Otis Redding

May 21st, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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otis 235x300 Otis Redding1941-1967  Otis Redding was one of the greatest voices of “Southern Soul.” His rapid rise to broad popularity, culminating with a boundary-breaking performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, was tragically curtailed at an early age, and then perpetuated with the posthumous release of his most successful recording.

An Accidental Introduction

Redding was born in 1941 in Dawson, Georgia. At an early age, his family moved to Macon. His father was a Baptist minister, and early exposure to church music led to his performing with the gospel choir and his school band. His father’s chronic illness contributed to the family’s difficult economic circumstances. Redding left school in 10th grade to earn money while pursuing his musical dreams. He worked odd jobs and sang whenever and wherever he could. Macon native Little Richard was an early influence, and Redding sang and toured the region with Little Richard’s former band singing in a similar “shouting” style. Gigs paid him as much as $5 to $10 a night, and he sent $25 back home every week.

Redding also entered local talent competitions, singing songs by Elvis Presley and others, and winning every time until barred. Macon guitarist Johnny Jenkins was in the audience for one such performance, and soon “Rockhouse Redding” was occasionally singing with and acting as driver for Jenkins and his band, the Pinetoppers. Through Jenkins, Redding met his future wife Zelma, whom he married in 1961 and with whom he would have three children; met his future manager and partner, Phil Walden. Redding drove the Pinetoppers to the Stax Records studios in Memphis, Tennessee for a 1962 session. Stax was the hottest R&B label in the south, and its house band, Booker T. and the MG’s was held in equally high esteem. The Pinetoppers session went poorly and wound down early, and a record company representative suggested that Redding try two songs.

One of these, the ballad “These Arms of Mine,” was released that year and became a minor R&B hit. Stax asked Redding back nine months later for his own full session, which produced the R&B chart-topping song “Pain in My Heart.” While Zelma worked to help support the family, Redding took his growing R&B fame on the road.

A Rousing Performer

After several years playing small clubs and theaters to black audiences, Redding proved to be as popular on stage as on records. With an energetic no-holds-barred performing style, he engaged audiences in his increasingly prolific compositions. He also wrote out full arrangements and distinctive brassy horn parts for his songs, developed a polished dance style, and perfected his vocal delivery. Almost constantly on the road, accompanied by a battered guitar with which he wrote songs, he would periodically return to Memphis to record with Stax. The year 1965 would see three top-ten R&B chart records, including the #2 hit “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” A cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” and “Respect” soon followed. One of his best-loved albums, “Otis Blue,” was recorded in a single 24-hour period. His touring became international with a headliner appearance on the Stax-Volt Tour in Europe in 1967.

Other musicians were beginning to notice Redding and his evolving songwriting style. The Rolling Stones recorded two of his compositions (“That’s How Strong My Love Is” and “Pain In My Heart”), which introduced him to a broader audience. Redding was also developing as a businessman and entrepreneur. He founded his own music publishing, production, and record companies, which also helped other developing artists. Between those and other business ventures, he was able to buy his own airplane, and a 300-acre ranch.

In 1967, Redding had a major R&B hit with fellow Stax star Carla Thomas, “Tramp,” which showed the beginnings of crossover appeal to pop audiences. That same year, he received his first Grammy Award nominations, and played the Monterey Pop Festival. Backed by Booker T. & the MG’s, he gave it his all, and the mostly white pop-music audience responded in kind. Redding’s performance of “Try a Little Tenderness,” which he also recorded that year, was memorialized in a film made of the festival. From that moment on, he had erased the boundary between his R&B roots and a global legion of popular music fans. Performances were scheduled for the following year at New York’s Philharmonic Hall and on the Ed Sullivan Show, and a television special on Redding was in the works.

Legend holds that Redding composed his most famous work during a 1967 engagement at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, when he lived on a houseboat in the bay. He recorded the song at Stax on December 7, 1967. Two days later, he flew to a television appearance in Cleveland, Ohio. Despite bad weather warnings, he decided to fly on to a concert date in Madison, Wisconsin. The plane crashed en route in Lake Monona, Wisconsin. At the peak of his performing, composing, and recording potential, at the point of breakthrough in his commercial and artistic development, the 26-year-old Redding was killed. All but one member of his band died with him. His funeral in Macon was attended by thousands, including soul music luminaries James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and Percy Sledge. His success had been so instrumental to that of Stax Records that his passing imperiled the label. But in early 1968, the last song he recorded was posthumously released. “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” sold over one million units, became Redding’s first number one single on Billboard magazine’s pop chart, and won two Grammy Awards in 1968. Aretha Franklin scored an international hit with her version of “Respect” that year. And in 1989, Redding was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His impact on the evolution of R&B and Soul into pop has left a permanent legacy for musicians and music. His songs continue to be recorded, and his entire record output has been made available in re-release.

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