Watching an Otis Redding performance is like witnessing a force of nature, as if he’s channeling directly that very powerful, ineffable thing that gives soul music its name. The voice that pours out of him doesn’t describe an emotion, it is an emotion, a raw transference of yearning loneliness or excited passion, whatever the song calls for. It’s so organic, so unfettered, like a man possessed, that it hides another aspect of Redding’s live show, which is that a lot of thought and preparation and work went into it. It’s not contrived by any means, the feeling in he brought to the stage is 100% real, it’s palpable in every breath and every jerky movement, but it took years of consciously honing his craft to be able translate it to an audience in a way that they could understand.
Like so many of his peers, Redding’s first experience with singing and playing music came from the church, specifically the Vineville Baptist church, where his father was a preacher. He sang in the choir and a gospel quartet as a teenager, but not all of his influences were so clean cut growing up in a rough-and-tumble housing project in nearby Macon, Georgia, where blues and other music of questionable morality was often heard. He knew he liked being in front of an audience, whether it was at church or in the high school band, but that interest had to be put on hold for a while when his father became sick, and the adolescent Otis had to take on menial jobs to keep his family from drifting even deeper into poverty.
He detested having to punch somebody else’s clock, and thought music might be a way out of it, so he plugged away at it in what little spare time he had. After hours, he would sing with any band that would have him sit in, and eventually managed to supplement his meager income by earning a few dollars a week backing up Sunday gospel acts on the radio. After a while, he caught a lucky break when someone from Little Richard’s band saw him in a club and asked him to go on tour with the flamboyant, original rock star. Though Richard would remain a big influence on Redding’s music, at the time the young kid just couldn’t keep up with the road-hardened pros and he soon returned home. He had the talent, but he didn’t quite know what to do with it yet.
“As an upstart,” notes music historian Bob Gulla, “Otis knew nothing about the art of singing other than the raw sounds that came out of his throat.” His experience with Richard had made him realize how much he needed to refine his chops, and Redding renewed his commitment to music, bringing to it a workaholic attitude that remained with him for the rest of his life. He entered a talent show and fared poorly, so he scrutinized and studied every singer he could see and every record he could get his hands on, came back, and won it. The work he was putting in was paying off; he won one talent contest so many times that they asked him to stop entering it.
Redding was making a name for himself and was soon hooked up with a band led by guitarist Johnny Jenkins, the Pinetoppers, whose live shows began to get more and more popular with the brash new singer on board. After a Jenkins recording session for Atlantic Records ended early, Redding was given a few minutes to take advantage of the studio. The result was picked up as a single, and though the A-Side, “Hey Hey Baby” failed to take off, DJs soon realized the flipside, “These Arms of Mine” was a hit. The strength of the song got him added to the roster of the Memphis based Stax Records (though there was some inevitable legal battles with Atlantic later, but that’s another story), who specialized in the kind of rough-hewn soul and early funk for which Redding was perfectly suited.
Part of being with Stax meant touring, a lot of touring. The grueling travel schedule, which rarely afforded them a night off, gave Redding the opportunity to play in front of bigger crowds, and to tailor his performance to what worked and what didn’t. “These Arms of Mine” was of course a staple, and seeing how the ladies swooned, he worked on including more similarly plaintive ballads. Women loved him, and not just the sentiment he was singing about, but the almost lustfully physical way in which it was communicated, as the magazine Black World/Negro Digest observed, “He could use slurring words, grunts, groans and shouts to produce the sweetest music.” Not everyone appreciated the effect he had on the fairer sex. One night the jealous boyfriend of a female fan invaded the stage and sucker punched him, after which, as Gulla tells it, “Otis put the microphone down, and calmly walked off stage. He found the perpetrator and beat him senseless. He did, after all, grow up in a fightin’ neighborhood…”
When Redding traveled to Europe with a Stax Records revue however, he realized that not every crowd is the same. Europe has always been a welcoming, and profitable, place for Black American musicians who went unappreciated by white audiences at home, but at the time, they were ill prepared for Stax-style heavy soul. Whereas the crowds in the U.S. instinctively knew to hoot and holler, to be present and involved, the European audiences, accustomed to austere jazz performances, had to be taught a new relationship between artist and audience, that pattern of call-and-response so inherent in all blues-based African-American music. In the words of writer Len Comaratta, “The Stax artists had to develop a different way of interacting with the audience if they wanted to draw the crowd in” and Redding proved one of the most adept and crossing that cultural divide, demonstrating once again his ability to learn what was effective and incorporating it into his style.
That tour convinced Redding, who had always wanted to bring his music to the widest possible audience, that he now had the skills to conquer the mass market American pop audience. If He could make crowds in Europe understand, why not the white folks back in the U.S.? Fortuitously, the perfect opportunity presented itself almost immediately, The Monterrey Pop Festival, arguably the first true outdoor rock festival. Promoters were casting a wide net when choosing performers, and asked Redding to be the Saturday night headliner. Realizing that this would be his big chance to break through to a brand new demographic, he eagerly accepted.
Like so many other musicians, he was jealous of and enamored with the Beatles, especially Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and just as he had done with so many things before, he analyzed and learned from the album, determined to broaden the horizons of soul as the lads from Liverpool had exploded rock and pop. One result of this experimentation was “(Sittin’On) The Dock of the Bay”, but before the single could be released, his plane plunged into an icy lake en route to a gig in Madison, Wisconsin. Redding and all but one of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, were killed. The song, released a month later, went on to sell over four million copies and still receives regular airplay around the world. The crash lamentably cut a life of infinite promise short in its prime, but I think Black World/Negro Digest said in perfectly in their obituary, “We are blessed to have had him around as long as we did.”
Given the level of performance he was able to achieve in the mere 26 years he walked this earth, it’s disappointing to even consider what he could have evolved into had he not lost his life, suddenly and without warning. Here, I’ve only concentrated on the skill and persistence that he brought to his live shows, but as a man, he brought that same dedication to everything he did, including his many charitable endeavors aimed at assisting impoverished inner city youth. Those projects, like the songs he sang to so many packed houses, came from the bottom of his heart, but it was never as easy as he made it look. When you watch the footage or listen to his recordings (I highly recommend In Person at the Whiskey a Go Go by the way) you hear something elemental, a primal wail, but it took a lot of hard work to transform that into something you can dance to.