Otis Redding came to Memphis a valet, and he left a star. He walked into the Stax studio lugging someone else’s gear, and in short order had his own recording contract. One of the Stax label’s greatest attributes was its willingness to give anyone a fair shake, a chance to be heard. No one symbolizes that fundamental democratic opportunity better than Otis Redding.
Wayne Jackson, Booker T. Jones, Al Bell, and Donald "Duck" Dunn reflect on Redding's Talent
Though he had already released a couple of singles under his own name, Otis was completely unknown to everyone at Stax. He arrived in Memphis from Macon, Georgia, traveling with Johnny Jenkins, a guitarist who led a popular regional group called The Pinetoppers. Otis was a vocalist behind Jenkins, though their biggest hit to date, “Love Twist,” was an instrumental. Jenkins showed promise, and an Atlanta-based record promoter named Joe Galkin, whose territory included Memphis, thought Jenkins might do well if paired with Booker T. and the MG’s, who had recently hit with “Green Onions.” Jenkins left his band at home but, since he didn’t have a driver’s license, Otis Redding drove the car.
The Jenkins session with the MG’s surprised everyone because the new Stax house band couldn’t strike a groove behind the talent. They tried, and the session ran late, with several musicians having to dart out to club gigs; sessions weren’t yet paying their bills. The stories differ as to how Otis got to the microphone, but he definitely let several people know he could sing. Galkin, who was in the control room with Stax owner and producer Jim Stewart, wanted Redding to audition too. One way or another, Otis placed himself before Steve Cropper and he began to sing.
“My hair lifted about three inches,” Steve says.“I couldn't believe this guy's voice.”
A band was re-assembled, though some players had already departed. First, Otis led them in “Hey Hey Baby,” but the song was too derivative of Little Richard to get anyone too excited. To save the moment, Otis instructed Steve, who was seated at the organ (Johnny Jenkins was on guitar), to play him “church chords.” Otis began singing a song he’d written, “These Arms of Mine,” and everyone in the room shared the hair-raising moment.
Within days, Otis was signed to the Stax subsidiary label, Volt Records. When the single was released, not much happened at first, but it got a steady push over many weeks from prominent DJ “John R.” who had a night show on Nashville’s clear channel WLAC and was heard across much of the eastern U.S. (John R. had been given a third of the song’s publishing, so he was personally invested in pushing it.) It took almost half a year to hit the charts, but when it did, it sold steadily.
Otis’s reputation continued to rise over the next few years. He developed as both a balladeer and a soul shouter, able to imbue his personality into everything he did. Al Bell, later head of Stax Records, described Otis’s plaintive sound, “You heard the tear in his voice.” Initially, he became known for ballads, having significant success with “Pain In My Heart,” “Chained and Bound,” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” (The latter was soon covered by the Rolling Stones). When Wilson Pickett was trying to establish himself, he was touring the south and hearing Otis’s “Pain In My Heart” on all the stations. He told Atlantic Records that he wanted to sound like that, and they sent him to Stax.
With equal ease, Otis could whip up a mad dervish. “Mr. Pitiful,” “Respect,” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose” each became a full-on soul frenzy. (Aretha Franklin’s take on his “Respect” became her signature song.) Though Otis didn’t write music, he arrived at sessions with songs fully formed in his head, and he would sing suggestions to each player. His gift with horn parts was unparalleled, even among horn players. His ideas took them new places. “Try A Little Tenderness” may feature the greatest horn opening of all time; it’s also where Otis’s two sides blend seamlessly, beginning as a slow love song, building in dynamics until he raises the roof like a brimstone preacher on a love jag. Got ta! Got ta! Got ta!
Otis was a presence on the pop charts even as he was a star in the R&B world. In 1967, two events propelled him toward yet wider fame: The Stax-Volt European tour, and the Monterey Pop Festival. He’d gone overseas before 1967, but after that year’s tour, he became the top male vocalist in the Melody Maker poll, a position Elvis had held for ten straight years. The Monterey, California gig established Otis on the west coast—he stole the show from Janis Joplin, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix. The documentary of the event carried him to new audiences worldwide. These gigs with the MG’s inspired him to replace his road band with the young and energetic Bar-Kays, kids from the Stax neighborhood who’d been trained by the MG’s and had begun their own career with a #3 hit “Soul Finger.”
In the Autumn of ’68, he had polyps removed from his vocal cords, forcing him into a down-time he’d not experienced in several years. He relaxed at home with his three kids and his wife, and wrote new songs. There was much trepidation as he began his next Stax session, but the surprise was that his voice sounded better than it had before the surgery. He entered a recording frenzy, cutting many new songs and adding new vocals on older tracks.
Just after cutting “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” he left for a weekend of gigs with the Bar-Kays; the Memphis Horns stayed behind to add their parts. They flew to Nashville for a Friday appearance, then Cleveland for the TV taping of Upbeat and a nightclub date, and the next day, flying in his private plane to Madison, Wisconsin. On board were each of the Bar-Kays, except for James Alexander, and one roadie. Four minutes from the airport and having just received clearance to land, Otis’s plane lost power and went down in Lake Monona. Everyone died, except for trumpet player Ben Cauley, who clung to a seat cushion and heard his bandmates’ cries for help, until he heard only the lapping of water.
“Dock of the Bay” was rushed out as a single, went to the top of the pop and R&B charts, and became a gold record. The slew of recordings from the prior few weeks were mined over the course of several years, yielding four albums of unreleased material, all of which charted well.
Otis Redding put so much of himself into everything he did that listeners born after his premature death still feel they know a part of him. He was a big man with a huge heart and when he died, some of the greatest, unimaginable music and songs were rent from this earth.