Otis Redding was soul, but Otis Redding was country, too. That was a point on which he always insisted, and that was the way others saw him. His strength was his simplicity, even if the simplicity was hard-won. The basis for his music was sincerity, not spectacular showmanship; he was at heart a stand-up singer whose power came from his ability to inspire belief, to make every member of the audience feel that he was singing to him or her alone. He was, according to Jerry Wexler, “a pure man,” a natural man, not only in his music but in his life, clear on what he wanted as much as anything because he never tried to lose his rural roots.
He proclaimed his earthiness with his style, even after he had been taken up by a white audience and played Europe and the Monterey Pop Festival. If James Brown was the hardest-working man in show business, Solomon Burke the hardest-preaching, and Sam Cooke the smoothest stylist, Otis Redding was the most sincere, instantly recognizable for his halting, almost strangled delivery, acknowledged as a man who could touch the heart.
He was born September 9, 1941, in Dawson, Georgia, about 100 miles south of Macon, but moved to Macon with his family at the age of three. He grew up in the Tindall Heights Housing Project in the West Macon ghetto known officially as Bellevue but to its residents as Hellview. “From the time he was a little kid,” recalled his younger brother, Rodgers, “he was singing in a little gospel group in church, and he was a drummer in the school band. Then he started getting into piano and trying to write—oh, around the eighth grade. There was a lady by the name of Gladys Williams who had a band at that time. She would teach him little things, and Otis just loved to get on her piano and do a Little Richard song and steal the show.”
Little Richard and James Brown were his hometown heroes, and, after quitting school to go to work because of his father’s illness, he even went out on the road briefly with Little Richard’s old band, the Upsetters. Where he really established his reputation, though, was with a pair of local talent shows, first at the Hillview Springs Social Club, where Gladys Williams played, then at The Teenage Party at the Douglass Theater downtown.
The Teenage Party was hosted by Hamp Swain, known to one and all as the King Bee, the same DJ who, with local club owner and entrepreneur Clint Brantley, was instrumental in helping James Brown get his start. Here Otis won the amateur contest week after week with his faithful renditions of Little Richard’s hits. He also met the three people who would be most influential in his life: his future wife, Zelma, at the time a faithful 15-year-old fan; his soon-to-be manager, Phil Walden; and Johnny Jenkins, a flamboyant left-handed guitarist who was one of Macon’s biggest local stars.
Jenkins was a light-skinned man, described as Hollywood-handsome by all his friends and known for both his acrobatics and guitar pyrotechnics. Jenkins played locally with drummer Pat T. Cake and vocalist Little Willie Jones, a professional who saw himself as well above participating in amateur contests. But he also saw something in Otis Redding. “I heard him at the Douglass,” he recalled, “and the group behind him just wasn’t making it. So I went up to him and I said, ‘Do you mind if I play behind you?’ And he looked at me like, ‘Who are you?’ ‘cause he didn’t know me. And I say, ‘I can make you sound good.’ And I played behind him. And you know how the guitar can make a singer sound good by covering up his weaknesses? Well, he sounded great with me playing behind him—and he knowed it.”
From that day on it was Johnny Jenkins with Otis Redding as his featured vocalist—most of the time. That was how Phil Walden, a white high-school student and rhythm and blues fanatic, first came to meet Otis. Walden was managing a group called the Heartbreakers who competed regularly at the Douglass, but, because Macon was strictly segregated, Walden never got to see his group perform. Instead, he listened to them on the radio every week while sitting outside the theater in his car, and every week he heard them lose—to Otis Redding.
Walden was doing a little booking, too, high school fraternities mostly, and one of the groups he had been booking, Pat T. Cake and the Mighty Panthers, was the very one that featured Johnny Jenkins on guitar. When Jenkins went out on his own, Walden drove out to the Lakeside Amusement Park to hear the new group, the Pinetoppers, “and when they took a break Johnny introduced me to ‘Rockhouse’ Redding.”
That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and a business partnership. Phil started booking the college fraternity circuit extensively, mostly within a hundred-mile radius of Macon. Otis was doing songs like “Endlessly,” “There Goes My Baby,” and his Little Richard hits, and always went over well, but he was overshadowed on stage by Johnny Jenkins’ theatrics. In 1960 he went out to California for a few months, where he worked in a car wash and cut a couple of records. When he came home, he picked up where he had left off with Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, cut another record, “Shout Bamalama,” for the local Confederate label, and never lost sight of his larger ambitions.
His break finally came when Jenkins had a regional hit with “Love Twist,” an instrumental that started out on Tiffco, a little label that Phil Walden had set up in conjunction with a Macon banker. When the song started to get some airplay, Atlantic Records’ southeastern representative, Joe Galkin, brought it to the attention of label vice president Jerry Wexler, and Atlantic picked up the distribution, taking an option on Jenkins’ next record. Through Galkin, a Johnny Jenkins session was set up in the fall of 1962 at the Stax studio in Memphis, and Walden insisted that Otis be included. According to legend, it was Galkin who pushed Otis forward at the last moment, but in an interview with rock historian Charlie Gillett, Galkin insisted that he performed no great act of either heroism or loyalty. Not only did he think Otis was a lousy singer, in Galkin’s opinion “‘Shout Bamalama’ was the worst record I ever heard.” But with just a half hour left in the three-hour session and no Johnny Jenkins instrumental follow-up in sight, Galkin remembered his promise to Phil Walden. “I said, ‘Okay, then let’s do something with this guy,” pointing at the big, blocky-looking guy in the corner who everyone assumed was Johnny’s driver. Stax owner Jim Stewart was ready to throw in the towel, and the musicians were starting to walk out, according to Galkin, as he and Stewart “argued back and forth. Jim said, ‘What’ll you give me?’ and I said, ‘50 percent of the publishing rights.’”
Stewart got guitarist Steve Cropper to play triplets on the piano because teenage keyboard player Booker T. Jones had already left. Then Otis did a Little Richard-styled screamer, and Jim Stewart was, if anything, even less impressed. It was with the next song, though, a self-penned ballad called “These Arms Of Mine,” that the Otis Redding style was born.
The record still did not knock Stewart out, but there was no longer any question of just who the man in the corner was. The tremulous sincerity, the almost hesitant articulation, the ingenuousness and feeling that the voice conveyed were far removed from the stridency of Little Richard or the velvety sophistication of Sam Cooke. This was Otis Redding — drive, rhythmic focus, vulnerability, raw feeling and all.
Even then, it was not exactly overnight success for Otis Redding. “These Arms Of Mine” didn’t happen for six months — and then only because noted disc jockey John R., whom Jim Stewart gave his share of the publishing to, plugged it for that long on his hugely popular late-night show, which went out on WLAC, Nashville’s 50,000-watt clear-channel station that on a good night reached over thirty states. Just about a year passed before Otis would record “Pain In My Heart,” his beautifully crafted second hit, but one so closely modeled on Irma Thomas’ “Ruler Of My Heart” that Stax was forced to concede ownership to songwriter Allen Toussaint. A couple of months after this session Otis played Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater for the first time. He received $400 for the week but paid out $450 for arrangements, so Phil Walden had to wire him money to come home.
The live record that was made on this occasion reveals a singer who exudes sincerity but is at the same time not altogether sure of himself on stage — a singer who, while absolutely certain of the future, is still just feeling his way toward it. This remained the case the following summer when he appeared down on a bill headlined by Solomon Burke and Joe Tex. In their company, Otis appeared stiff and almost clumsy, considerably older than his 23 years — but it was obvious, too, that he touched the hearts of his audience, that his thin quavery voice, emanating more from the throat than from the chest, received the understanding it pleaded for. “These Arms of Mine,” “Pain In My Heart,” “Mr. Pitiful”— all were songs of yearning, but gradually the plea changed, as the confidence Otis Redding felt inside himself came to be reflected in both his presence and in the message that songs like “Respect” and his adaptation of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” conveyed.
At Stax, which now proclaimed itself Soulsville USA, Otis Redding was not only one of the most successful artists on the label, he was also its chief inspiration. “You’d be sitting around feeling pretty wasted,” said bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, “and then Otis would come in and, boy, he’d just bring everybody up. ‘Cause you knew something was gonna be different. When Otis was there, it was just a revitalization of the whole thing. You wanted to play with Otis. He brought out the best in you. If there was a best, he brought it out. That was his secret.”
In 1965 alone Redding had three Top 10 hits on Billboard’s R&B charts and a fourth and fifth that figured in the Top 20. He started producing other singers, became more and more ambitious in terms of the music business and, correspondingly, more confident in his music, to the point that an artist who could once have been dismissed as an imitator could now be mistaken for no one else. Unquestionably his style deepened, though in the process manner sometimes tended to become confused with mannerism, and his trademark interpolation, “Gotta gotta gotta,” became more of a stylistic tic than a spontaneous response.
In 1966 he went to England for the first time. In 1967 he returned with the legendary Stax/Volt Revue and displaced Elvis Presley in Melody Maker’s poll as the Number-One Male Vocalist in the world. In June he played the Monterey Pop Festival in California, which featured a virtually all-white line-up (including Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Who) but, he was convinced, would offer him the opportunity to break through to a white audience at last. “I’ve never seen Otis so excited or proud,” said his wife Zelma. “He knew he had reached an audience he had never been able to reach before. Monterey Pop left Otis with such a great feeling about his career. He realized it was going to take him into another phase. He told me, ‘It’s gonna put my career up some more right away.’”
Unquestionably he thrived on success. Unlike many show business figures, he did not find himself bewildered by an ever-expanding world, nor was he daunted by the challenges it posed. He fed off the inspiration of those around him — Phil and Alan Walden, his road manager Speedo Simms, fellow artists like Jerry Butler, Solomon Burke, and James Brown, who had once been his inspiration. In 1967 he saw his protégé, Arthur Conley, achieve a number-two pop hit with “Sweet Soul Music,” a song that he had recast from Sam Cooke’s “Yeah Man” (though once again he was forced to give up songwriting credit) as well as produced.
With Phil Walden he started his own record company. When, after a throat operation in the fall of 1967, he was faced with several months of enforced silence, he took the opportunity to devote himself to his writing and, once he was able to sing again, recorded over thirty new songs in two weeks in late November and early December. Like Sam Cooke, who served as both an entrepreneurial and creative model, he seemed on the verge of total independence—business as well as musical—when he was killed in an airplane crash on December 10, 1967 while flying to a show in Madison, Wisconsin.
Everyone in the soul world was present at his funeral, from James Brown, Solomon Burke, Joe Simon, and Sam and Dave, to Jerry Wexler, Joe Galkin, Phil and Alan Walden, local Macon dignitaries, and 4,500 grief-stricken mourners. There was a near-riot when James Brown drove up in his limousine, and Jerry Wexler broke down while delivering the eulogy.
Only posthumously was Otis Redding able to achieve a number-one pop hit, with “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” a song inspired by the time he had spent in San Francisco not long after the Monterey festival. The song seemed to represent a new direction for Otis, a direction which failed to find the approval of Phil Walden or Stax president Jim Stewart. Zelma felt it was too strongly Beatles-influenced—Otis was listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan at the time of his death as assiduously as he had once studied Sam Cooke—but when she remonstrated with him, “he told me, ‘Boy, when I go back out there, I’m gonna be the new Otis Redding.’ I listened to ‘Dock Of The Bay’ on tape, and I said, ‘You’re right. You are gonna be new.’ I really couldn’t get into it right then. I said ‘Oh God, you are changing.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s time, it’s time for me to change in my music.’”
It’s hard to tell just how far that change might have gone. “Dock of the Bay” might have heralded a whole new kind of fusion soul. Or, on the other hand, it might have sat around unreleased for a period of time, given the hostility and incomprehension that virtually everyone around Otis felt toward the song. Instead, what it came to represent, ironically, was the apotheosis of soul music, the virtual end of an era of good feeling which would be forever laid to rest by the assassination of Martin Luther King some four months later.
Just as ironically, it could also be seen as the final stage in the development of an Otis Redding style, in which the purity of beginnings was matched by the purity of this end, the vulnerability of innocence was met by the vulnerability of fame, and the aching sound of Otis Redding’s voice would remain forever implanted in our mind, declaring:
Looks like nothing’s gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same.