Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Late, The Great, Otis Redding

I couldn't think of a better way to start my Blog than by turning the spot light on the big O. To a lot of people Otis and the Stax studios in Memphis were the living and breathing definition of Soul. Pure and undiluted in comparison to Motown. Raw and funky, unpolished blackness. Of course it is highly ironic that the Stax studios were Soul's most integrated studio in the business. Stax had the greatest little house band in the land at the time, the raw and raucous Booker T & the MG's.

As a band they were the living embodiment of Martin Luther King's dream. A fully integrated unit, a mixture of cultures. Booker T & the MG's mixed R&B with the hill billy attitudes of Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper resulting in a countrified Gospel Funk that would become known as Soul. Booker T's raging organ, Al Jackson's incredibly tight drumming, Duck Dunn's throbbing base and Cropper's ferocious guitar licks were a force to be reckoned with in the industry. It was the chemistry between that band and Otis redding that put southern Soul firmly on the map.

Otis Redding may have become the embodiment of Soul in the public eye, but he was in a sense an oddity in the scene. Southern Soul is much more defined by the highly trained and polished grit the likes of Solomon Burke brought to the stage. Most of Soul's greats were whipped into shape by the church. Otis had a voice that sounded like it needed to be held down, like it was struggling to bust loose. His voice was as much a wild caged animal waiting to escape as it was tender as a spring breeze. In a sense Otis sounded more like the garage and British invasion acts trying to copy R&B's and Soul's greats than any other artist in the bizz. His erratic dancing looked more as if he was suffering from spasms, his voice was a shaky uncontrollable machine and his deliverance raw and uninhibited. A far cry from the near perfect control greats like Aretha Franklin or Solomon Burke had over their voices. But what Otis lacked in technique, his honesty and the non apologetic emotion in his voice is what made Otis great. On stage and record Otis simply poured his heart out, flooding his audience with grief and joy, tearing them apart.
"These Arms of Mine", his first single was almost an accident. The force that became Otis Redding almost never happened. As legend has it the session that led to the single came as an afterthought on a Johnny Jenkins session at the Stax studio. Johnny is now one of those forgotten figures from the world of R&B, but at the time Otis was his chauffeur. After a lack luster session with Jenkins, 40 minutes of studio time remained on the clock. Otis was allowed to use that time to cut some material. As Rob Bowman accounts in his comprehensive book Soulsville U.S.A., Otis first cut a Little Richard cop called "Hey Hey Baby". "These Arms of Mine" was the second song cut was intended as the B-Side. Of course the record was rightfully flipped over and the B-Side became a smash. Of course a smash in those days isn't what a smash is now. Industry hype wasn't what it is today, most hits being slow burners. The record started out regionally and eventually reached number 20 in R&B, number 85 in Pop on the Billboard charts. Otis gained a lot of clout amongst DJs, not unimportant in the time 45 was king. The hit was there, but he had yet to take it on the road. Live performances at the time were the main revenue for recording artists. In the days before disco, juke boxes and live entertainment was the way people got down to it. The live circuit was large and thriving and if an artist's rep was right, he didn't even have to have a hit single to make a living for himself. Getting Otis (and Stax) on the road was the next step that needed to be taken. This need ultimately led to the legendary Stax revue that took the little label that could all the way across the pond to Europe. It was the live presence of Otis that broke Stax world wide.

Although Otis released a few key singles and albums before the Stax Revue hit Europe it were those live shows that cemented his reputation amongst white teen aged kids. It was this tour that allowed Otis to cross over big time. No matter how you cut it, at that time crossing over from the R&B charts to Pop was the only way in which recording artists could make a serious living out of a recording career. It opened the doors to bigger sales, better air time, larger venues and much larger audiences. With Booker T and the MG backing him Otis had a thunderous impact on these European crowds. In America there were hundreds of Soul acts, you could get real and good live entertainment almost every week, in Europe the kids really weren't ready for this. The closest thing they had had were the Garage spin offs like the Stones, Them or the Animals. This was the real thing. The fact that Otis came close in sound to those acts must have helped. Sam and Dave, also on that revue, were arguably much more accomplished and polished performers.

Their "When Something is Wrong With My Baby" still stands as one of Soul's most glorious moments. This was the Golden age of Soul and that was Soul's golden moment. Sam and Dave performed that song on the Stax Revue together with their equally compelling Hold on I'm Coming, yet Otis walked away with the prize. Sam & Dave were simply still a bridge to far for the European crowds. Ultimately the duo's taste for the heroin made it so that they never delivered their promise, but at the time their live performance and material was arguably light years beyond Otis.

It was the performance of the Stone's Satisfaction that tipped the performance over, what caused Otis to connect to those European audiences on a level Sam and Dave never could. Otis owned that song after he was done, causing people to think he actually wrote the song. Otis was as much R&R as he was Soul, his live performances barely stayed on track like a steam train rolling down it. It was through those European shows that Otis found himself booked on the Monterey Festival, right smack dab in the middle of the counter culture. For a country boy from Macon, Georgia, backed by a band in matching uniforms this must have been as much of a revelation as the crowd that got to witness him along Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In a sense Otis sooner represented the origins of what those acts did than the future of Soul music. Yet judging from the footage that remains from the Monterey festival Otis stood his ground and won the audience over. It is hard to say where Otis would've gone from there. Less than a half a year after the Monterey festival Otis was killed in a tragic plane accident, taking the Bar Keys with him. Ironically the only survivor was trumpeter Ben Cauley when the plane hit the lake, being the only member of the band who couldn't swim.

It is hard to say how Otis' career would have developed would he have lived. Soon after Otis' death the face of Soul music changed coinciding with Martin Luther King's death on April 4th 1968. Otis was very much an extension of the doctor King's dream of integration. After he died that dream seemed to die with him for a while. The Black Power movement started to emphasize segregation and self reliance and Soul music started to reflect those hardened times. Soul music became highly politicized and very few performers from the sixties knew how to make that transition. James Brown now seemed to set the standard with his smash "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud". The question is if Otis would've been able to adapt. Sadly that question will remain unanswered.

Doctor King's dream is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Otis legacy lives on today. It is a testament of what could have happened. Otis was proof that black and white culture could mix, could live in co-existence and could achieve many great things together. For years his legacy on tape has had hard times competing with the legend. There were a few badly produced videos scattered here and there, mostly by companies who didn't care much for the production. Rhino records took good care of Redding's back log on CD. Their Anthology is still the overview you want to get from his career. But a DVD was missing. That oversight has finally been corrected with the release of "Dreams to Remember: the Legacy of Otis Redding". This release features a in depth documentary along with a selection of live performances, many of which have never seen the light of day before. "Dreams to Remember" allows you a window into the legend of Otis Redding in a way that does the man's legacy justice.

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