Les Back on Otis Redding

Otis Blue cover imageDreams to Remember:  Otis Redding and Freedom’s Yearning

When the twenty-one year old Otis Redding pulled up on the lot of Stax Studios in Memphis in the autumn of 1962 no-one was expecting that the company was about to find its voice. Otis was the driver for bandleader Johnny Jenkins who was set to record at Stax that day. With the Jenkins’ session completed, Otis took his chance.  The attention of the assembled group of crack Memphis session musicians was fixed when they heard a tune that he’d written entitled These Arms of Mine.  The record was to be a landmark both for Stax and for Otis.  The song was a mournful ballad in 6/8 time.  It captured the beginnings of Otis’s vocal style, conveying longing, desperate urgency and emotional intensity.

Listen to ‘These Arms of Mine’ here:

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has commented that one of music’s special qualities is its capacity to access a pre-reflective emotional realm. She writes “Music can bypass habit, use, and intellectualising, in such a way that its symbolic structures seem to pierce like a painful ray of light directly into the most vulnerable parts of the personality”.[i]  She’s not thinking of gut-bucket blues as she writes these philosophical lines with the flare of a novelist.  Her reference point is Mahler and the Western classical tradition but I want to suggest that it might equally be applied to the way soul music sings of sublime human vulnerability.

Otis was to emerge as Stax’s biggest artist.  It is ironic that ‘The Memphis Soul Label’ was built around the unique voice of a country boy from Georgia.   Otis Redding Jr. was born on 9th September, 1941 in a small town called Dawson about 100 miles south of Macon.  His father was a church minister in an area known for cotton and sharecropping.  The family moved to Macon when Otis was very young. Otis Senior fell ill and they moved into a poor district known as Bellview.  Otis Junior left school in the 10th Grade to help support the family.    He played drums and sang in a gospel choir and heard all kinds of music from blues, hillbilly to calypso.

In 1965 Otis released his second album ‘The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads.’  This was followed in the autumn of that year by the definitive ‘Otis Blue.’   The album synthesised all the unique skills of the Stax family and resulted in arguably the greatest southern soul album ever recorded. It combined uptempo romps like ‘Shake’ and a soulful version of the Rolling Stones hit ‘Satisfaction,’ with mid-tempo grooves like ‘Ole Man Trouble’ and ‘My Girl’ combined with his by now signature heart-break ballads like the seminal ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ and Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’

In 1967 Otis had a clamorous reception in Britain as headline act on the Stax-Volt tour.  In June he played the Monterey pop festival in front of what he christened the ‘love crowd.’  He took the stage just after 1.00am following a spectacular show from the Jefferson Airplane that included a light show and high-octane rock at deafening volume.  Booker T. and the MG’s took the stage dressed in their lime green mohair suites and armed with their little amps.  “I remember, I walked out on the stage and I looked out at all the hippies in the crowd. I thought to myself ‘my god, the world’s about to end’” says Duck Dunn.  After a four-piece instrumental set the Mar-Keys’ Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson joined the rhythm section.  The jury was still out.   But as soon as Otis took the stage he broke through the hippy pomp and mysticism.  Starting with a smouldering version of ‘I’ve Been Lovin You Too Long’ he launched into a storming sequence of ‘Shake,’ ‘Respect’ and ‘Satisfaction.’  By the time he’d reached the end of an extended live arrangement of Try a Little Tenderness it was all over.  The ‘Love Crowd’ had been transformed into a congregation of soul converts.

He toured extensively on the West Coast during the summer of 1967.  He had been listening to rock music for a long time – prior to his experience at Monterey he’d covered the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction and Lennon and McCartney’s Day Tripper. But his success drew him closer to the new music emerging from the rock scene.  He listened intensely to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album.  Like Memphis musicians Booker T. Jones and Duck Dunn he was attracted to the way The Beatles were pushing the boundaries of pop music. This interest was to have an effect on his song writing.  This came to fruition in the song Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.

Stax guitarist Steve Cropper who co-wrote the song with Otis, explained: “He had just finished a concert at the Fillmore and was staying in a boat house in Sausalito that Bill Graham had fixed him up with.  He gave him a choice ‘do you wanna stay in a hotel room or do you wanna stay at this boat house.’  ‘Oh, I wanna stay in the boat house, that’d be great’ Otis being an outdoorsman anyway.  He sat there and if you listen to the lyrics of ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’, it says ‘I see the ship come in I watch roll away again.’ Well, he was talking about the ferries that we going back and forth.  If you are ever down in Sausalito you see these ferries going back and forth to Oakland.”

Listen to ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ here:

After recovering from a throat operation, Redding returned to Memphis to record.  Two days after the Dock of the Bay sessions had finished, Otis flew to Cleveland to appear on a TV show called Upbeat. Before leaving, Otis had dropped by the studio and spoke to Steve Cropper who’d been listening back to the tapes from the sessions.  They talked about the final touches that the new songs needed.  Otis travelled in his own twin engine Beechcraft aeroplane.   He was accompanied by a funky young band called the Bar-Kays who were set to take over from Booker T. and the MG’s as Stax’s house band.  They arrived in Cleveland and did the TV broadcast.  The weather was awful. A gig had been booked in Madison, Wisconsin and Otis was determined not to cancel the final show of the trip.  All the commercial flights had been grounded but Otis insisted on making the journey.

The aircraft was no match for the conditions and at 3.28pm on the afternoon of 10th December 1967 Otis’s plan crashed into the freezing waters of Lake Monona just four miles short of its destination.  The force of the crash smashed the aircraft to pieces.  Otis, who was sitting up front with the pilot, was killed immediately. His body sank into the dark abyss and wasn’t recovered for several days.

Dock of the Bay contemplates confinement, freedom and the barriers to change.  Steve Cropper went back into the studio and added the exquisite high guitar fills, which add so much to the track, played very high up on the neck of his trademark Telecaster. He also added the sound of the waves and of course the seagulls.  It is a tragic irony that with Otis confined to a watery grave, this song, written as he looked out onto the sea, would deliver his first Number 1. Otis’s funeral took place on December 19th, in Macon. Six thousand mourners attended the service.

In the age of Obama, the plaintive yearning in Otis Redding’s voice might seem little more than Oldies nostalgia. Listen harder and you’ll hear the unrequited call of the southern dream of freedom.  Martha Nussbaum writes that music has a capacity to “embody the idea of our urgent need for and attachment to things outside ourselves that we do not control, in a tremendous variety of forms. This ability, like expressive tragic language, is the product of complex cultural histories; we need to be educated in the particular tradition in question, in order to take up the position of vulnerability that the music makes available to us.”[ii]

In 2012, the US Census Bureau estimated 44,456,009 African Americans lived in the United States (14.1% of the total American population).  Almost a third 28.1% live in poverty and that has increased from the figure of 25.5% in 2005.  In June 1968 a posthumous album entitled The Immortal Otis Redding was released on Atco records.  It contained eleven songs recorded over the three weeks of Otis’s last sessions.  It opens with I’ve Got Dreams to Remember, another mournful ballad.  The chorus might have been written as a coda for the hopes and disappointments of the Obama Presidency. Otis Redding’s voice makes the vulnerabilities of African American life available to us.  It speaks through time not only to lost love but as metonym to the enduring social damage inflicted on African America by racism and white supremacy.

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London


[i] Martha C Nussbaum Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (University of Cambridge, 2001) p. 269.

[ii] Ibid. p. 272.

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