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For many music listeners, singer Otis Redding embodied soul music. On such defining R&B tracks as "Try a Little Tenderness," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "I Can't Turn You Loose" and his posthumous hit, "(Sittin' On) the Dock of The Bay," Redding's gritty, impassioned voice could roar like a preacher testifying to his flock or croon like a wounded lover trying to reclaim his beloved's heart. He released just six albums and a handful of singles during his shockingly brief career, but for many, every one of these recordings was an enduring classic, leaving a lasting impact on the tone and fervor of R&B and rock-n-roll. A favorite of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he provided career-defining hits for Aretha Franklin ("Respect") and Arthur Conley ("Sweet Soul Music"), and had a lasting influence on such performers as Rod Stewart, Janis Joplin, Al Green, Michael Bolton and virtually anyone who brought a touch of Southern soul to their sound. A giant in 20th century popular music, his death by plane crash in 1967 ended a promising career, but immortalized him as the voice of soul for generations.Born Otis Ray Redding, Jr. in Dawson, GA on Sept. 9, 1941, he was the son of gospel singer Otis...
For many music listeners, singer Otis Redding embodied soul music. On such defining R&B tracks as "Try a Little Tenderness," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "I Can't Turn You Loose" and his posthumous hit, "(Sittin' On) the Dock of The Bay," Redding's gritty, impassioned voice could roar like a preacher testifying to his flock or croon like a wounded lover trying to reclaim his beloved's heart. He released just six albums and a handful of singles during his shockingly brief career, but for many, every one of these recordings was an enduring classic, leaving a lasting impact on the tone and fervor of R&B and rock-n-roll. A favorite of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he provided career-defining hits for Aretha Franklin ("Respect") and Arthur Conley ("Sweet Soul Music"), and had a lasting influence on such performers as Rod Stewart, Janis Joplin, Al Green, Michael Bolton and virtually anyone who brought a touch of Southern soul to their sound. A giant in 20th century popular music, his death by plane crash in 1967 ended a promising career, but immortalized him as the voice of soul for generations.
Born Otis Ray Redding, Jr. in Dawson, GA on Sept. 9, 1941, he was the son of gospel singer Otis Redding, Sr. and his wife, housekeeper Fannie Redding, who moved the family to Macon when their son was three years old. He initially came to music through the church by singing at the Vineville Baptist Church, but soon found inspiration in more secular performers like Sam Cooke and in particular, Little Richard, whose lusty delivery would serve as a template for Redding's own powerhouse vocals. He soon became a staple on the Macon club and talent contest circuits, where he quickly earned a reputation for his high-energy renditions of Little Richard songs. Redding eventually joined Richard's band, the Upsetters, for a brief period in his teenaged years before resuming his pursuit of a solo career.
In 1958, he was invited to compete on WIBB disc jockey Hamp Swain's "Teenage Party" contest. There, he met guitarist Johnny Jenkins, who offered to back Redding when his own band proved too ill equipped to perform at the event. Redding later became frontman for Jenkins' band, Pat T. Cake and the Mighty Panters, and toured throughout the American South on the chitlin circuit. Jenkins and Redding eventually left the group to join the Pinetoppers, who, as Otis and the Shooters, backed the singer on "Shout Bamalama," a barnstorming R&B number in the Little Richard style. When Jenkins went to record a session for Atlantic Records at Stax Records's studio in Memphis, he brought Redding with him, primarily to drive, as Jenkins did not possess a license. At the end of the session, Redding was offered the chance to perform two songs. He chose an original composition, "These Arms of Mine," and wowed the crowd in attendance with his impassioned delivery. Stax studio chief Jim Stewart soon signed Redding to Stax's sister label, Volt, which released "These Arms of Mine" in 1962. It became a Top 20 hit on the R&B charts and a modest success on the pop charts as well, launching Redding's career in earnest.
With Stax's formidable house band, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Redding recorded his first album, Pain in My Heart (1963), which generated a Top 20 hit with the aching title track. By the time he released its follow-up, The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (1964), he had developed a following among black audiences, as well as white musicians like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who would cover "Pain in My Heart" and "That's How Strong My Love Is." He continued to land singles at the top of the R&B charts, like "Mr. Pitiful," which reached No. 10, but success with white listeners evaded him until 1965, when his slow-boiling single "I've Been Loving You," a collaboration with Impressions singer Jerry Butler from his third album, Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul reached No. 21 on the pop charts.
Otis Blue contained many of Redding's signature tunes, including his renditions of "Respect," Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World" and "Shake," and a ferocious tear through the Stones' "Satisfaction." It shot to the top of the R&B charts but failed to break the Top 50 on the pop charts, a fate that also befell his fourth LP, The Soul Album (1966). Undaunted, Redding decided that if white audiences would not come to his music, he would simply bring it to them. A series of show-stopping live performances at such established rock-n-roll palaces as the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles and the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Word soon spread throughout the pop and rock community about Redding's volcanic stage show, which in turn helped to boost his fifth album, Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966). The record featured what was unquestionably one of the finest songs of his career, a cover of "Try a Little Tenderness" that rose from a passionate croon to an explosive conclusion. It broke the Top 40 on the pop singles chart, as did the propulsive "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)." He subsequently launched a tour of England that helped to cement his popularity among the pop music listeners who had sent Otis Blue and The Soul Album to the No. 6 and 25 spots on the U.K. albums chart.
The year 1967 saw two of Redding's compositions, "Sweet Soul Music" by Arthur Conley, and Aretha Franklin's star-making version of "Respect" reach the Top 10 on the pop and R&B charts. Redding himself was recording his sixth album, King and Queen, which featured a series of duets with Stax labelmate Carla Thomas. The sassy interplay between Redding and Thomas on a cover of Lowell Fulson's "Tramp" gave them a No. 2 R&B hit and Top 40 pop hit, as well as placed the record itself in the Top 40. Redding then flew to Paris to record a live album, Otis Redding: Live in Europe (1967), which also reached the Top 40 on the album charts. He returned to America to deliver what was unquestionably one of the finest live performances of his career at the Monterey International Pop Festival. As the only soul act on the bill, he delivered a set list of his greatest hits with a passion and intensity that at times bordered on the supernatural. The Monterey performance was the launching pad for widespread interest in Redding's career, and he soon set to work on music that would reach this new audience.
Later that year, while staying on a friend's houseboat in Sausalito, CA, Redding began to pen a melancholy number that, with the help of M.G.'s guitarist Steve Cropper, became "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." The song was Redding's heartfelt attempt to break new ground with his work, but the song was met with concern by Stax, which felt that its decidedly non-R&B melody and Redding's mellow delivery would harm the singer's career. But Redding believed that it was the best song he had ever written, and planned to return to the studio after a brace of live shows to complete its closing moments, which featured his lonesome whistling instead of lyrics.
On Nov. 9, 1967, Redding and members of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, tackled a series of performances and appearances in Nashville, Cleveland and Wisconsin. After completing the last of these on December 10, Redding and his band attempted to land at Truax Field (now Dane County Regional Airport) in Madison, WI in heavy rain and fog. The plane crashed into Lake Monona, killing Redding, his manager and four members of the Bar-Kays. At the time of the accident, Redding was only 26 years old. His death sent shock waves through the music industry, which turned out in droves to attend Redding's funeral service at the City Auditorium in Macon on December 18. Redding was entombed at his family's ranch in Round Oak, GA. "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" was released in January 1968 and rose immediately to the top position on the pop charts. Atlantic Records, which distributed Stax/Volt's releases, issued a trio of posthumous albums between 1968 and 1970 on its Atco imprint. Warner Bros. Records later bought Atlantic and issued Redding's Monterey Pop performance on a single LP that also featured Jimi Hendrix's landmark debut at the festival. In 1989, Redding was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while the city of Macon paid tribute to its native son with a statue in Gateway Park and the Otis Redding Memorial Bridge. Billboard launched the Otis Redding Excellence Award in 2006, while the singer's widow, Zelma Redding, established the Big "O" Youth Educational Dream Foundation the following year.
By Paul Gaita
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