Otis Redding by Pete Clemons
Another article by Pete that was originally earmarked for the Coventry Telegraph.
Growing up during my formative years the ‘Live in Europe’ LP by Otis Redding was ahuge fave of mine. But of course, at that tender age, it was just a bit of plastic with some songs on that you just took for granted. I just enjoyed it for what it was to me at that time. An exciting L.P. of an exuberant singer, surrounded by lots of horns, and who also threw in more familiar Rolling Stones and Beatles songs into the mix. But of course, it was a lot more than that.
It was only when I got older, and more interested in the background to such albums, that I discovered more about Otis Redding the person. I still remember hearing the news that Otis had been killed but it did not resonate that much to me at the time. However as time went on I slowly began to learn where he had gotten to in his career up to the point of his death. And now I feel compelled to remember the guy who gave so much, and continues to give, immense pleasure 50 years after his untimely loss.
Born in the American south Otis, from all accounts, was a big man. Not just physically but he was very confident and very single minded. He was also an incredibly likeable man and a good people person. According to his promoter Alan Walden he could have been a boxer. Problem was though it took an awful lot to provoke Otis. But when the he was cornered he could, and would, come out fighting.
Otis’s wife Zelma, whom he married during August 1961, described Otis as having astrong religious background. He sang in the church as a youngster. And Otis was once quoted as saying ‘in order to sing the blues you have to have it in your heart in the first place’.
Otis Redding enjoyed listening to singers like Little Richard and Sam Cooke and these people clearly influenced his own style of singing. His first hit record came in 1962 with a self-penned song titled ‘These Arms of Mine’. The song became a ‘live’ favourite which with the mainly black R ‘n’ B audiences he was performing to. Through acquaintances the song was brought to the attention of Stax Records who took him into the studio to record and release it on their sister label Volt. Stax and Volt would become known as the Memphis Sound.
By 1965 and on this side of ‘the pond’ U.K. youngsters also known as the Mods, and who would have been mainly white listeners, had by now picked up on the recorded output of Stax, Volt and their distribution label Atlantic Records. Otis and the Memphis Sound who back home, were still playing to mainly black audiences, were completely unaware that their music had been picked up in the United Kingdom.
Otis Redding’s first trip to Europe was during 1965. This also included a series of shows in the UK when he headlined a tour that included Alan Price on the bill. It was only then that Stax Records became fully aware of the fact that the U.K. was already embracing their sounds. Apart from the Mods, audience members during that tour also included Tom Jones, Rod Stewart and Brian Ferry who were all left inspired.
A further visit to the U.K. in September 1966 was marked by an Otis Redding ‘special’ when he took over a whole episode of the popular music T.V. programme ‘Ready Steady Go’. For this Otis was accompanied on stage by established British artists like Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe.
As the Memphis Sound became even more popular in the U.K. Stax Records promotions manager Al Bell, in trying to cover all angles, would send new single releases from all their artists direct to the growing pirate radio station scene.
As his celebrity grew Otis also ensured that his family and his parents were well provided for. Yet despite his new found trappings of his success, and according to those who really knew him, Otis remained a grounded person.
As the number of gigs grew so did the studio-work. Otis Redding was also now recording old classics. One such song ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ caused some controversy. This 1930s song had been covered previously by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. But Otis approached the song from a totally different angle as he performed it with a fast hot soul style as opposed to the slow smoother style that it had been sung in on previous versions.
Building on Europe and the U.K.’s keen interest in the Memphis Sound, and also sensing a commercial success, it was Al Bell who came up with the idea of sending Stax/Volt Records, house band and all, across ‘the pond’ by way of a concert tour.
A tour was arranged and Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, The Mar-Keys, Arthur Conley and all the touring party arrived at Heathrow airport early in the morning on a drab March day in 1967. Unsure by their surroundings they were amazed to find that The Beatles very own limousines had turned up to escort them on the initial part of their journey.
This was the first time out of America for the MG’s studio band and they were blown away by the fact that their music was already being embraced over here. Although Otis Redding must have mentioned it, they were now seeing at first hand, just how popular they were in England.
At each of the dozen or so dates on the tour they were greeted by an enthusiastic crowdwho would chant out Otis’s name. And Otis Redding would, in turn, react to the wild adulation. His confidence soared even higher and, between them they created an electric atmosphere. This energy also fed into The MGs who also stepped up their game as their musical prowess soared.
But the European tour changed everyone who had been a part of it. In the words of guitarist Steve Cropper ‘everyone returned home thinking that they were superstars……in their heads’. They went to Europe as struggling musicians and returned home as heroes. Otis Redding returned to his 400 acre ranch.
Suspicion, money and paranoia then came into the equation. Shortly afterwards ‘the Stax team’ began to split up and Stax records started to implode to the point of almost disintegration. Atlantic Records, who had, up until then, had partnered up with and distributed Stax records, would eventually sever its contract. Al Bell took full control of the label and went after radio stations in the U.S. attempting to get more airplay in America.
Quite by surprise Otis Redding and the MG’s played prestigious Monterey Festival in June 1967. At short notice he headlined the Saturday night after The Beach Boys had dropped out late on. Otis told the MG’s to just play the gig the way they had done in England. They triumphed. Even musicians like Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead were in awe as Otis as he and the MGs reached a whole new audience.
A live record produced from the earlier tour of Europe was released in July 1967. It was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
But 1967 also saw Otis develop a vocal condition due to polyps. For weeks he couldn’t sing, and for a part of that time, he couldn’t even talk. But he could still write. And during this period Otis wrote upward of 30 new songs including ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’. His musical creativity poured out during this period. Toward the end of 1967, and after his had voice recovered, Otis set to work again and with the help of MG’s guitarist, Steve Cropper, recorded ‘Dock of the Bay’.
At the height of his career Otis was cruelly killed while flying to a gig in Wisconsin during December 1967. Released as a single during January 1968, ‘Dock of the Bay’ reached number 1 in the U.S. and number 3 in the UK selling over 4 million copies worldwide.