(Pictured: Otis and Zelma Redding)
“I think rock ’n’ roll is drifting toward the blues. People don’t want to admit it, but a lot of the pop songs today are nothing but blues songs. Rhythm and blues has been here for a hundred years.”
In 1965, Otis wrote “Respect,” which that summer made its way to #35 in the Top 40 and #4 on the R&B charts.*As mentioned in the first post, respect was something Otis didn’t take lightly.
What he wants in this song is for his wife to be faithful and show him some respect (and maybe a little slap and tickle) when he comes home. (Otis would call home frequently from the road to check on Zelma. From what I’ve read, he likely would have to tell the girls in his hotel room to be quiet while he checked on Zelma’s supposed infidelity.)
Right around the time (fall 1965) Otis Blue was released, Redding returned to the Apollo, this time as a headliner with the Marvelettes and Sam and Dave. With “Respect” now starting to make some headway on the Top 40 and R&B charts, Phil Walden started thinking about how the explosion of young people could only help bring Otis beyond the usual venues.
Financially, by the end of 1965, Otis was doing quite well. He was pulling in more than $250,000/year in today’s dollars in record and song-publishing royalties (after paying the Waldens), and up to $10,000/night in today’s dollars for live performances. You had to try real hard not to see Otis live back then as he was performing everywhere: TV, clubs, – you name it.
Otis by now had enough money to live pretty much anywhere he wanted. But for whatever reason, he wanted to stay in Macon. So he and his family moved into a working farm he called the Big O, about 1/2 hour from central Macon.
Otis’ next album, released in spring 1966 was The Soul Album. (Stax, one assumes, could not find enough ways to use the word ‘soul.’) This was a good if again, not great album encompassing the usual mix of covers, Sam Cooke tunes, even some blues. (For sake of space, I won’t feature its songs here but some are on the Spotify list at the end of the post.) This album sold well and Otis’ fame and crossover power continued.
Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, suggested that Otis play the Whisky A Go Go in LA, again to capitalize somewhat on a white audience that was digging African-American music. This happened in spring of 1966. Booked to open for Otis was a band called the Rising Sons which included – wait for it- guitarist Ry Cooder and bluesman Taj Mahal.**
Happily, Otis’ performance was recorded and released posthumously as In Person at the Whisky a Go Go. My favorite number from this album is “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” a song that had been released as the B side of a single. The fictional Blues Brothers had some fun with this one later but this one’s Otis all the way. I love how he gets so worked up on his songs it’s all he can do to get the words out:
Now, it’s important to realize that America in the mid-60’s was churning. Between the Vietnam War and a bunch of “hippies” making noise, change was coming. Different groups who’d been oppressed stood up for their rights and no one more than African-Americans. Black power was a real and potent movement with artists like James Brown singing “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
And while Otis was not a strong activist, neither was he ignorant of the overall situation. Otis started to question whether he was getting a fair deal working for a white man. Phil couldn’t understand it as he felt he had done so and that he and Otis were friends. For his part, Walden did not endear himself to the local Macon community working so closely with Otis. To me, they very much seemed like two guys stuck in the middle.
Otis Redding and Phil Walden
In 1966, Otis then went and toured London where he impressed, among others, a young singer wannabe named Peter Gabriel. “You just felt your heart being opened when you were in his presence,” Gabriel recalled. “When he was on, it was like a factory of energy, love, and passion.”
In late 1966, Stax – reaching for more superlatives – released the album Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul. This was Otis’ last solo album before his death. On Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, it’s about half covers, half Otis’ stuff. It was on this album that Otis recorded a standard that had been done by both Sam Cooke and Aretha. (Not to mention a cool version of “Day Tripper.”)
And where Aretha outdid him on his own song, Otis, I think, stands second to none when it comes to doing “Try a Little Tenderness.” (“Tenderness” was a standard that the publishers tried to stop Otis doing from a “Negro perspective.”)
I’m gonna go with a live version here because I just think it takes off with an audience:
Otis was by now popular but wasn’t quite on top of the charts in the same way Motown acts were. But it was only a matter of time till he found his way to Bill Graham and the Fillmore West where he played in late 1966. Graham: “There was an ultimate musician that everyone wanted to see. Everybody said, ‘This is the guy.’ Otis Redding. He was it for everybody that talked to me.”
Early in 1967, the Stax/Volt tour hit Europe and took it by storm. Fans in Europe were by now besotted with Otis and the whole R&B crew. Steve Cropper wound up becoming somewhat of a featured star, perhaps because guitarists were all the rage at the time.
This was the first time the MG’s had toured with Otis and he wanted them to continue doing it. But they didn’t necessarily like life on the road, preferring the studio. To a man, they turned him down, a decision which may well have saved their lives.
But they did accept a gig that turned out to be one of their most important ever, Monterey Pop. This was a festival held over a weekend in June 1967 in Monterey, California. This was the famous “Summer of Love” and so John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, in the spirit of the times. helped get this event organized. Apart from gigs like the Fillmore, Otis had been playing to largely black audiences so no one in his entourage knew what to expect.
As it happens, Otis and the MG’s basically kicked ass. When Otis came on and got the crowd to sing along with his song “Shake,” it kicked the whole place into gear. (For the record, this show also made the careers of the similarly ill-fated Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.) Here’s Otis’ set for as long as it stays up there.
Wikipedia: According to Booker T. Jones, “I think we did one of our best shows, Otis and the MG’s. That we were included in that was also something of a phenomenon. That we were there? With those people? They were accepting us and that was one of the things that really moved Otis. He was happy to be included and it brought him a new audience. It was greatly expanded in Monterey.”
Otis himself thought about perhaps kicking back more, spending time with the family and doing more writing and producing. He bought a small plane to use to shuttle around to different gigs. One of his last production gigs was at Fame Studios*** in Muscle Shoals. He went there to produce Arthur Conley with whom he had co-written “Sweet Soul Music” which became a hit in 1967. (Sam Cooke gets a credit because they, um, “borrowed” one of his songs.)
On December 9, 1967, Otis and the Bar-Kays appeared on a Cleveland variety show called Upbeat. The next show was in Madison, Wisconsin. The weather was poor and the pilot, though experienced, had not flown this type of Beechcraft plane in icy weather.
Early in the morning of December 10, 1967, the plane stalled and went down in Lake Monona just outside of Madison. Only one person, trumpeter Ben Cauley survived. (He died in 2015.) Otis was found a day later, still strapped to his seat.
The theory was that he was knocked unconscious by the crash and drowned. Aretha Franklin said, “I heard it on the TV. My sister Caroline and I stopped everything and stayed glued to the TV and radio. It was a tragedy. Shocking.” He was 26 years old.
4,500 people attended the funeral ceremony at which Jerry Wexler gave the eulogy. Stars who attended included James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, Percy Sledge, Sam Moore, Dave Prater, Johnny Taylor, Joe Simon, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas (with whom Otis had done a duet album), Arthur Conley.
Phil Walden went to pieces. Zelma? Well, it probably goes without saying how she felt. She never remarried or left Macon and I think that as of this writing she may still be alive and kicking down there.
Jim Stewart said, “The day that Otis Redding died took a lot out of me. I was never the same person. The company was never the same to me after that. Something was taken out and never replaced. The man was a walking inspiration.”
Stewart had even more reason to be aggrieved. Stax was not to discover till after Otis’ death that they had signed a contract giving the rights to all recordings distributed by Atlantic TO Atlantic. Which meant all of Otis’ recordings.
Otis’s legacy is huge and lasting. Wikipedia: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Redding in 1989, declaring his name to be “synonymous with the term soul music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm and blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.” He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.
Statue of Otis Redding, Gateway Park, Macon, GA.
Otis had gone into Stax over the last few months of his life to record several tunes, all of which were recorded posthumously. It is from these sessions that “Hard to Handle” came, which the Black Crowes recorded later.
Otis had been greatly inspired by Sgt. Pepper and wanted to turn his attention away from strictly R&B and more toward a pop sound. He’d spent time looking out at the water on a houseboat in Sausalito. Based on that contemplative feeling, he wrote a new song with Steve Cropper. Lacking a final verse he just whistled.
Cropper said, “We knew when we cut it that it was the best thing he’d ever done. We just looked at each other and said we got it, this is it, we did it.” Nobody else at Stax much liked it, figuring it would ruin their soul reputation.
In early 1968, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released, whistling, seagulls and all. It became the first posthumous single to top the charts in the US. Otis finally got his first number one hit.
*And of course, Aretha Franklin turned “Respect” into a much bigger hit than Otis did, making it “a declaration from a strong, confident woman, who knows that she has everything her man wants.” It became an anthem of sorts, for women, for civil rights.
**As always, call me maybe if you happen to have a tape of the Sons’ performance. I’m always home. Call me any time. Just ring 36 24 36 or 867-5309.
***Increasingly, Stax wanted less outside assistance or interference from Atlantic. This forced Jerry Wexler to turn to Rick Hall at Alabama’s FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. This led to Wexler bringing Wilson Pickett (and eventually Aretha) there to record.
Duane Allman started playing at Fame Studios in 1968, backed Pickett on “Hey Jude” which Clapton heard which led to his being invited to the Layla sessions. And had Otis lived long enough, given the Walden connection, I can’t help but think about how Duane as FAME sideman and Otis might have sounded together. (Walden died in 2006; Capricorn folded soon after.)
An Otis discography for, as always, your dining and dancing pleasure.