WHEN I saw Noddy Holder recently, the former Slade frontman recalled how it was down to Little Richard that he got involved in music, something you could see in the way he always projected that mighty voice of his.
While I can’t deny Richard Penniman’s influence on so many ballsy rock’n’roll singers, it’s another native of Macon, Georgia – and another inspired by him – who did it for me, born nine years later in 1941.
There’s a thought. If Otis Redding had still been with us today, he’d only be in his early 70s. But he died aged just 26 in 1967 – when I was barely six weeks old. However, his influence lives on, and I’ve been wallowing in his wondrous back catalogue some time now.
It wasn’t until the early ’80s that I properly discovered all those classic Atlantic, Hi, Motown and Stax acts, and Northern Soul grooves. I was soon stopped in my tracks by Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Sam Cooke, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, The Miracles, The Supremes, The Temptations, Jr. Walker, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and so much more.
But at the heart of that love of ’60s and early ’70s soul was always a deep R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for everything about Otis Redding. Here was the very epitome of cool, of heart and solid soulfullness, with a whole load of hope and despair incorporated within that great big voice and huge hunk of a fella.
BBC Four aired an hour-long tribute last weekend to Otis Redding: Soul Ambassador, alongside footage of the historic Stax/Volt European tour as it hit Oslo in 1967, and while I can’t quite fathom out why then of all times, it was a pleasant surprise – and about time.
Soul Ambassador was billed as the first-ever TV documentary about the legendary soul singer, following Otis from childhood and early marriage to his initial Memphis recordings and segregated Southern club circuit where he honed his unique act and voice.
It included previously-unseen home movies, examining how his 1967 UK & European tour changed his life and music (and that of his co-tourists). After bringing Soulsville USA over this side of the pond, he returned to conquer America, a late pull-out by headliners The Beach Boys leading to his big break with the ‘love-crowd’ at the Monterey Festival. Then came that across-the-board breakthrough with (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, but sadly it was to be a post-humous chart-topper.
The BBC Four tribute included not only rare performances, but also word from artists whose lives were changed by seeing him, such as Rod Stewart, Tom Jones and Bryan Ferry. Then there were intimate interviews with Otis’ wife and daughter, and original band members Booker T Jones and Steve Cropper.
Oddly enough, Cropper was on my mind anyway, my conversation with Bruce Foxton for this blog having drifted towards a guest spot on his recent Back in the Room album by the Stax, Mar-Keys and MGs guitar legend.
Cropper – who along with bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn looks a lot sharper in that 1967 footage than on the set of The Blues Brothers in 1980 – was an integral part of Redding’s recording career and live shows, co-writing Mr Pitiful, Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song) and Dock of the Bay, as well as Knock on Wood and 634-5789 with fellow Stax star Eddie Floyd, In The Midnight Hour with Wilson Pickett, Green Onions and Soul Limbo with Booker T & the MGs, and many more hits.
Like every other artist that broke through from the Deep South, there was a back story of course, one invariably including the key components we associate with those troubled times – not least prejudice and segregation. But the Stax offices in Memphis ignored that US racial divide, and Otis’ music and off-stage manner transcended all that too – arguably helping make the world a better or at least more tolerant place in the process.
When he sings Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come on breakthrough album Otis Blue – very much a tribute to his recently-struck down good friend – you truly believe it. While Martin Luther King had the wonderful rhetoric, Otis showed similar passion in his songs. But it took success on this side of the Atlantic to cross those black and white barriers and ensure mainstream success.
What I’d give to go back in time to witness Otis in March 1967 at the Finsbury Park Astoria, the Upper Cut in Forest Gate, or in Leeds and Leicester on that Stax/Volt tour, not just to see the King of Soul but also those short sets by Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, the Mar-Keys, Arthur Conley and Booker T & the MGs.
I can at least listen to his Live in London and Paris sets though, and the same goes for the Whisky A Go Go and Monterey shows, getting a proper sense of a performer that close friend Solomon Burke said was -like the Georgia ranch he lovingly cultivated – ‘big, sprawling and generous’.
I had an Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix Experience at Monterey album on vinyl, and while they only got a side each, it was clearly quality over quantity. Hendrix endeared himself to me with that line admitting he’d missed out a verse on Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, but Redding had the trump card with his own feverish approach – using the original lyrics merely as templates to do his own thing – not least on Lennon and McCartney’s Daytripper.
I loved my Otis Redding Recorded Live album (recorded at the Whisky a Go Go in 1966, but only released in 1982) even more, and for me it sits up there with three other great live albums from that era – James Brown’s Live at the Apollo (1962), Sam Cooke’s Live at Harlem Square (1963), and Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames’ Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo (1964).
Otis’ effortless, personable banter between songs is key, and the odd bum note from the brass section somehow enhances that experience further. In days when I regularly made compilation tapes (note ‘compilation tapes’ – never the more Americanised ‘mix tapes’), there’d often be samples from that album. “We gonna eat next week!” he tells his audience. Then – taking those “Sock it to me!” and “Let your hair down!” “Get Soulful – get your shoes on off!”
At one point, Otis informs us he’s recording an album there and then, inviting his devoted audience to “Just holler loud as you wanna!” Later, he adds, “We’re gonna do a song that you’ve never heard before!” – to which, just out of earshot, someone must reply, “Says who?” and he’s reduced to giggles. At the end of another classic stomp, he adds, “See how hard we have to work to eat?” and “Sure was a groove that time!” Infectious.
His own songs and supreme choice of covers are given a whole different slant live, and this from a man who’d already re-energised tracks like old crooner Try A Little Tenderness. The fact that the sleevenotes suggested the rest of those Whisky a Go Go tapes were found by accident after a long spell in a dusty archive makes it all the more special.
Otis is on top of his game throughout, however many lyrics he remembers (something Al Green did in later times), and from his own songs to personalised takes on everything from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, he makes the set his own.
It’s not just the records we’re left with, and I never tire of watching Otis on cult ’60s TV show Ready Steady Go! Talk about ‘in with the in-crowd’. To be there must have been something. The Animals’ Eric Burdon suggested on the BBC documentary he was a nervous wreck during the recording, having under-rehearsed Otis’ version of Sam Cooke’s Shake. But -no disrespect to Burdon – there was no way he could have competed if he’d spent weeks practising.
The big man is absolutely awesome on the I Can’t Turn You Loose /Shake finale, flanked by Burdon, Farlowe and the RSG dancers. You just get the feeling that the party wasn’t strictly over when the cameras stopped rolling. Farlowe seems to struggle to reel in his grin – knowing only too well he was in the presence of greatness. Meanwhile, a largely Mod audience really goes for it, the women never far from Otis’ side.
Away from that public life, the showman was always pleased to get home and relax at his ranch -on land once farmed by his family as slaves – and his strong Baptist background – he was the son of a minister and farmer – seemed to carry him in good stead. Most accounts suggest Otis remained humble throughout his short career, part of the appeal that saw his star rise in this country and ensured he could speak to black and white, with no side.
While America struggled with its racial divide, Otis soon broke through in the UK, with sales flowing from Otis Blue onwards. But it was an enforced break after a few more albums that led to a change in direction and more introspective later sessions. Major throat surgery stopped him singing or performing for a while and saw him re-evaluate where he was headed, with the first fruits of a new approach heard on (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay. But fate soon intervened.
His story is told pretty comprehensively in Gerri Hirshey’s superb Nowhere To Run – The Story of Soul Music (Pan, 1984), interviews with Steve Cropper, Solomon Burke, Ben E King and James Brown – another artist with Georgian roots – filling in a few gaps.
Reading back Hirshey’s appraisal of that Stax sound and the man himself, we have Cropper talk of a ‘Below the Bible-Belt sound’, ‘righteous and nasty’, while King adds that Otis had a voice that ‘could mug you on the first note’.
It’s now 45 years since that Lake Monona air tragedy, but what a legacy Otis left us, and while we can only guess what was in the pipeline, we’ve at least got that wealth of great recordings to enjoy – not just those re-jigged covers, but so many of his own songs too. Hard to Handle, I Can’t Turn You Loose, Love Man, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, Respect …
‘The King of ’em all (Y’all)’ packed in so much during such a short space of time – barely five years of recording. And while several others came close, Otis was always the ultimate soul performer for me.
* If you missed BBC Four’s Otis Redding: Soul Ambassador first time around, the documentary will remain on the BBC iplayer until Monday, June 10, with a link here
* Meanwhile, for the official and pretty comprehensive Otis Redding website, head here