One Punk’s Guide to Otis Redding: Cigarettes and Coffee

Aug 21, 2012

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The Slightest Suggestion in a River of Diversions

In what follows, I’m not saying in any way, shape, or form that Otis Redding was a punk. He wasn’t a punk archetype for Bad Brains, a missing link, anything of the sort, but he’s a wellspring of fantastic music. I think he’s a great musician; one that—in the very system of major labels now—can’t and won’t be replicated. He was as much a man as a time (the late ‘50s to late ‘60s) and a place (the South, pre Martin Luther King Jr. assassination).

Inauspiciously enough, the first time that the music I was hearing was attached to the name Otis Redding, I was sitting on the linoleum floor of a Pic’n’Save. I remember playing with some multi-colored army men that had previously been pulled out of their wrappers. I was nine. I remembered the seagull sounds at the beginning of a song while really wanting a gun that sparked at the barrel when I repeatedly pulled the trigger. A couple years later, I remembered the same song playing on TV. It had been retooled as a jingle for a root beer: “Sippin’ My Hires All Day.”

Otis and I briefly crossed paths again in 1986, when I felt a more than passing affinity for Jon Cryer’s character, Duckie, in Pretty in Pink. In one scene, Duckie busted into the record store that Andie, played by Molly Ringwald, was working in and put his whole body into lip-synching along to “Try a Little Tenderness.” Although the red-haired girl was unimpressed by Duckie’s performance, I was intrigued. But, instead of looking further into Otis, I bought the soundtrack to the movie. The title song by the Psychedelic Furs had grabbed my attention more.

I’m sure that I heard more Otis songs over the years, but never meaningfully, never in context. It wasn’t until 1997 that my obsession began in earnest. It was piqued by one song: “Doublewhiskeycokenoice.” Dillinger Four, I’ll fully admit, are responsible for a big batch of my life decisions, especially concerning music. (If you think this is an overstatement, I consider D4 as a cornerstone band to Razorcake. If they didn’t exist, we wouldn’t exist in our current form.) When Erik’s higher-pitched voice proclaimed, “God save Otis Redding because I know he’s never gone,” I got down to tracking down some Otis records. Years later, I put together that the sound bite to the beginning of the song—the “Hi, this is the Big O. I was just standing here thinking about you, thought I’d write a song about you, and dedicate it to you. Take a listen”—was taken from an Otis Redding song called “Stay in School.”

Musical obsessions can start with the smallest germ, the slightest suggestion in a river of diversions. In the intervening years, I’ve learned to dance marginally better to Otis Redding by paying attention to the drum beat and moving my butt to it instead of following the guitar or the voice. It was also such a treat to be in my friend Greg Pettix’s (formerly of The Weird Lovemakers and currently in The Cuntifiers) house, saying, “Man, I’ve really been getting into Otis Redding,” and seeing Greg pull out an obscure compilation and reply, “Ever hear of the Pinetoppers? No? Then listen to this!” and then everyone in the room did little spontaneous dances to “Shout Bamalama,” a song that seemed just-recorded and fire-crackering from the stereo; not some forty-year-old relic that had to be considered soberly and handled delicately. And I’d be remiss not to mention that my first dance as a married dude with my lovely wife, Mary-Clare, was to Otis singing, “That’s How Strong My Love Is.”

So, in the spirit of Otis Redding providing me with hundreds of hours of improved living standards by listening to his music, I present the following: “One Punk’s Guide to Otis Redding,” a short biography of the man, his life, and his legacy.

Is It Blasphemous to Believe in One’s Own Talent as a Form of Faith?

Otis Redding, Jr. was born on September 9, 1941 to Otis Redding, Sr. and Fannie Roseman Redding, into a family of six in the small town of Dawson, Georgia. Dawson is situated in TerrellCounty, a sleepy little farming community, twenty miles south of Plains, the hometown of Jimmy Carter. The entire local economy revolved around peanuts and cotton. At the age of three, Otis’s family moved 120 miles to Macon, Georgia in a neighborhood called Bellevue into the Tindall Heights Housing Project. It was crowded. More than four hundred apartments were assembled in dense clusters of barracks-style town homes and flats. During this time, Otis received no formal music education. He learned music by singing with the choir of the VinevilleBaptistChurch. He later participated in the band at Ballard-Hudson, the “Senior High School for Negro Boys and Girls” in Macon. It was then that it became obvious to Otis Jr. that he wanted to be a singer in a band.

Otis’s dad was a Baptist minister who preached on the weekends. During the week, he worked as a maintenance worker at nearby Robins Air Force Base. He didn’t like that his son wanted to become a singer and was blunt in his disapproval. “I’m going to tell you something, Otis. You won’t ever amount to anything with this singing, this hanging out at nightclubs, not a thing.” To drive the point home, he ended the discussion with, “And I’m going to tell you something else. Whether you make it or not, I’m never going to see you in one of those places. Nightclubs are outside the limit of God’s realm.”

Otis responded to his father in a way most kids do when presented with a challenge in the form of a threat: he mostly ignored his father’s warnings. Otis Jr. knew some things his father probably didn’t put weight in. Although Macon, Georgia was a town with a population of a little more than 160,000 in 1950, there was a much larger chance for an aspiring musician than meets the eye. It was a place with a deep musical well, where many before him had drunk deep of its waters. Music seemed to bubble up from the ground. In the 1840s, a man by the name of Alabama Vest invented the kazoo there. 

During tenth grade, Otis, Jr., spurred on by a mixture of his own ambition, his love of music, and the driving obligation to financially secure his family’s future after his father had contracted tuberculosis and lost his job at the air force base, dropped out of school. Otis Sr. still wasn’t impressed. He believed that Otis Jr. had foolhardy, unrealistic dreams and was risking the family’s well-being. “Otis’s the worst child I have,” Otis Sr. lamented. “He worries me to death because he ain’t never going to amount to nothing.” 

Otis Jr., although religious and respectful of his father, was pragmatic in realizing his dreams of becoming a singer. He’d seen the blossoms of colossal talent, nurtured with hard labor, bear fruit right in front of him. Macon was home to James Brown and Little Richard. Little Richard was experiencing regional success with his band, The Upsetters. He had even grown up in a neighborhood close to Otis. They both had attended the same high school. If Little Richard, the son of a Macon bootlegger, could make it out of Pleasant Hill and have his song “Long Tall Sally” hit #1 on the R&B national charts in March of 1956, why couldn’t Otis Redding Jr. make it out of Bellevue?

In the segregated South, Otis could only find predictably mundane, hard labor jobs to support his musical habit. At fifteen years old, his fate was poised to become that of just another black kid from the projects: uneducated, poor, and working manual labor for the rest of his life. He began a pattern of bouncing from job to job. He roofed houses, cleaned yards, dug wells, delivered groceries, and painted fences. One time, he found a job on a construction crew and was put to work operating an air hammer, breaking concrete. Around lunchtime, Otis quit. He later found work in a junkyard. In between these times, Otis Jr. continued pursuing his singing at nearby

In 1957, when they were both sixteen, Otis Redding met Zelma Atwood. That year, he asked her to marry him. She agreed. In 1958, Otis and Zelma married. They would go on to have three children together: Dexter, Karla, and Otis III. Zelma was a believer in her husband’s talents: “Otis Redding always believed in Otis Redding. He’d tell me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m gonna make you happy one day,’ and I was like, ‘Lord have mercy, we could starve to death!’ That’s just how positive he was.”

When DJs Could Play Songs They Liked

In between odd jobs, Otis Redding Jr. did all he could to keep his name, face, and voice in front of people instead of behind a gas pump or in a yard raking leaves. In addition to performing at high school and college frat parties, Otis got a boost from Hamp Swain, “The King Bee,” a DJ of a black-format radio station, WIBB. In those days, it was still possible for DJs to choose their own music and Hamp tirelessly promoted local and state talent. Hamp was not only the first DJ to ever play James Brown on the air; Little Richard had gotten his start as a vocalist in Hamp’s band, The Hamptones. Hamp also hosted Hamp Swain’s Teenage Party, a live music competition every Saturday morning at the Douglass Theatre. Otis Jr. took on all comers.

Somewhat predictably, early remembrances of Otis’s singing, before he had developed his own style, were that he sounded like a mix between Little Richard and a heritage of gospel music. But that didn’t detract from Otis’s charm, talent, and ability to perform, as evidenced by taking home the five dollar prize fifteen times in a row. He was then asked to refrain from further competition to give someone else a chance to win. As Otis Jr.’s local star was starting to rise, he dropped the “Jr.” from his performing name.

From his exposure at Hamp Swain’s Teenage Party, Otis met two people who would change his life: local guitar hero Johnny Jenkins and promoter Phil Walden. Phil was already Johnny’s manager and wanted to be Otis’s. All three would become lifelong friends. It’s believed that Otis had crossed paths when Phil Walden was president of his high school fraternity. By the age of eighteen, Phil was managing several R&B groups, many of whom were black, and arranged bookings at white colleges and clubs, so the bands could make more money. To make ends meets, Phil also worked as a part-time clerk in a men’s clothing store while he attended MercerUniversity.

Phil’s standards were high because he knew what great music looked and sounded like. Otis’s powerful voice was reminiscent of Little Richard, who Walden had seen surreptitiously when he was in the ninth grade. Phil had been on the way to watch a swim meet at the YMCA when he noticed a crowd gathering across the street for an Amos Milburn concert at the city auditorium. He bought a ticket and made his way to the upper balcony where whites were allowed to sit. He was swept away by the opening act, Little Richard. “He just destroyed me…. He had this microphone between his legs and he would pound the piano. He would wave to all the gay guys, all his ‘sisters’ in the audience… I had never been exposed to something that raw in my life.”

Phil Walden was hearing something new emerge from Otis—something that was beyond a mere mimicking of previous singers. Through his connections, he was instrumental in Otis joining The Upsetters, Little Richard’s road band. In July, 1960 Otis’s voice was first recorded to vinyl, albeit in a supporting vocalist role. Between quick regional tours, Otis still had bills to pay. He never forgot, abandoned, or took Zelma for granted. To pull his own financial weight, he periodically had to swallow his pride, reign in his ambition, and took manual labor jobs to help support his family with money he couldn’t make strictly as an entertainer. Zelma worked as a waitress in a barbecue restaurant, earning thirty-five dollars a week.

Nothing Beats Failure but a Try”
–Johnny Jenkins

Within months of joining the Upsetters, eighteen-year-old Otis quit and joined another Macon-based band. He became the lead singer of confusingly named Pat Tea Cake And The Mighty Panthers with guitarist Johnny Jenkins. Johnny was the second instrumental person whom he’d met at Hamp Swain’s Teenage Party. After a short time, the band’s name changed to Johnny Jenkins And The Pinetoppers Featuring Otis Redding And The Shooters.

Johnny Jenkins—known locally as “Guitar”—was a force in and of himself. Whenever they played frat houses, he whipped white kids into frenzies; gyrating and bending notes. His performance was so far removed from Pat Boone, Paul Anka, or even Elvis Presley, that it must have seemed like a sexed-up alien had dropped down from another planet and was guitar-blasting their bodies with six string assaults of unholy rock’n’roll.

Unsuspecting white kids weren’t the only ones floored by Johnny. On a visit to his aunt in Macon, a young Jimi Hendrix soaked in the flamboyance of Jenkins’s left-handed, upside-down guitar playing and acrobatic showmanship—like when Johnny played the guitar behind his head. It made a deep, lifelong impression on Jimi, who one of the Pinetoppers remembered as the “little guy who would follow us around a lot.”

In July, 1960, Otis moved out to Los Angeles in an attempt to further his career. That year, he recorded “She’s All Right” and “Tuff Enuff,” under the name Otis And The Shooters, for Trans World Records. The response was, at best, mild. Undaunted, Otis returned back to Macon, and the same year, cut another 45, this time with Johnny Jenkins And The Pinetoppers—“Shout Bamalama” and “Fat Gal”—for the Confederate label (curiously, with a Rebel flag as its logo in the middle of the record’s label). The response, again, was mild. People seemed to like Otis’s voice, but he was still largely dismissed as a vocalist who loved Little Richard a wee bit too much to be taken seriously as little more than an impersonator.

Johnny Jenkins went to Memphis in October 1962 to record at the then newly established Stax studios. Stax had been started by a brother and sister. Twenty-five year old Jim Stewart worked at First Tennessee Bank and played fiddle in a country band. He had leased out a recording studio in an old movie theater and had initially planned on recording country and western music. Estelle Axton, Jim’s sister and co-owner, was instrumental in its day-to-day operations and ran the attached record store. (The name, “Stax,” came about when the first parts of the two owners’ last names were smooshed together.)

The Beauty of Simplicity

Otis was both the lead singer and the driver of the group’s rented station wagon. Johnny Jenkins didn’t have a driver’s license, didn’t like to drive, and refused to fly. Johnny never left the Southeast during his entire lifetime. The recording session was supposed to showcase Johnny’s original guitar-heavy compositions, but they weren’t going well. According to Johnny, it was a disaster. With some time left at the end of the pre-paid three-hour session, Otis was given the opportunity to cut two of his own songs: “These Arms of Mine”—what could be called a country soul ballad with its determined pleading and earthy tone—and “Hey Hey Baby,” which sounded like a new Little Richard tune and was chosen to be the side to promote to local radio. Stax’s thinking was that since, in 1962, Little Richard had renounced recording and performing secular music, had become a born-again Christian, and was attending bible college, his throne was vacant.

Otis’s two cuts would eventually be released on Volt Records, a subsidiary of Stax. (Stewart was still thinking that Stax’s main focus as a label would be country and western music.) “These Arms of Mine” was liberating for Otis. It enabled him to finally seek out his own personal vision as a singer and made him realize that real success wasn’t going to come his way imitating someone else, but doing and developing his own thing.

Everyone close to Otis seemed to notice the change. “The thing that brought out a different style in him was when he came up with that song,” said Johnny Jenkins. “That took him away from Little Richard. He had that Georgia gospel sound. He didn’t just say, ‘I love ya; I care about you,’ like the average person would say and then be through with it. He’d keep repeating the same thing over and over and over until it got you.” Zelma recognized the change, too. “Otis Redding couldn’t be anything but Otis Redding…. His idol was Little Richard, but after he got in with Stax, Otis said, ‘I can be me now.’” 

From that day on, Otis worked his hardest at not having another job besides being Otis Redding.

“These Arms of Mine” became Otis’s first nationally charted single and it forecasted the style of much of the music that Otis would continue to make. “Basically,” Otis said, “I like any music that remains simple and I feel this is the formula that has made soul music successful. When any music form becomes cluttered or complicated, you lose the average listener’s ear. There’s nothing more beautiful than a simple blues tune. There’s beauty in simplicity, whether you’re talking about architecture, art, or music.”

On the strength of “These Arms of Mine,” Otis went back into the studio for Volt a second time and recorded his worst-selling single: “That’s What My Heart Needs” backed with “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Instead of immediately letting Otis go for a poor-selling single, Stax owner Jim Stewart recognized Otis’s “verve, vitality, and excitement” and agreed to cut four more singles in rapid succession. All of these singles were quickly collected and released as the twelve-song LP Pain in My Heart.

What a group of songs. What a debut record. It showcased Otis’s distinctive new style. While still retaining Little Richard’s band’s up-tempo attack and tone, he coupled that runaway freight train to soul singer Sam Cooke’s cool, smooth, confident phrasing. Sam Cooke’s musical legacy was another recently developed void Otis wanted to fill. Late in 1964, Sam Cooke had been killed, wearing nothing but a shoe and a sports coat, in a suspicious shooting involving the manager of a seedy motel in Los Angeles.

Otis was able to take the best qualities of both of his heroes. His voice was, at times, a plaintive, honeyed gospel tenor. At other times, it was the rawness of man about to tear out from the grooves of the record and shake the listener directly. The glue that held it all together was Otis’s want. When Otis sung about wanting something (anything, really, from love to some horns “right now!”), he got that idea and feeling across. The magic was that anyone listening to the song would feel it and would want it, too. 

“When he’d get to singing,” Johnny Jenkins recollected, “he’d just put his whole heart into it; he didn’t just sing to be singing a song. That’s the reason he couldn’t lip-sync to his songs later on when he was on television. You can rehearse a song over and over until you can stand up there and sing it in your sleep. But when you sing it from the heart, it’s always going to be different each time you sing it.”

Even If You Were Green or Purple

Stax was an oasis; a melting pot in the heart of the South at the height of segregation and deep racial tension. It was said that as soon as anyone walked through the doors—even if you were green or purple—all that mattered was how well you played. The core studio musicians—often called the Stax house band—comprised organist/pianist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson Jr. They were responsible for writing and playing over seventy percent of all Stax records. This half-black, half-white group—one of the first racially integrated bands in American popular music history—when they recorded by themselves, were known as Booker T. And The MG’s (standing for Memphis Group). Stax studios also employed a sextet of men collectively called The Memphis Horns who filled out the distinctive sound. Each man of this extensive group would later be known as a quintessential musician on his respective instrument.

Let’s take a moment to put this into context. Rock’n’roll—to the established order—when it was first ushered in by the likes of Little Richard in the 1950s, was the musical equivalent of a slave revolt. Blacks weren’t supposed to be heard or seen. But to proclaim not only one’s refusal to be quiet, but to “shake it! shake it! shake it!” could get a musician seriously hurt physically, mentally, and financially. And although Little Richard was convinced to change the initial lyrics of “tutti-frutti, loose booty” to “tutti frutti, aw rooty,” his flamboyance and verve had provided one of the initial rips, ushering in an undeniable, fundamental change in American culture. Rock’n’roll and soul music became the not-so-coded messages for a generation of kids rebelling against what the conservative, Eisenhower-era mainstream was offering them. In a country actively practicing segregation and limiting nonwhite people’s access to basic services, these types of music became the tangible bridge between new generations of black and white kids. Plus, it was just fun as hell. There was energy and excitement. It was juicy, sexy stuff. This wasn’t holding hands in grade school. It was the back seat of a car on a high school Friday night without parental supervision.

During the preceding decades, athletes such as Jackie Robinson and jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong had all accomplished the then unthinkable. They had inspired white people to finally appreciate black culture and put aside some of their racism and hatred. While Otis Redding didn’t openly speak about racism very often, his guiding philosophy was as simple and direct as his music. “My pride comes from my soul, what I am and what I do, not from somewhat ignorant drunk does or doesn’t think about me.”

“Flash Don’t Make Cash”
 –Steve Cropper

Another unique aspect of the early recordings at Stax was that it had the capability to record only one track at a time. Everything was recorded simultaneously and there was no possibility of mixing in a tape of another performance with live studio sessions or dubbing in some effects. “If somebody screwed up,” drummer Al Jackson remembered, “everybody had to start all over again. We cut songs in total.” On the converse, “When the good stuff was done, it was done quick.”

The cost of the magnetic tape that the songs were recorded on was a consideration. Out of necessity, the bathrooms were often used as the echo chambers. For musicians keen on keeping food in their stomachs, the result of these factors was to favor well-rehearsed, shorter songs. (“A Change Is Gonna Come,” the longest song that Otis ever made clocked in at just over four minutes.) Steve Cropper assured that the musical considerations concerning brevity weren’t purely financial, though; it was also aesthetic. “Flash don’t make cash… I find a hole and leave a hole or two in the process.”

In 1965, Otis cut material for two full-length records: The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads and Otis Blue. Otis’s signature was becoming a raw, rougher spontaneous style that bore a stark contrast to the smooth, sophisticated music of Motown. Otis was well aware of the difference—both stylistically and financially. “Motown has a lot of overdubbing,” Otis said. “It’s mechanically done. At Stax the rule is: whatever you feel, play it.” Otis sung with an aching vulnerability that would later become realized as his trademark. (Although Otis would record a duet album with Carla Thomas, only two of his recordings ever featured a backup singer providing harmony.) With these two records, Redding’s Southern, Georgian country sensibilities and powerful, husky tenor earned him recognition as one of the most authentic, soulful singers in a market dominated by polished Motown vocalists. Being so, Otis couldn’t begin to compete commercially with the Motown artists who were regularly crossing over into the lucrative white market with #1 pop hits. In 1965, a single hit by a Motown group could sell a million copies. All of Otis’s singles released from the beginning of his career through 1965, combined, sold 800,000 copies. Otis’s total album sales had yet to hit the 100,000 mark.

Otis could have adapted his singing to a less rugged, more refined style to try to reach the wider white audience that—in 1965, anyway—was not widely aware of or receptive to the raw simplicity of rhythm and blues. Otis wanted to reach that audience but he didn’t want to change his style. To Stax’s credit, they let Otis be the best Otis he could be. Jim Stewart continuously encouraged Otis’s originality. “His music was so raw and so earthy; without being trite, it was right from the soul. I’d never really worked with a singer who could reach down so deep and bring out that warmth and feeling.”

Very few, if any, aspects of the band, music, or record art were sweetened up to appeal directly to white audiences. In addition to Otis’s raw voice, Al Jackson hard-socked his snare drum and wasn’t relegated the back of the mix as distant papping. In the early ‘60s, soul albums shied away from featuring a photograph of the singer on either the front or back sleeve. The prevailing wisdom was that the portrait of a black man might deter potential white American buyers from purchasing the record. The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads features twenty-four identical pictures of a dapper, smiling Otis on the cover. By following his own path and respecting the musicians around him, Redding’s simple, earnest ballads and sparse, horn-punctuated tracks came to be considered prototypes of the Memphis sound. It was music that was funky and soulful and sweaty and unmistakably Southern, and Otis was widely becoming known as its undisputed king.

The recording of Otis Blue was a remarkable achievement. All but one of the tracks was recorded within twenty-four hours, in two lightning sessions on July 9, 1965 and in the early morning of the tenth. Yet there is no haste, no slop, nor looseness to the songs. They are tight, true, expert, and alive; songs that were the result of tireless touring and whip-smart musicianship converging in a controlled storm.

Otis Blue featured Otis’s original song “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” which was his biggest hit while he was alive. It reached #2 on the R&B (black) charts and #21 on the U.S. pop (white) charts. (In 1963, due to the crossover success of many black artists, Billboard suspended the R&B charts (previously delineated until 1949 as the Best Selling Retail Race Records) integrating them into the pop charts. It only lasted fourteen months until they were reintroduced, but it also explains why many of Otis’s early songs didn’t chart as R&B singles.)

Otis Blue included several minor hits as well: a version of Sam Cooke’s “Shake” and an original, “Respect,” which was later covered and given a wider audience by Aretha Franklin. Despite his strong following with soul listeners, however, Otis remained a largely marginal figure in the pop mainstream and America’s consciousness. He wanted that to change.

 The success of Otis Blue also propelled Stax Records as a new force in R&B music. Up until the spring of 1965, the label had remained a relatively minor, regional player in the music business. Of the hundred-odd singles released by Stax/Volt—Otis recorded for Volt Records for his entire career and cut eighteen singles with them—only eight had entered the R&B Top Ten. The instrumental “Green Onions” by Booker T. & The MG’s was their only song that had topped the charts at #1. Jim Stewart hadn’t had enough confidence in Stax’s shaky existence to quit his day job at the bank until Otis’s “Mr. Pitiful” hit #10 on the R&B charts.

Otis Used to Wear a Very Powerful Deodorant

To support his records, Otis toured relentlessly. What may surprise many is that he didn’t move around the stage all that much. The pressure was all inside, being released breath by breath. Otis used his entire body to sing a song. Magma as opposed to lava. Otis, as Isaac Hayes noted, was “a statue of a man,” over six feet tall, thickly built. He was a big guy, “The Big O”; intense in his delivery, putting all of the attention in his voice. Johnny Jenkins noted that Otis couldn’t dance to save his life. “When he could do the steps, he couldn’t sing. And when he sang, he couldn’t do the steps. That’s why, if you see him on film, you’ll see him standing right in one spot. Sweating. Moving the trunk of his body. That foot standing still.”

Otis had no real stage act, no gimmicks, no props, and no histrionics. He didn’t swivel his hips or stagger to the floor and moan like James Brown. He couldn’t throw himself around the stage like his contemporaries Sam and Dave. He simply stood at the microphone and sang, arms outstretched or emphasizing lyrics by bending at the waist, swaying his hips. “You could feel this plea coming from him,” Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler said. “He didn’t know how to move in those days. He was inept on stage. Yet in spite of his inertia, the women at the Apollo loved him, not only for his looks—he was tall, strapping, and handsome—but for his voice and vulnerability as well. Otis had chops like a wolf; his voice was big and gorgeous and filled with feeling.”

“Man, you better believe he was physical,” said Wayne Jackson, the Stax trumpet player. “Otis had to have two cans of Right Guard to keep him down. The man was physical. Emotional and physical. He loved the horns. He would run from his vocal mic down to where the horns were and he’d shake his fist at you and be singing those parts. It was just electrifying. He’d get right in front of you until you were just foaming at the mouth. He’d just have you so excited.” Don’t think for a second that Otis was a pushover or didn’t apply himself wholly to the tasks at hand. He was a man who knew his limitations and strengths. He took his performances very seriously. He only missed one show during his entire career and he never stopped a song, no matter the technical difficulty.

At a show in North Carolina, a man out in the crowd became jealous of the effect Otis was having on his wife. The jealous man decided he couldn’t take it anymore and stormed up to the stage. Otis was defenseless, down on his knees, eyes closed, singing “These Arms of Mine.” The man rushed on stage and sucker punched Otis in the face. Although it was a hard shot, Otis didn’t fall. He continued singing until the natural closure of the song. When he finished, Otis stood up off his knees and calmly placed his microphone down. He then coolly sauntered offstage. As soon as he was out of the glare of the lights, he rushed after the man, quickly catching up to him. A cop working security at the show cordoned off other people from getting involved, yelling, “Hit him, Otis! Hit him! I don’t see a thing! Hit him, Otis!” After the man’s karmic debt was repaid for misinterpreting Otis’s intentions, Otis got back up on stage and launched into his next song.

Tending His Own Garden

Let’s take another step back. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, a vast majority of record industry—managers, record company bosses, and publishing houses—would rip off anyone of race, creed, color, or either gender if they could. (Keep in mind that very little has changed since then.) Ninety-nine percent of recording artists don’t have the wherewithal to be musicians and be business-savvy enough to protect themselves at the same time. African Americans had the extra indignity of seeing their work watered down in white conversions and sold in great quantities to the mass white audience, enriching many people except the originators. It is only in very rare instances that black artists were treated fairly by their labels.

Because Otis didn’t want to lose financial control of what he created and to avoid as many of these music industry traps as possible, he did five things, almost from the very beginning. 

First, Otis hired a manager whom he trusted, Phil Walden (and Alan Walden, when Phil was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War). Phil and Otis stayed together throughout Otis’s career.

Second, not only did Otis establish control of his own publishing, he actively kept and protected it. In a joint effort with the Walden brothers, they formed two music publishing companies: Redwal and Walco. Otis was the president of, RedWal a music publishing house, which, by 1965, became the largest local music publisher in the South. He was very active in the company’s operation and directly responsible for the company’s leadership in the music publishing field.

Blah, blah, blah. Business. But since Otis wrote many of his own songs—which was unusual for a singer at the time—he made sure he kept financial control of the songs he wrote. What that means is that he was set up to receive royalty payments for his own songs, not only when he performed and recorded them, but when someone else did. When Aretha Franklin went on to cover “Respect,” Otis, through Walco—not some middleman who had wiggled into the picture with a small advance or an abusive contract—got paid.

Third, Otis kept as much of the making of his music as close as he could, under his own terms and timetables. He formed a production company, Jotis Records (along with Joe Galkin, the man who had initially paid for Johnny Jenkins’ failed session at Stax), that released other artists that Otis considered promising. Jotis Record’s second release was Arthur Conley’s single “Sweet Soul Music.” It was the most popular song Otis was involved with during his lifetime, selling over one million copies. Arthur thanked his mentor directly in the middle of his hit song, too: “Spotlight on Otis Redding now/ Singing fa fa fa fa...”

Otis knew that soul music took root in a live setting. To assure the quality of his live shows, if Otis performed locally, he would always use the same stable of musicians. He wouldn’t use pick-ups local to that area. During the entire length of his career, if Otis played within driving distance of Macon, Johnny Jenkins would play guitar. Johnny didn’t like to fly. If Otis played further away, he took the Bar-Kays, a revolving band of rigorously considered Macon musicians.

Fourth, Otis began nurturing other new, promising, and emerging artists beyond the release of their records. Otis Redding Enterprises did nothing but manage and promote the promising new artists they discovered and served as a center for the discovery, mentoring, and development of local Macon talent.

Fifth, today, we’d call it market research and focus groups. To Otis, it was a simple equation. He knew very well how to sell a piece of vinyl: “Get the women turned on to a song and they’ll send the men out to buy the record.”

Too Many Fuckin’ Words

1966, following the pace of 1965, sawthe release of two more complete, stellar Otis albums: The Soul Album and Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul. What’s more remarkable than, “Whoa, that dude wrote a lot of shit in a short time,” is that how great almost all of it is. Keep in mind that Otis had no formal musical training. He was instinctive. “Otis didn’t know any music outside of what he could hum you,” Wayne Jackson, the Stax trumpet player remembered. “He would really just thump the guitar and sing his words and hum the horn lines and pat out the drum thing.”

What’s compelling throughout Otis’s entire catalog is how instinctual, fluid, and heart-correct all of the songs sound. As a listener, you can hear a heart beat, a man feel, and blood pulse inside of a song all at the same time. And it wasn’t just Otis operating all by himself in a void. It was who he surrounded himself with. Many of his songs were co-written right in the studio. “It would start with bones that somebody brought,” Jackson remembered, “and the muscle and sinew and flesh and skin would be put on it while we were standing there and the monster would rise and live! Somehow.” Critics were astounded that this musically untrained backwoods kids from Macon could come up with songs that were strikingly original—from the sophisticated use of horns to the subtle tempo changes. Yet the formula was—and is—really simple: Otis playing a guitar line, humming a melody, beating out the rhythm with his feet. It’s how some of the best, gutsy, honest, strongest music ever recorded has been made.

Otis’s songs were beautiful in their simplicity. Never mistake simplicity for stupidity or ignorance. Bob Dylan showed up the opening evening of Otis’s stint at the Whiskey in Los Angeles. He made his way backstage with an acetate of a new song called “Just Like a Woman” and gave it to Otis. He asked Otis if he’d be interested in recording it. When Otis listened to it, his response was, “I like it but it’s got too many fuckin’ words. All these pigtails and bobbytails and all that stuff.”

No Sex, No Drugs, Just “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”

Although still largely unknown outside of the American South, almost as soon as his initial recordings for Stax Records became available to avid R&B fans in Europe, Otis Redding became a prime influence for groups like Britain’s Rolling Stones. Steeled by London’s Melody Maker Magazine awarding Otis the title of “International Male Vocalist of the Year” in 1966—an award previously awarded to Elvis Presley for ten consecutive years and being the only black singer on the poll—Stax Records took an ambitious leap of faith in 1967 and launched the Stax/Volt Revue of Europe. The tour included Booker T. And The MG’s, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, The Mar-Keys, and Arthur Conley. The Beatles sent a limo to pick Otis Redding up. The tour was very successful in every way possible, both for Stax and for Otis Redding. It was gangbusters.

It’s typical that at this part of the story of a musician’s ascendancy that their vices and shortcomings start exacting their tolls. VH-1’s Behind the Music has made an entire industry from the structure of this musical tale. Sex and drugs. Glamorous overspending. Bad decisions on a grand scale. Infidelity. Alienation from and amnesia towards the little people who had helped the musician through the lean years. It’s reassuring to know that Otis wasn’t a douche nozzle when he got a large taste of fame, even if it wasn’t in his native country.

“When he came back home, it wasn’t ‘I’m different, I’m a star.’ He didn’t live that ego,” Otis’s wife, Zelma remembered. “He was just a down-to-earth, genuine, loving person. He had to see his friends and he had to visit the community where he grew up, because he had so much love for those people.” Otis and Zelma would go on to co-write “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” together.

In April of 1967, Otis answered James Brown’s call by joining in on an initiative to integrate schools in the South. He worked very closely with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Baker from Tennessee on a stay-in-school project. Many Stax artists recorded a series of tracks designed to encourage black children to take their education as far as possible. Otis’s cut, “Stay in School” had the highest profile and was the most successful: “But did you ever think about how square you look standing/in an employment line because school didn’t interest you.” For a man who had dropped out of school in tenth grade, Otis was wise enough to realize that not everyone else would have his graced opportunity or the privilege of his musical talent.

But it wasn’t always about the kids or music. Every year around Christmas, Otis would fill up his trunk with half-pint bottles of Scotch, drive over to Bellevue, park at a curb, pop open the back of his car, and people would line up to pick up a bottle of Scotch and catch up on old times.

With his money, Otis bought a sprawling ranch outside of Macon. He built a house on the property for his parents. Inside the main house, he made a full-fledged recording studio that housed Big O Enterprises. He contracted the construction of the largest privately owned swimming pool in the state of Georgia. It was in the shape of a big “O.” Otis purchased a Beechcraft airplane for $200,000. It’s not as ostentatious as it first sounds (except the fact that his name was painted on the side). It was, largely, a pragmatic decision. It gave Otis much more flexibility to set his own show schedules, cover much more ground in a short time, stay with his family as much as possible, and make his own travel arrangements. Plans were drawn and construction was scheduled for an airstrip so he could land his twin-engine Beechcraft at the ranch.

In 1967, Otis got an invitation to play the Monterey International Pop Festival in Northern California. It was a three-day affair, featuring some of the biggest acts of the time: Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, The Who, The Animals, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother And The Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. The festival didn’t pay, but it was the offer that Otis had been waiting for. It was the chance to break into a bigger audience. If it had to be to the hippies, so be it. At least they were there for love and there were 30,000 of them in attendance. Introduced by Tommy Smothers, Otis and Booker T. and the MG’s took the stage. They were probably the only people at the festival wearing suits. Otis became the unexpected star of the show, starting late and in the fog. Being virtually unknown on the West Coast at the beginning of his set, he finally made the national splash they’d all been working towards by the end. On the coattails of that success, several weeks later, he was back in San Francisco for sold-out shows at The Fillmore West.

Sunday, December 10, 1967
“He Looked Like He Was Taking a Little Nap”

It was a weekend of gigs. Otis and The Bar-Kays, the band he traveled with when The MG’s couldn’t make the trip, were flying over the Midwest. Otis had recently discovered the Bar-Kays in Macon. “After our show he ran backstage, and said ‘Y’all bad!’” recalled trumpeter Ben Cauley. “He asked about us doing some gigs. And we said, ‘We’re still in high school, so we can’t go on weekdays.’ He said, ‘I’ll take care of that. I’ll pick you up in my plane on Fridays.’”

The weather in Madison, Wisconsin was far from optimum. It was very cold, rainy, and foggy. Otis Redding had kept a promise to himself. Ever since his first gig, he had never canceled one show. They were booked at The Factory, a white rock club. Otis had two shows to play, the first beginning at 6:30 PM. The opening act was a band from Rockford, Illinois called the Grim Reapers. They would later change their name a decade later and become Cheap Trick.

Otis was in the co-pilot’s seat of his plane. Also in the plane were four of the five Bar-Kays (James Alexander was flying on another plane.) The oldest Bar-Kay was nineteen, the youngest seventeen. They were about four miles south of the airport, above SquawBay, and asked for clearance to land. Conditions were poor. According to an FAA spokesman, the plane was making its second attempt to land at the airport when it crashed.

At 3:27 PM, Ben Cauley was asleep in the backseat when he was awakened by a jolt. It felt as if the plane had hit a bump in the road. It began shaking and Ben suddenly felt a tremendous sensation of falling. One engine was grunting and growling. The other was dead altogether. At that moment, Bernard Reese was standing out in front of his house that sat on the shore of Lake Monona just outside Madison. He had heard the sputtering plane overhead and looked up in time to see it flash through the low clouds. It hit the water with a loud thud. About a half mile off the southeastern shore and three miles from the airport, the plane broke apart upon
Ben Cauley recalled that upon waking, he saw band mate Phalon Jones look out a window and say, “Oh, no!” Cauley then unbuckled his seat belt, and that was his final recollection before the plane went down. Ben was thrown from the cabin, instinctively grasping a seat cushion to keep himself afloat. Ironically, he was the only one on the plane who didn’t know how to swim. He was powerless to do anything except hear screams and cries for help. Later, he heard nothing but the quiet splashes of water against his ears. Curled around a seat cushion in the freezing water, he held on. Seventeen minutes later, a rescue boat reached the site and found debris. Just as Ben was slipping beneath the water, he was pulled to safety. Everybody else was dead. Pilot Richard Fraser and eighteen-year-old guitarist Jimmy Lee King were lifelessly floating on the surface.

A Coast Guard cutter brought the plane back to the surface. Inside, near the rear of the fuselage, was the body of Otis Redding. He was still strapped into his seat. “He looked like he was taking a little nap,” said a rescue worker who helped pull him from the wreckage. The cause of the crash was never determined. Otis Redding died at twenty-six years old. Along with Otis, Phalon Jones, Carl Cunningham, Jimmy King, and Ronnie Caldwell, all perished.

None of the fans at The Factory knew the tragic news. An employee of the venue used a bullhorn to tell concert goers of the accident. “No one believed it, of course,” Ken Adamany, the club owner, remembered. “It was in the era of students not trusting business people.” Radio reports, however, confirmed the news. Police asked Adamany to have a show. He threw a free concert. “The news spread slowly,” Rick Nielsen of the Grim Reapers said, “People were walking around in a daze. Instead of locked doors, we played.”

December 10, 1967 was one day off from being exactly three years to the day Sam Cooke had died. Otis’s last single when he was alive, “Shake,” had been written by Sam Cooke. It had been Cooke’s final single as well.

“My Original Feeling”

Three months after his breakthrough at Monterey and five years after his first R&B charting, leaving a recorded legacy that spanned a mere six years, Otis Redding was dead. Otis’s body lay in state at the Macon City Auditorium, where 25,000 people viewed his body and 6,500 mourners attended the services. A Who’s Who of soul paid their respects. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder all attended. It was reported that James Brown attempted to attend, but when he arrived, he was chased away by the Big O Ranch’s gate man.

State Senator Leroy Johnson spoke at the service, revealing for the first time the contributions Otis Redding had made to scholarships for needy students and black voter-registration drives. It is also revealed that Otis had already laid plans to open a camp for underprivileged boys at his ranch. Vice President Hubert Humphrey sent his condolences: “The Death of Otis Redding was a great loss and a tragedy to the music world. His participation in the Stay in School album will be a worthwhile legacy to his memory and to the type of person he was.”

Steve Cropper, guitarist for Booker T. & The MG’s, poignantly remembered his friend and longtime creative partner.

“Otis was the nicest person I ever met. He didn’t have any vices, and he didn’t have any faults, which is very unusual and sounds like you’re making it up. Everybody loved him. Kids gravitated to him. Women just worshipped the guy. His fans were unbelievable. He was a tall, good-looking guy and he sung his gazoo off, so why not? There are all stories about artists. They’re always firing people and doing these crazy things. Otis wasn’t one of those kind of people. He was always working, always on time, always together, loved everybody, made everybody feel great. He was like a country preacher, always wanting to help people out and always paying people compliments…. My original feeling for Otis wound up being my final feeling for Otis. He was a pure man. Anything you say about him has to be good. He was a good person.”

Bittersweet #1

The opening lines to “(Sitting on) the Dock of the Bay” are eerie and prophetic. “I roamed 2,000 miles away from Georgia/ Never to go back home again.” The song, unintentionally, became Otis’s memento mori, something that reminds people of their mortality. The song was recorded only three days prior to his death. It was a departure for those who had followed Otis from the start. It was wistful, full of quiet yearning and easy satisfaction. It was also highly personal. 

Steve Cropper dealt with Otis’s death by working. While search and rescue crews had been combing LakeMonona for Otis’s body, Steve escaped to the studio to mix “Dock of the Bay.” That afternoon he had gone over to a little jingle studio and found a sound-effects tape with seagulls and crashing waves. “The toughest part was,” Steve remembered, “they hadn’t even found Otis yet. And there I am, working on a song.”

Otis had built up so much momentum. “Dock of the Bay” was released the next month, on January 8, 1968. It was Otis’s breakthrough, his “career” song. The record shot up the charts. It reached #1 on both the pop and R&B charts for the week of March 16 and stayed there for four consecutive weeks. It was his first #1 single and first million-seller. Otis was posthumously awarded a “Best R&B song” and “Best R&B performance” at the eleventh Grammy awards.

“Dock of the Bay” wasn’t all that Otis had in the bin before his untimely demise. He had recorded massive amount of studio material in late 1967, just before his death. Three complete studio albums: The Immortal Otis Redding, Love Man, and Tell the Truth were released one at a time between 1968 and 1970.

Fine Print Devil

Stax’s biggest cheerleader in the early days had been Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Stax’s owner, James Stewart, considered Jerry a close friend and based a lot faith that although he’d signed a contract, Jerry’s handshake and personal assurance that there was nothing tricky in the contract was why he ended up distributing all Stax/Volt releases with Atlantic. Shortly before Otis’s death, Atlantic Records was purchased by Warner Bros. This business move, far outside of Stewart’s control, revealed that deep in the Stax/Atlantic distribution contract that Stewart had unknowingly signed away the rights to the original master recordings for all of Stax’s present and future recordings. The executives at Warner refused to renegotiate the contract or to return ownership of the Stax masters. Unable to regain the rights to their recordings, Stax severed their relationship with Atlantic.

In an effort to save the Stax ship, the dismayed Stewart signed a contract with Gulf-Western (a hybrid energy/entertainment business), which was then quickly gobbled up by Paramount Pictures. Booker T. was unimpressed by Stewart’s gambit, saying it was “the type of mentality that comes into the United States when a company developed a new machine, a new technology, and became really large.” Stax, although it would go through several more incarnations, was never the same. As was believed during his lifetime, Otis had turned out to be the heart and soul of Stax. Within two years, most of the original house musicians had left.

Dreams to Remember

Today, Otis Redding is well remembered in his home state of Georgia. Resolutions were passed through the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives unanimously praising his accomplishments. The mayor of Macon, Georgia has declared September 12 as “Otis Redding Day.” In Macon, you can cross the OtisReddingMemorialBridge or gaze at a seven-foot-tall bronze statue (just a little bigger than life size) of Otis. In 2008, Otis’s family launched the Big O Youth Educational Dream Foundation, whose mission is to carry on Redding’s desire to empower young people and encourage their confidence and interest in education through music and the arts.

Otis is laid to rest in a tomb on his private ranch in Round Oak, Georgia, twenty-three miles north of Macon. Otis’s grave site is in the front yard of his house, just a few feet to the left of the driveway and impossible not to see from the kitchen window or dining room. “He wanted to be buried here at the ranch,” Zelma said. “It never bothers me having him there.” It is within hearing distance of his father’s church.

Zelma never remarried.
“I will not beg for my rights. I come here to demand my rights and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood. You may think you are doing yourselves honor by expelling us from this house; but when we go, we light a torch of truth that will never be extinguished.” (Henry Turner, the national leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the church that Little Richard attended.)

Suggested Listening:
For a great start and an overview of Otis to see if you’ll dig his work, I suggest the relatively easy to find double LP: The Best of Otis Redding. (There are a ton of different comps out there.) If you enjoy that, all of his studio albums that were recorded at Stax come highly recommended:
Pain in My Heart
The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads
Otis Blue
The Soul Album
Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul
King & Queen
with Carla Thomas
The Dock of the Bay
The Immortal Otis Redding
Love Man
Tell the Truth

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