Otis Redding – Stax Rising – (Part Two)

“I started singing spiritual songs in my father’s church, from about seven on up until I was grown.”
—-Otis Redding

(Below: Booker T. and the MG’s)

In 1963, the song “Pain in my Heart,” became an R&B hit, convincing Phil Walden that Otis needed to record an album. This same-titled album included just about every musician in the Stax stable including Johnny Jenkins*, Isaac Hayes and Packy Axton.

Pain in My Heart, the album, was released in January 1964 when LPs hadn’t yet become an art form – the Beatles would hit America the very next month – and consequently was loaded up with the usual mix of originals and covers. (Including Sam Cooke and Little Richard numbers and – God knows why – “Louie Louie.”)

Pain In My Heart made it all the way to #27 on the Billboard R&B charts but Otis not yet having “crossed over” to a white audience, only to 103 on the overall Billboard charts.

Several hit singles were released from this album. I kinda dig “These Arms of Mine,” which sounds exactly like a ’50’s song. You can credit (or blame) Johnny Jenkins for that weird, stuttering guitar riff that pops up periodically:

Spotify link

I wouldn’t call Pain in My Heart a great album but there’s some good stuff. The song “Security,” while not an Otis-penned number, has a nice funky beat. The Otis Redding biography I read says, “the different sections of the song can be heard as a set of duets—between Otis and the horns in the verse, Otis and the guitar in the chorus, and the guitar and the horns in the break—until the whole ensemble combines to pound out a series of staggered half-time triplets near the end.”

Spotify link

This was not the only album featuring Otis released in 1964. A few months prior he had made his first trip to the legendary Apollo theater in Harlem to perform on a bill with The Falcons (including Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd), Rufus Thomas, Ben E. King, and King’s prior band, The Coasters. This album was released as Apollo Saturday Night  and if you dig this stuff you should really check it out.

Over the course of time, Otis and his manager Phil Walden had been able to form a friendship. Phil – who was initially putting his money on Johnny Jenkins – thought he and Otis hit it off right away. But the Redding biography makes it clear that black men in the South knew how to ingratiate themselves with white men oftentimes for their very survival.

But Phil wound up getting drafted at this pivotal moment in Otis’ career. Walden did not want to hand over his fledgling company to just anyone so he gave it over to his brother Alan and his father C.B whose attitude toward black folk was pretty common for the times. The ‘n’ word was a pretty regular part of his vocabulary.

Phil wound up missing much of Otis’ growth as an artist during the sixteen months he was in Germany. During that time, Phil’s brother Alan and father C.B handled Otis’ management. This got off to a rocky start due to C.B’s initial health problems and Alan’s lack of experience. (Phil’s father could not resist Otis’ sunny personality and over time they grew closer.)

But Otis toured relentlessly, winding up on bills with great performers such as James Brown and the Motown acts. Otis was never a great dancer and used to just march in place to his tunes. But he loosened up considerably over time. And he got increasingly business-savvy as well.

However, Otis was in some senses still a man of the street. And on a return to Macon in mid-1964, he fell in with some of his pals who were attempting to avenge a pistol-whipping one of them had gotten. This was no minor thing but an actual gun battle. Otis got some buckshot in the leg.

It was only due to C.B’s wheeling and dealing that Otis didn’t go to jail. (Let us freely admit here that while Phil’s dad was now somewhat enlightened, he also had some self-interest as his income depended on Otis’ continued freedom.)

Fortunately, this episode seems to have scared Otis enough that he gave up the gangster lifestyle and focused his attention on his family and his career. Otis increasingly was able to direct the Stax house band and worked more closely with Steve Cropper.

“Otis Redding did more to change my sound than anybody,” Cropper later said. “He made me think and play a lot simpler so that the notes would really count dynamically. The stuff I did with Otis [had] a distinctive tone and style that I didn’t play with anyone else.”

One of the fruits of their collaboration was a song called “Mr. Pitiful,” a nickname given to Otis by a DJ because of his songs’ pleading and begging style. This was the last song on Otis’ 1965 album, The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads released in early 1965. (Otis did one Sam Cooke song as much in tribute as anything else. Cooke had been shot to death just a few months prior):

Spotify link

This album had a better sound as Atlantic honcho Jerry Wexler sent his engineer Tom Dowd** down to Memphis to replace Stax’ antiquated mono recorded with a stereo one. While he was available, Stax took advantage of Dowd’s production skills to record Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ the Dog”, a tune that became somewhat of a standard. Aerosmith covered it on their first album.

Soul Ballads did fairly well on the R&B charts with both “Mr. Pitiful” and the great “That’s How Strong My Love Is” rising high up. The latter has been covered by everybody and his cousin including the Stones and is on the Music Enthusiast’s Indispensable 150 list:

Spotify link

Phil Walden returned from Germany in spring of 1965, doubtless expecting to slip easily back into his old role. But he quickly discovered that you didn’t tell Otis what to do any more, you made suggestions that he either took or he didn’t.

Otis by now not only had a top-notch booking agency but also two albums and several R&B hit singles. (Jerry Wexler when he was at Billboard coined the term “Rhythm & Blues” to get rid of the egregious term “race records.”)

One area that Walden was able to assist in was in negotiating a new contract for Otis with Stax which increased his royalties and share of the publishing. (Otis is one of the savviest recording artists I think I’ve ever read about. Can’t find any evidence of him being badly ripped off or signing a shitty contract.) A business was also set up to administer his publishing and a label so he could record other artists.

In early 1965, Otis was engaged in his usual super-tight touring schedule. He had to squeeze in time to record an album that is now considered a classic, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul. On Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, it contains the usual mix of covers and originals.

In addition to “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” (co-written with original Impressions lead singer Jerry Butler), it features Otis’ nod to Jagger/Richards in his funky “I-make-up-words-as-I-go-along” version of “Satisfaction.”

But the album included another Redding-penned tune that would perhaps become the most famous song he ever wrote.

____________________________________________________________________

*Despite his initial flurry of work, Johnny Jenkins never became a major star. Several years later he recorded an album on Capricorn called Ton-Ton Macoute from which came the Dr. John song, “I Walk On Gilded Splinters.”* Duane Allman co-produced the album and played on it. The Allmans in later years used to play “Splinters” in concert. Beck sampled this song for his tune “Loser. ”

**Tom Dowd was a great, well-regarded producer. He worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Bobby Darin (“Mack the Knife”), to John Coltrane to Thelonious Monk to Charlie Parker.  He famously recorded not only the Layla album but oversaw the mobile production of the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East. If you get a chance, watch the documentary Tom Dowd and the Language of Music.

Next (and final) post – Stardom; crossover at Monterey Pop. And on to glory.

Sources: Wikipedia; Gould, Jonathan. Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life. Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

8 thoughts on “Otis Redding – Stax Rising – (Part Two)

  1. Like a lot of white kids, I discovered Redding via “Monterey Pop” (the movie and soundtrack, not the actual festival). My story: I was a huge Hendrix fan freshman year in college. I bought the Reprise album with Hendrix on one side and Redding on the other, intending only to listen to Hendrix, which I did for a long while. But one weekend night, on home for the holidays, after disappearing into the basement with a six-pack of beer and that record, I flipped the record over. REVELATION! I guess the best word is “exuberant.” Don’t think I’ve heard singing before or since that comes close to the exuberance. He sounds like he was totally into it, and having a great time, in front of an appreciable (and totally new) audience, and it’s infectious. “LOVE CROWD!”

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    1. I’m pretty sure the first Otis song I heard was “Dock of the Bay.” I had zero knowledge of him prior to that, my record collection essentially was essentially my sister’s record collection. So it was a surprise to me when I eventually heard the “real” Otis, the funkier stuff.

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        1. There was some consternation within Stax and even, if I recall, Otis’ wife that it wasn’t “Stax enough.” You’ll see that in the next post. Personally, I kinda like it. I could, though, see Withers singing that to your point. Interestingly, the book makes a fair amount of noise about the fact of how much Otis was influenced by Sgt. Pepper, especially ‘A Day in the Life.’ I don’t really see the connection other than he wanted to go in more of a pop direction at least to some extent.

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  2. You would pick up on the guitar in ‘Arms’. Every cut works for me. Otis and I went for a walk today. Not that I needed prompting but your take has him at the front of my mind. Yeah it’s a great story. Even a CB character. I might say this again on your last take Doc but Otis does it for me. I love his singing. Doesn’t hurt that he has great back up. The Redding/Cropper team was magic. Tom Dowd had his finger on a lot of very cool music. Good work!

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  3. I figured that guitar riff was so noticeable everybody would pick up on it. I’m definitely attuned to it. If I go to the supermarket and they’re playing music over the PA, I always pick up on it even if it’s Muzak. Yeah, a CB character, how about that? Walden’s dad was typical of his day but he and Otis got over the racial divide. It got to where Otis was calling CB “Pops.” That whole Stax sound was dynamic. I don’t think I realized how much Stax = Otis/MG’s till this series.

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