A Blues for Otis: The Life and Legacy of a Soul Legend

[6 December 2007]

By Claudrena N. Harold

Forty years ago on the frigid afternoon of December 10, 1967, a Beechcraft plane carrying the legendary soul singer Otis Redding plunged into the icy waters of Lake Monona, Wisconsin.  Of the eight passengers aboard the twin-engine aircraft, trumpeter Ben Cauley of the Bar-Kays was the lone survivor. News of the crash and Redding’s death spread quickly across the country. Feelings of loss and grief were particularly strong in the South. To thousands of blacks living below the Mason-Dixon Line, Redding was a cultural hero who personified the promise of the New South and the revolutionary possibilities of the ‘60s.

Over the five year period between his signing with Stax in 1962 and his unfortunate death, Redding had become a permanent fixture on black radio, amassed enough money to provide his wife and family with a respectable lifestyle, and gained international recognition as one of the most amazing singers of his generation. Success, however, never diluted Redding’s soul. Coming off at times as the quintessential race man, Redding was firmly rooted in the cultural rhythms of the black South. An incredibly gifted singer-songwriter possessed of the rare combination of supreme intelligence, unwavering ambition, and emotional depth, the Macon, Georgia, native brilliantly synthesized the evangelical fervor of the black church, the rambunctious vibes of rock ‘n’ roll, the plaintive cries of the blues, and the rhetorical brilliance of Southern black vernacular culture.

But the reason Redding stands out as an immortal soul icon is rooted in much more than his broad musical palette. Intensely emotional on record and on stage, Redding unhesitatingly bore witness to pain, exposed his own vulnerabilities, and expressed emotions at odds with conventional and emergent notions of black masculinity. Tearjerkers like his “Pain in My Heart”, “Try a Little Tenderness”, “My Lover’s Prayer”, and the criminally underrated “You’re Still My Baby” spoke honestly and profoundly on the power of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. To a degree underappreciated then and now, Redding’s music presented an image of black domestic life and gender relations more complex and more humane than many sociological musings on the purported perils of black family life.

Tremendous praise has been given to Redding for his raw emotion, but the introspective storyteller whose corpus of work continues to teach us complex lessons about region, race, and gender rarely appears in nostalgic reflections or documentaries on the musician. The 40th anniversary of Redding’s untimely death affords us with the opportunity to reflect on his music, his ascension to superstardom, and his artistic legacy.

Considering the valuable information on Redding’s birth and teen years provided in Peter Guralnick’s magisterial, Sweet Soul Music, 1962 seems a perfectly reasonable starting point to explore the making of a soul legend. In the fall of this monumental year, at the age of 21, Redding recorded his first two songs for the Memphis-based Stax label: “These Arms of Mine” and “Hey, Hey Baby”. Soon to become a staple in his celebrated live shows, “These Arms of Mine” was a top 20 hit on the black charts in 1963. Two years passed before Redding would crack the top 20 again, though one could hardly say his career was at a standstill during this time. The moderate radio success of songs like “Pain in My Heart” and “Security” enabled him to do relatively well on the Chitlin Circuit, building his fan base and reputation as an exhilarating performer.

Things really picked up for Redding in 1965, the year he scored the biggest hit of his career and composed a song which would make a young struggling singer from Detroit a household name.  If hardcore Redding fans were asked to choose a song representative of his raw emotion, many would select the heart wrenching “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. Written by Redding and Jerry Butler, the gripping ballad is nothing short of spectacular. Everything about the song is sheer perfection, from guitarist Steve Cropper’s beautiful statement of the melody, to the dramatic flair of the Memphis horns, to Redding’s plaintive cries for reconciliation. This moving ballad struck a responsive chord among black and white listeners, climbing to number 2 on the black charts and peaking at a respectable number 21 on the pop charts.

Later that year, Redding scored another hit with “Respect”, a scorching number Aretha Franklin later transformed into a universal anthem embraced by black power radicals, bra-burning feminists, and anti-war protesters. “Respect” is now regarded as Franklin’s song, but the single actually performed well for Redding in ’65. A top 5 hit in black America, it was one of many Redding songs getting strong play on soul radio stations in both the South and North.

Not only was Redding proving his viability as a singer-songwriter capable of delivering hits, but he was also gaining respect as an artist who could make strong albums that kept the listener’s attention from beginning to end. His 1965 Otis Blue: Otis Sings Soul, anchored by the radio hits “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, “Respect”, and “Shake”, remains a high-water mark for gritty soul music. The soon-to-be reissued recording is an excellent showcase of Redding’s growth as a songwriter, as well as his deft interpretive skills. If one views an artist’s willingness to record someone else’s song as a sign of confidence, Redding was definitely feeling himself during the Otis Blue sessions. A ballsy Redding gave dap to B.B. King on “Rock Me Baby”, put his own spin on two Sam Cooke tunes (“Shake” and the brilliant “A Change Is Gonna Come”), and sent some serious respect Solomon Burke’s way on “Down in the Valley”. So much more than interpretations, Redding’s covers were the ultimate gestures of respect, a musical expression of thanks to the trailblazers of modern black music.

Don’t think, however, that Redding was only concerned with giving props to his musical sources. Or that he was nothing more than a cover artist. The singer poured tremendous energy and soul into his own compositions. Wanting to be viewed as more than a country, ‘Bama singer from the Georgia backwoods, Redding desired respect as a songwriter and he worked extremely hard to become a good one. Friends and fellow musicians remembered Redding as someone who wrote constantly, whether at home or on the road. Channeling his emotions into his songs, Redding freely revealed his vulnerabilities. If “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” perfectly captured the sound of a man hopelessly in love, “Ole Man Trouble”, another standout track from Otis Blue, reveals the pain of a man in the midst of an existential crisis. The song finds Redding attempting to extricate himself from dread, pain, and fear. It captures brilliantly the anguish of the blues and the buoyant optimism of what scholar Craig Werner calls the “gospel vision.” Listen to the anguish in Redding’s voice as he sings, “I lived this way for so many years / Ooh, ole man trouble, help me wash away my fears”, and you hear a man on the brink of a mental breakdown, but too damn proud, too much of a believer in the promise of tomorrow to venture into the world of self-pity.

Too much revelation of oneself can be risky business, especially in a society where men are supposed to be anything but emotionally vulnerable, but Redding was rewarded for his emotional honesty and lucidness. An impressive recording filled with moving reflections on love and life, Otis Blue, Redding’s third album, reached the top of the black album charts. Something was particularly special, almost symbolic about Redding’s climb to the mountain top. So much of his music encapsulated the South’s dirt poor realities and bourgeois ambitions, its past struggles and future triumphs, its outer strength and inner vulnerability.

Success followed Redding in 1966, the year he released two impressive studio albums, The Soul Album and the spectacular Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul. Cut in Memphis, Tennessee, between May and September, Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul competes with Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul as the most dynamic and complete album to come out of Stax. The album features a nice balance of up-tempos and ballads, originals and covers. Once again, Redding shows his respect for Sam Cooke by covering two songs from that soul legend’s fabulous live album, Sam Cooke at the Copa.

Shining on “Tennessee Waltz”, Redding rescues the pop standard from the Tin Pan Alley, drags it through the red clay of his native Georgia, and then baptizes the song in the sanctified waters of the church. The same emotional intensity is offered on “Try a Little Tenderness”. The classic soul ballad builds intensity with subtle melodic changes and then concludes on an explosive note as the pulsating rhythms of drummer extraordinaire Al Jackson collide with the sanctified proselytizing of Redding to create one of the most dramatic endings in soul music history. If James Brown’s energetic stage performances during the ‘60s and early ‘70s are primers on how to move a crowd, Redding’s performance of “Try a Little Tenderness” is a primer for anyone who wants to understand the restraint and intelligence required of any great soul singer.

Cognizant of Redding’s amazing talents and happy about his growing popularity, Stax and their corporate partner Atlantic Records were convinced that Redding had the potential to become an international star. To make his and his employers’ dreams a reality, Redding departed for Europe in the fall of 1966, performing before thousands of frenzied whites with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for Southern soul. A few months later, in the spring of 1967, Redding returned to Europe as part of the Stax-Volt Revue. Opportunities for the rising star to expand his fan base continued upon his return to the United States, when he was given a slot at the Monterey Pop Festival. Seemingly everyone in attendance, from a talented Seattle-born guitarist named James Marshall Hendrix to rock critic Jon Landau, marveled at Redding’s masterful performance.

All of Redding’s hard work was paying off in terms of increased exposure, but the singer’s active schedule and passionate delivery was taking a toll on his voice. Throat surgery would sideline the singer for much of the fall of ’67, though his creative instincts hardly subsided during the recovery period. Listening endlessly to the Beatles’ masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, playing his guitar, and writing songs, Redding worked on his craft with abiding passion. To his delight, he was finally able to return to the studio in December. One of the compositions he recorded was a simple yet powerful tune called “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay”.

Several days later, Redding’s career came to a tragic end when the plane he had purchased to sustain his busy travel schedule crashed not far from Madison, Wisconsin.  Redding’s dramatic exit left a huge void that no single person could possibly fill. So immense was Redding’s talent and so powerful was his aura that his death prompted an outpouring of mourning (thousands attended his funeral), as well as much speculation about the circumstances surrounding the fatal crash. Conspiracy theories ran rampant in some circles. To what extent had Redding’s growing independence and desire to form his own company alienated him from executives at Atlantic and Stax? Did someone tamper with the plane before the takeoff?  A little less than a year after Redding’s passing, Black Arts Movement playwright Ben Caldwell produced a drama entitled The King of Soul, or the Devil and Otis Redding, in which he presented the soul singer as the victim of white manipulation and avarice.

Speculation surrounding Redding’s death eventually died down, but sadness and grief haunted those close to the singer for years, even decades, to come. The situation at Stax was beyond sad. Company employees walked around the office in a perpetual fog for months after the crash. Twenty-six years of age at the time of his death, Redding had shown so much strength as a person and so much promise as an artist. Something was intensely powerful and by extension political about his music. Surrounded by a talented group of white and black musicians, Redding had created a mesmerizing sound, an otherworldly sonic force, neither purely black nor white, but undeniably American in its stark realism and buoyant optimism.

Loved not only by his dedicated fans, the man affectionately referred to as the “Big O” was also held in high esteem by other musicians. A longtime collaborator, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn of the famed Booker T. and the MGs conveyed to historian Peter Guralnick his respect for Redding as a musician and session leader. “It was never a routine session with Otis. Otis would come in, and boy, he’s just bring everybody up…Cause you knew something was gonna be different. You wanted to play with Otis. He brought out the best in you. If there was a best, he brought it out, that was his secret.” Another thing Redding brought out of his collaborators and his listeners was raw emotion. “I almost cry sometimes when I hear Otis’s stuff,” Jimi Hendrix admitted, “Stuff like that makes you actually laugh—not laugh from, “oh, look at that, ha-ha-ha-ha!’ But that real good feeling, and then you get lumps in your throat, and shit. Yeah, that’s when the stuff is popping.”
Redding’s death was a devastating blow to his fans, fellow musicians, and Stax Records. Taken from the American cultural landscape on that dreadful December afternoon was a man on the rise, ready to win new fans and markets. If the gold certification of his posthumous single “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” was any indication, Redding’s future seemed blindingly bright. One can’t help but wonder how the singer might have responded to and forwarded the many changes in black music. 1967, the year Redding returned to the essence, witnessed several important developments in the musical world: the release of Aretha Franklin’s paradigm shifting I’ve Never Loved a Man, the arrival of Jimi Hendrix’s debut, Are You Experienced , and his spectacular follow-up, Axis: Bold as Love, and of course, Sly Stone’s coming out party on A Whole Different Thing.

Even though African American music took many twists and turns after Redding’s death, the respected soul man still provided a blueprint and model for many male singers. His influence could be heard in the manicured yet gritty soul of Al Green, the blue-collar ethos and sensibilities of Bill Withers, and the country timbre of Malaco Records’s ZZ Hill. Love and respect for Redding also continued in many white circles, even as the advent of punk rock and disco drove a complex wedge between certain black and white listeners. This fact was brilliantly communicated in Lester Bangs’s “The White Noise Supremacists”. There’s a classic section where the critic describes a party at which he encounters a punk rocker who wants to know why Bangs was playing “all that nigger disco shit.” Infuriated by the query, Bangs quips, “that’s not nigger disco shit, that’s Otis Redding, you asshole.” The reason the punk rocker was an asshole in Bangs’s view was not because of his use of a racial epithet, especially one routinely slung around in certain punk rock circles, but because he shamelessly flaunted his ignorance of a musical legend. To Bangs’s dismay, racism was sealing white rockers off from a valuable cultural source. A deeper issue was also at work in this scene: the times were changing. The reverent way the Rolling Stones and other rock ‘n’ roll bands viewed Redding would not be shared by later white rock groups.

How black Americans viewed Redding also shifted with the passage of time. To be sure, Redding’s place in the pantheon of great soul singers remains firmly secure, but his meaning for contemporary black performers is a more complex matter. One is more likely to find artists who align themselves and their music with the soul tradition worshipping at the altar of James Brown, Aretha, Sly, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, P-Funk, Al Green, and Donny Hathaway than studying the works of Redding. Some of this has to do with the ways in which critics, singers, and fans alike fetishized the “concept album”, assigning “genius status” to the artist who stayed cooped up in the studio for months at a time and then emerged from the lab with some mind-blowing masterpiece. Musicians coming of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s, especially the Prince heads, had a particular concept of genius which disposed them to the ‘70s. Their logic was relatively simple: ‘60s artists had great singles and provided musical soundtracks to one of the most tumultuous periods in American history; but the 1970s was the decade in which black genius erupted, when mad scientists like Stevie dropped artistic masterpieces like Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfilligness First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life in succession. If you read interviews from many in the neo/alternative soul camp, you hear many of them give effusive praise to Wonder, Sly, and George, among others productive in the ‘70s, but not too many hosannas are thrown Redding’s, the Supremes’, or the Temps’ way.

Even though Redding may not receive loads of love from certain contemporary artists and many of his albums have not been fully appreciated as great works of art, he definitely has his admirers, a diverse bunch which includes folks like Black Crowes rocker Chris Robinson and Anthony Hamilton, the singer cultural critic Greg Tate calls our “No. 1 Mason-Dixon Soul man of the moment.” One suspects that there will always be new artists and musical audiences moved by Redding’s impassioned and rugged voice, his deep sensuality, and his emotive testimonies on the power of love.

Listening to Redding for the past few days reminded me not only of his brilliance, but the beauty of the ‘60s. Let me be clear, nostalgic reflections and testimonials on the legendary decade can be a big bore, but when you listen to Redding’s music, whether it be the overtly political “A Change Is Gonna Come”, the foot stomping “Day Tripper”, or one of his many songs on love lost or unrequited, you get a real sense of how much the triumphs and struggles of the ‘60s lived in the music.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/a-blues-for-otis-the-life-and-legacy-of-a-soul-legend/