one level or another to be about something deep and true, but few songs — before or after his death — express their avowed verities as directly as Redding’s do.
Much is made of how prolific Redding was during his final recording sessions. The Stax team always worked fast (the Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul album was completed in a weekend), but the material left in the can upon Redding’s death was the result of the lengthy woodshedding period he entered right after coming home from months of triumphant touring all over Europe and the U.S.
Even though the most important stages of his 1966-67 touring season were documented by live recordings, Redding had plenty of new ideas he was longing to work out with the Stax sessioneers. Doubtless watching the competition play during Monterey Pop was yet another inspiration: The white hippiefied blues of Janis Joplin juxtaposed against Hendrix’s bizarre acid rock offered new standards of live performance against which to judge his own presentation.
Up until then, an Otis Redding tour adhered to the established pattern of traditional gospel revues: a lengthy lineup of top talent, all competing at the same energy level, all having to prove themselves “anointed” by bringing a tired audience back to its feet again and again. Having to perform constantly at peak level like this for five years caused the appearance on Redding’s vocal cords of the nodes that were removed only six weeks before his last spate of studio work. During the month and a half of recuperation, Otis stayed with his family on the Big O Ranch, writing songs but not able to speak above a whisper. Redding had never had to sustain such a long period of comparative inactivity, and much of the staccato energy and almost devout openness present in his posthumously released tracks is no doubt due to the vast relief he felt at hearing his voice back, good as ever.
Redding was truly at the peak of his powers and looking to devote himself to broader activities. At a party held on his ranch that summer for the Atlanta attendees of the first major black DJ convention, Redding got to show off his center of operations to the black music industry at large. He had already spoken personally to colleagues like James Brown and Solomon Burke about forming some sort of entertainment organization to improve working conditions and health benefits for soul performers. He had already set up his own talent management agency and demo studio at the ranch. He had made plans to install The Bar-Kays as in-house talent at the new facility and was looking forward to building a mini-Stax in his own backyard.
What the world really lost in Lake Monona that December was not just another R&B vocalist, but a whole locus of activity for future stars of Southern soul. Of all the ground-breaking music that came from Stax and the burgeoning Hi stable after Redding’s demise, none embodied the essence of soul nationalism as completely as “Sweet Soul Music,” the Arthur Conley rendition of a Redding composition that was produced by Otis, for Otis, and with a band Otis had trained.
When singer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett does the rock chestnut “Gloria” in concert, he embellishes a long, playful monologue about love gone wrong, full of musical in-jokes, over the vamp. At one point in his recounting of the tale, he hears a threatening knock from the damsel at the door, so powerful, so commanding, that she sounds “just like Al Jackson, Jr.” This is how strong the mythology of Stax sessions has become for legions of practicing and would-be rock ‘n’ rollers.
The four volumes in this set are roughly chronological recordings documenting various stages in the history of Otis Redding.
Volume One concentrates primarily on the early singles (often giving you the A- and B-sides sequentially) and those “soul legend” covers that made it onto the first Volt albums. Even when Redding chooses not to rhyme, his lyrics come across as if written in stone. Perhaps it’s the jackleg preacher in him, but even narrative that begins suspiciously like digression, such as the repetitive verses of “Chained And Bound,” ultimately resolves with the authority of sacred text.
Though the collaborators Otis chose for some tunes often helped refine lyrics, guitarist Steve Cropper, with his Ozark mountain folk-billy inclinations, turned out to have a particular musical sensitivity to certain turns of mental and emotional direction Otis liked to take. The frequent bits of melancholic country twang Cropper would insert at key points in a narrative were always oddly appropriate, as if this were an alchemical form of cultural integration beyond the ability of government to mandate. “Mr. Pitiful” was inspired by a DJ’s waggish complaint that Otis always sounded so “pitiful” begging and moaning so much in his songs. Not every great live performer can convey the charisma of his stage shows in a studio setting, but this was never a problem for Otis. The acoustics of the old Capitol Theatre on East McLemore St. must have resembled those of a dance hall. According to bassist “Duck” Dunn, the control room was located where the screen used to be, with the main studio floor on a graded slant under a high ceiling. For monitors they used the original movie speakers, leaving the original theater curtain up to keep the sound from reverberating off the bare walls. With all the instruments dry-miked and recorded simultaneously, this was as close to live acoustics as primitive technology could get. “We’d crank the shit up, play it back, and let it boom like crazy,” Dunn recalled. “Sounded great. The drums were in the middle, the horns would be live, and there was always a delay of the beat.”
Volume Two shows Redding experimenting with more modern influences. His soul transmutations of “Satisfaction” and “Day Tripper,” both released in ’66, went over very well during the Stax tours of Europe and were Redding’s way of turning his attention to the world outside the creative parameters of “pure” R&B. The MG’s are credited with choosing these particular tracks: “Satisfaction” reputedly because they thought it suited Otis (Redding changed and stripped down the lyric to make it suit himself better), and “Day Tripper” because its original bass line reminded the boys of something Otis might have created.
“Chain Gang” and “Cupid” are Sam Cooke covers, but both contain lighter melodic motifs that provide a bridge between blues idioms and pop rock. The tongue-in-cheek “Cool Jerk” quote that the horns insert on the chorus of “Chain Gang” is an example of The Mar Keys’ normal playfulness. “I’m Sick Y’All” resulted from Otis response to a complaint from Zelma that he was spending so much time developing protégé Arthur Conley he would lose the solicitous interest of his fans. “No I won’t,” Redding tossed back in imitation of a sly backwoods preacher, “I’ll just tell ’em I been sick, y’all.”
The Carla Thomas duets are even looser in their approach, almost as light and breezy as Motown’s pairings of Marvin Gaye with Tammi Terrell, but with a sexy sense of self-possession Tammi never quite projected. “Tramp” also features the horn and rhythmic signatures of dance crazes like the Jerk, the Monkey, and the Madison. Carla was already a frequent habitué of the pop chart, and perhaps her influence inspired Otis to cater more to the American Bandstand crowd.
What is also interesting about the mixes on “New Year’s Resolution,” “Knock On Wood,” “Tramp,” and “Lovey Dovey” is that Otis sounds much lower in volume on these duets than usual. Evidently, Otis laid his parts down first, and Carla came in separately to overdub her contributions, which may be why Otis occasionally comes off sounding as he’s singing in the next room. Interestingly enough, this technique works for the four duets included here, featuring performances of equal virtuosity, which nevertheless do not exactly connect. The sense of actual separation, in the delivery of “New Year’s Resolution” and “Lovey Dovey” give these love songs added pathos — as if to say the actual distance between the two lyrical protagonists is just a little too long for their desire to bridge.
“You Left The Water Running” is a 1966 demo recorded in Muscle Shoals for Wilson Pickett. Perhaps too similar in sound to “Tossin’ And Turnin'” for comfort when first created, it was released as a posthumous bootleg single and not collected on album until 1987’s The Otis Redding Story.
On the other hand, the studio version of “Try A Little Tenderness” gleefully features all sorts of subtle, individuating nuances, from Jackson’s lighter-than-usual rim hits creating the subliminal tick-tock around the weary young girl “waiting, anticipating . . .” to almost subvocal organ pads that suggest flickering moods as tentative as suspicion, hope, and ultimately, arousal. The guitar and bass arpeggios that limn “Try A Little Tenderness” and “Just One More Day” are the band’s palpable evocation of fingers stroking shoulders or hair in an attempt to let physicality do a job that mere words cannot.
“White Christmas” was originally the B-side of “Merry Christmas, Baby,” and Redding takes his usual liberties with the traditional text and melody line. He can’t quite bring himself to say “May all your Christmases be white” the first time through, so he gently stammers and ad-libs his way around it in a clever, horn-spurred turnaround until he can make his hidden agenda perfectly clear. Since both “White Christmas” and “Try A Little Tenderness” were associated with no less an icon of white respectability than Bing Crosby (and both were tremendously altered in attitude by a black and blues-inflected reading), one can imagine that Otis took great personal satisfaction in giving these proud pop standards an indelible stroke of the tar brush. Volume Three is a more complicated mélange of posthumous and contemporaneous material that reflects a number of new and sometimes odd production ideas. Several posthumous releases feature overdubs that might not have been added if Redding had had final input. The backing vocals on “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” and “Look At The Girl,” the environmental sound effects on “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” and the gorgeous strings on “I Love You More Than Words Can Say” all diverge from the way Redding usually recorded, but are no less interesting or pleasing to the ear for all of that. Cropper is responsible for most of these final mixes and maintains that most of the ideas had come up one way or another before Redding died.
The overtly religious content of 1967 recordings like “Amen” and “I’m A Changed Man” are also somewhat out of character with the slant of previous material, but perhaps the ever-mounting scale of his career achievements were making Redding want to count his blessings, staving off the jinx that often follows a surprisingly lucky streak. In an interview published by Hit Parader in the summer ’67, statements attributed to Redding careen between pious sentiment and overreaching ambition. He talks first about owing all his success to the help of the Almighty, then about wanting to take performers like Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Clyde McPhatter into the studio and give them hits with “the best of today.” He offers the more surprising revelation that one of the seminal influences on his musical tastes was a calypso record called “Run, Joe” that his parents used to play. If so, that would certainly complete the loop that links his syncopated vocal delivery to that of young Jamaican stylists like Toots and Bob Marley.
Though the tone of these quotes reads as though filtered through the perspective of Phil Walden, who was often allowed to respond on Otis’ behalf, perhaps the most trenchant moment of the interview occurs in his carefully worded distinction between “rhythm & blues” and his own music: “Everybody thinks that all songs by colored people are rhythm & blues, but that’s not true,” Redding begins. “Johnnie Taylor, Muddy Waters, and B.B.King are blues singer. James Brown is not a blues singer. He has a rock ‘n’ roll beat, and he can sing slow pop songs. My own songs, “Respect” and “Mr. Pitiful,” aren’t blues songs. I’m speaking in terms of the beat and the structure of the music. A blues is a song that goes 12 bars all the way through. Most of my songs are soul songs.”
That Redding thought it important to underscore these issues for the press dovetails with what Al Bell, then the only black executive at Stax, has to say about the creative strategy that purportedly produced “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” “Otis and I would talk,” says Bell, “and within our conversations, concepts would come that would give him ideas for songs. He and I spent a lot of time talking about the fact that he still was not getting the acceptance that he should have been getting in the United States from R&B radio as well as general market radio. We were still trapped by the stigma of “Bama” music. So he and I spent a lot of time talking about creating a new genre of music that we were going to build around him. It was going to be called soul-folk music, and he was going to be the leader as it related to promoting this whole soul-folk concept . . . [which could win him] more . . . general market appeal just based on the name.”
The idea of aligning Redding’s instinctual simplicity with the fey earthiness of the pop-folk vanguard certainly might have been a way to fight the lingering perception among some tastemakers that what Otis Redding did was some overly exuberant brand of bumpkinish minstrelsy. But as the tours of Europe in ’66 and ’67 had proven, there were too many other markets that understood and appreciated Redding just the way he was for him to wholly abandon his original inclinations. The bulk of his last spate of studio recording indicate that “Dock Of The Bay” represented merely an expansion of Redding’s repertoire, rather than a complete departure from form.
Volume Four consists entirely of live recordings, capturing the ambiance of several extremely disparate locales. In attendance at the 1966 Whiskey A Go Go shows in Los Angeles, according to Phil Walden, were a who’s who of entertainment royalty, including The Smothers Brothers, Bob Dylan, and The Mamas & The Papas. Dylan actually presented Redding with a prerelease copy of “Just Like A Woman,” claiming his vocal approach had been Otis-inspired. “Otis’ appraisal of it,” says Walden, “was that it had too damn many words in it.” Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder opened for Redding during the Whiskey dates, another brush with possible exponents of Al Bell’s “soul-folk” concept, or what the Pepsi generation might call “soul lite.”
The selections from the spring 1967 European tour document a conquering hero heading up an entire revue of amazing performers. “Every night was better than the previous night,” Phil Walden affirms, “and it was very competitive between the artists. Otis was the most established performer on the bill in Europe, and everybody was gunning for him, so to speak. Sam & Dave, needless to say, may well have been the best live act ever. And they came on right before Otis. So Otis had to work for his money. The Stax/Volt tour was my idea. During one of my trips over there, I’d indicated to [Frank Fender, Atlantic’s European director] that I thought it would be great if all the Stax product started appearing on the Stax label. It was on Atlantic [there] in those days. So we came up with the idea of launching Stax Records with a big tour.”
When the Stax/Volt contingent landed, The Beatles reportedly met The MG’s right off the plane to discuss the possibility of recording an album in Memphis. Reflecting the glow of all this respect, Redding was at the top of his form stylistically, enjoying the rare treat of performing live with The MG’s, on leave from studio duty especially for this trip. During his between-song patter, Otis sounds slightly hoarse, which he would tell Hit Parader was the result of the three-day recording marathon it had taken to finish the King & Queen album with Carla Thomas before leaving. (This is also the first documented indication of the vocal cord nodes that were operated on at the end of that summer.)
“Pain In My Heart” and “These Arms Of Mine” from the Atco compilation LP Apollo Theatre Night: Recorded Live At The Apollo Theatre In New York document the first time Otis Redding got to the Apollo, a show vividly etched in the memory of audience member Jerry Wexler. “He worked an entirely different style then,” Wexler told Blues And Soul. “He just had a couple of ballads and nothing he could bop along to. He wasn’t singing “Shout Bamalama” even anymore then. So all he did was just stand there and . . . bend from the waist.”
Actually, the $400 the Apollo had sent for Otis at that time just about covered his expenses. Deprived of the support of his own musicians and imported from the South to support the two ballads that were then receiving the most radio support, Redding couldn’t help but be a little stiff. But his relationship with the Apollo Theatre would soon grow into something lasting and special.
“I had gone in and worked a deal with Rocky G. and Frankie Crocker of WWRL to bring a Stax revue into the Apollo Theatre,” Al Bell says of a subsequent booking. It was customary among black DJs to promote local concerts as a sideline, and plenty of money was made “packaging” the acts each station was supporting for regular runs at key black venues. “Rocky liked Otis. So we brought The Mad Lads, Johnnie Taylor, Booker T. & The MG’s, Rufus & Carla Tho mas, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, and Otis Redding.”
The only problem with such a killer bill was that since Otis was the headliner, he would somehow have to top all these acts, several of which had bigger-selling records out at the time than he did. The overt stage rivalry between Sam & Dave and Otis packed every room they played and pushed Redding to new extremes of stagecraft. But if the duo were kings of the up-tempo soul shakedown, Redding was undisputed master of the soul ballad. These two live Apollo recordings serve to reaffirm that fact.
The Monterey International Pop Festival in Northern California remains a sort of dangling participle in any conversation about Otis Redding, because the June 1967 festival was the largest single exposure white America had hitherto had to the man. Robert Christgau’s cynical observations on the context of the event reduced Redding’s big moment to high caricature: “Superspade was flying high,” he wrote in Esquire, referring to the then-fashionable habit Bay Area rockers had of calling black artists “spade cats,” abstracting the Jimis and Jameses and proto-Slys the way “blaxploitation” films would do a few years later: all flamboyant style, picturesque slang, and dick. It wasn’t that Christgau disliked Redding, just that he was seething with disdain for an audience of weekend hippies he suspected didn’t know whether they really liked Otis Redding or not.
For Redding it mattered not a whit if the cheering thousands would recite an unbroken line of his stylistic precedents down through recorded time, or even knew the name of his latest single. His career had been one long battle against mainstream ambivalence, and he sure wasn’t gonna stop now. One thing was sure, he had their attention. And the one thing he was determined to do was leave an impression. His versions of “Respect” and “Try A Little Tenderness” were certainly among the best he ever did, with the band fronting a harder, more electronically abrasive, aggressive edge than you hear on those mellow Memphis sessions. Christgau’s review maintained that Monterey’s pot-addled throngs were overly accepting of everything presented at the festival. But if only for the triumph of sincerity over bratty pyrotechnic posturing, Redding deserved their respect, and if the Brits would have to lead the way toward formal recognition (that October Melody Maker reversed a seven year habit and replaced Elvis with Otis Redding as its choice for Best Male Vocalist), so be it.
In the end, an artist’s work is the only reliable measure of greatness. Let the four volumes in this set be Otis Redding’s witness, and you as listener be the judge.
Published in: The Definitive Otis Redding (Rhino Records), November, 13, 1990