“He may have been the most original, most intelligent person I ever met in my life.”
—-Phil Walden, Otis Redding’s manager
If you know Otis Redding only as a great soul singer of the Sixties, then you should also know that he was a multi-talented individual. He not only sang, he wrote and arranged songs and was as responsible – in a managerial sense – as anyone for his meteoric rise. The general belief is that he was “discovered” at Monterey Pop. In fact, he was pretty accomplished and financially sound long before that. This is his story.
Otis Redding’s life was brief but impactful and eventful. He was born in Dawson, Georgia in 1941. Dawson is in southwest Georgia, much closer to Alabama and Florida than to South Carolina and Tennessee.
The South was at the time completely segregated by race with “white” and “colored” everything – water coolers, pools, neighborhoods, etc. Whites and blacks could attend the same theaters but there were roped off sections and you damn well knew where you were supposed to sit.
Ironically, what helped forge a generation of Southern soul and blues singers was a then-unlikely combination of white label owners and black singers. (And white musicians.) One could easily argue that each was using the other to get something. By the same token, it’s clear that the founders of labels like Atlantic, Stax, and Chess loved the music they were recording.
When he was about one year old, Otis’ father – a sharecropper – moved the family to Macon, Georgia about a hundred or so miles north of Dawson and smack dab in the middle of the state. Like so many Southern-bred soul singers, Otis sang in the church choir and even earned money singing gospel. He learned to play guitar and piano and took drum and singing lessons,
But his passion wasn’t necessarily – or even – gospel. He loved secular music as well and greatly admired both Little Richard and Sam Cooke to the point of imitating them till he found his own voice. (For the record, he liked Hank Williams and Roy Acuff, too.) Otis himself said that he “entered the music business because of Richard – he is my inspiration. I used to sing like Little Richard, his rock ‘n roll stuff… My present music has a lot of him in it.”
Otis worked the usual shitty teenage jobs but he seemed to have a strong sense of his destiny. That said, he lived in the projects and was somewhat of a wild child. He lived by the code of the street where respect was due a man every single day. (Women were not part of this equation and they too “knew their place.”) This will come back to bite him in the ass later.
In the late Fifties, a local DJ named Hamp Swain hosted dance shows called The Teenage Party at local theaters. There Otis met a guitarist named Johnny Jenkins who was at that point the big man in town. With this combination, Otis won the talent contest for 15 straight weeks.
Otis met a woman named Zelma Atwood in 1959, she gave birth to their son Dexter* in 1960 and they got married in 1961. By all accounts, Zelma was dedicated to Otis. She knew he was a handsome, charismatic guy and also likely knew that he was not a saint while on the road.
Otis’ initial response to having a kid was to go to LA to see if he could get his career off the ground. There he met a songwriter named Jackie Avery who had connections and together they were able to cut a record with musicians who had worked with his idols, Cooke and Richard. (A quick look at AllMusic shows Avery’s songs being covered by anyone from Bonnie Bramlett to Atomic Rooster.)
Here is one of the very first recordings ever by Otis Redding (backed up by a female group that included Darlene Love.) The song is called “Gettin’ Hip” and it sounds very Jackie Wilson-ish to these ears (can’t find a Spotify version):
For whatever reason, Otis’ stint in LA didn’t last much longer than that. He took the $100 he made from the recording and headed back to Macon. That’s where he hooked up with a band with the great, great moniker of Pat T. Cake and the Mighty Panthers which included Jenkins.
They toured in something called the ‘chitlin circuit’, which was a group of theaters friendly to black entertainers. And of course, since the South was segregated, they had to stay at “Negro-friendly” hotels and were lucky to find a restaurant that would take them.
At the same time, a white Mercer college student named Phil Walden** was booking bands into his fraternity. He hired the Mighty Panthers for one of those shows which was where he first encountered Redding. Jenkins eventually left the Mighty Panthers, taking Otis with him.
Calling themselves the Pinetoppers, they barnstormed around the South. Lacking a driver, Otis took on that chore. (This led to the myth that Otis was a driver who was discovered. He was actually well-established as a singer but just took on this extra work as much because Jenkins couldn’t drive as for any other reason.)
In the summer of 1961, Otis found out about a guy named Bobby Smith who ran a label called Confederate Records. Here’s Bobby Smith in his own words: “Otis said he was a singer and wanted to see if I was interested in him. I asked if he had a tape and he said he didn’t but would sing for me. I told him to go ahead and sing one of his original songs. He sang “Shout Bamalama.””
(Otis in Confederate Records’ studio)
Smith goes on to say that he traveled around to local radio stations trying to convince DJs to play the song. Unfortunately, Smith – a white car salesman – had chosen to enhance the name Confederate Records by putting a Confederate flag on the label. And so the DJs – many of whom were black – basically said Fuck you, take the flag off, we’ll think about playing it.
Smith wasted no time worrying about allegiance to the flag and – seeking the almighty buck – quickly renamed his label the somewhat less controversial Orbit Records.
And so “Shout Bamalama” – released in 1961, credited to the Pinetoppers but written by Otis – turned out to be his first recording. (Otis had seen royalties rolling in for songwriters and himself wasted no time jumping on that particular bandwagon. Plus he had somewhat of a knack for it.)
Here’s “Shout Bamalama.” You can hear Otis doing his best Little Richard on this one. (They called this somewhat temporary band Otis and the Shooters but I can’t find this record with that bands’s name):
Phil Walden realized that he had to find a record label for Otis, but perhaps one that was somewhat more established. On the advice of an Atlantic Records representative, he approached Memphis-based Stax Records. (Atlantic and Stax had a business relationship wherein the larger Atlantic would help with distribution. This would come back to bite Stax in the ass later.)
Stax had been founded in 1957 as Satellite Records but changed its name to Stax in 1961. A woman named Estelle Axton mortgaged her home and together with her accountant brother Jim Stewart, founded the label. The name ‘Stax’ comes from the first two letters of their last names.
The session was actually set up for Johnny Jenkins but whatever magic he may have possessed on stage did not transfer to the studio. They decided to give Jenkins’ “driver” (almost 500 miles NW from Macon to Memphis) a chance and recorded two songs – an Otis-written number called “Hey, Hey Baby” and an Allen Toussaint number called “Pain in My Heart.” (It’s actually derivative of a different Toussaint song which he wrote under a pseudonym.)
Stewart thought “Hey, Hey Baby” sounded too much like Little Richard and vastly preferred “Pain In My Heart.” (By all accounts, Stewart’s instincts here were good but that was not always the case.) I actually think it’s pretty good if only your basic three-chord rocker.
“Pain In My Heart” is a different story and could almost be seen as the blueprint for not only the Otis style but – with its funky horn-driven sound – much of the Stax output. Stewart: “Everybody was fixin’ to go home, but Joe Galkin (Atlantic representative) insisted we give Otis a listen. There was something different about [the ballad]. He really poured his soul into it.”
“Pain In My Heart” is also significant because it represents the first time Otis would record with a man who would come to be not only a major collaborator but who would eventually wind up on Rolling Stone’s list of Top 100 guitarists – Steve Cropper. And it was the first of Otis’ songs to be covered by the Rolling Stones (2nd UK album) that would help introduce him to a wider (read: white) audience.
In his late teens, Steve Cropper – who probably deserves a post of his own – co-founded a band called the Royal Spades. A member of the band, Charles “Packy” Axton was the son of Stax Records co-founder Estelle Axton. She convinced them to change their name to the Mar-Keys for the marquee outside of Stax (a former movie theater.)
The Mar-Keys had a hit with a funky little 1961 instrumental called “Last Night.” (The producer didn’t want guitar so Cropper “wound up playing the hold-down on the organ on the root note.”)
This all-white band eventually morphed into the racially integrated Booker T and the MG’s. Regular personnel included keyboardist Booker T. Jones, Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and later, Al Jackson, Jr. on drums. Isaac Hayes*** was also a keyboardist at times. This is the band that not only became the Stax house band but also – minus Duck who hadn’t yet joined – wrote and recorded the classic “Green Onions,” a 1962 hit.
It was largely this combination of Otis Redding and the MG’s that would lead to the rise of Otis Redding. And Stax.
*Dexter and Otis Redding III formed a funk/R&B band in the ’80’s called the Reddings. They had some minor hits but I don’t recall their having an impact.
**Phil Walden went on to form Capricorn Records who recorded the Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker, Johnny Jenkins and a whole host of Southern-bred bands.
***Hayes became a fairly prolific songwriter co-penning tunes such as “Hold On, I’m Coming,” “Soul Man,” (both hits for Sam and Dave), and perhaps most famously, 1971’s “The Theme from Shaft.” He resurfaced later as the voice of Chef on South Park with his most famous song from that show, of course, being the immortal “Chocolate Salty Balls.” (Not to be confused with Alec Baldwin’s classic SNL “Shweaty Balls” bit.
Next post – Phil Walden gets drafted; Otis perfects his craft; the world begins to take notice.
Sources: Wikipedia; Gould, Jonathan. Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life. Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition; The True Story of Confederate Records by Bobby Smith (website.)