Otis Redding - Biography
There are few soul singers—indeed, very few musicians—who are regarded as highly as Otis Redding. His untimely death at the age of 26 truncated what was a promising career nearing the pinnacle of recognition, as glimpsed by the posthumous release of his most memorable song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Known as one of the grittiest, most emotive singers in American soul, Redding interpreted songs by artists like Sam Cooke with added intent and hardiness, and, along with guitarist Steve Cropper, penned many hits in his brief time. Songs that Redding at least shared writing credits on include “These Arms Of Mine,” “Mr. Pitiful,” the aforementioned “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” and “Respect,” which Aretha Franklin made into a smash hit.
Otis Redding, Jr. was born on September 9, 1941 in the town of Dawson, Georgia. Redding’s father—as has been the case for many soul singers of the time—was a Baptist minister, and the family he was brought up in was an impoverished one. Growing up in Macon from age five, Redding began singing in the choir at the Vineville Baptist Church. He played in the band at Ballad Hudson High School until dropping out after the tenth grade. As a teenager, he found heroes in the likes of Sam Cooke and fellow Maconite Little Richard, the former becoming his idol, the latter becoming his band-leader. Very early in his singing career, Redding sang in Little Richard’s band, The Upsetters, which led to his being managed by high school friend Philip Walden.
But Redding was born to be a recording artist, and he got his first taste of what would become his livelihood after he met guitarist Johnny Jenkins in the late 1950s. The guitarist asked Redding to join his group, The Pinetoppers, which would require the young artist to relocate west, to Los Angeles. Redding accepted, and while performing with The Pinetoppers he kept food on his table by working odd jobs and maintaining a position as the bandleader’s official chauffeur. A couple of years later, Jenkins landed a recording contract with Atlantic and Redding was able to work full-time on music. Along with the work he did for Jenkins, Redding appeared on songs by various independent groups, and made his debut on the single, “She’s Alright,” attributed to The Shooters featuring Otis Redding. That single was followed by “Shout Bama Lama,” a track that culled its influence from Little Richard.
In 1962, The Pinetoppers were in the recording studio, but the Jenkins-led session was failing to catch fire. An enthusiastic Redding seized the opportunity to get the band to record his original ballad, “These Arms of Mine.” The song was picked up by Volt Records—an affiliate of the Stax label—and was released in 1963. It peaked at #20 on the R&B charts, and even reached #85 on the pop charts—all the more impressive considering Redding’s then-modest stature. The accompanying album, Pain in My Heart (1964, Volt/Rhino) topped out at #103 on the charts, and delivered another single, “That’s What My Heart Needs,” which reached #27. Redding improved on his next batch of singles, and of the 12 songs on his second album, The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (1965, Volt/Rhino), four of them charted; “Chained and Bound” (#70 pop, #70 R&B), “Come to Me” (#69 pop, #69 R&B), and two Redding-penned classics, “Mr. Pitiful” (#41 pop, #10 R&B), and “That’s How Strong My Love Is”(#74 pop, #18 R&B).
The time was right for Redding to blow his cult status wide open and crossover to white audiences, with whom he had only found mild appreciation up until the mid-’60s. This was a task Redding would not fully accomplish until after his death in 1967. However, even though it wasn’t a total breakthrough, Redding entered the ranks of the best recording artists around when he released his third album, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (1966, Volt/Atco). With a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”—the Stones had, in turn, covered Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love is”—and Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” Redding’s name was synonymous with deep soul. The album also boasted two top ten singles that were Redding originals, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” climbed to #2 on the R&B charts, and “Respect” (#35 pop, #4 R&B). The LP itself went to #1 on the R&B charts, but could get no higher than #75 on the pop charts.
Another classic album followed, The Soul Album (1966, Volt/Rhino). Though it only spawned one single called “Just One More Day,” the album sold very well, reaching #3 on the R&B charts, and #54 in the pop rankings—20 plus spots higher than Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul. Redding immediately went back into the studio to begin recording what would be his final album proper—Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966, Volt/Rhino). The album was released the same year as its predecessor and over half of its 12 songs were written by Redding, who was only now beginning to come into his own as a songwriter. Best among his originals on this album was “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” which reached #12 on the R&B charts. In his signature voice, Redding also covered The Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” and scored another hit with his reworking of “Try a Little Tenderness”—backed by Stax staffer Isaac Hayes and Booker T. & The MG’s—which ascended to #4.
Dictionary of Soul had been an ambitious triumph for Redding, but a year later, he decided to have fun and let his hair down. The biggest mainstream hit while Redding was still alive, “Tramp”—recorded as a playful duet with Carla Thomas—came out in 1967 and endeared audiences. The album they released together was called King & Queen (Stax), and it went to #5 on the R&B charts. It was the highest ranking album on the pop charts that Redding had been a part of, going all the way up to #36.
After King & Queen, Redding appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 alongside acts such as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors and Janis Joplin. The event marked the first performance in which Redding performed to a predominantly white audience, and since the counter-culture at the time was about acceptance, love and tolerance, Redding was very well received. The date was booked for him by Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who thought it would be advantageous for Redding to gain new exposure, and the crowd’s enthusiastic response had Redding not wanting to leave the stage. This performance was central to his posthumous success.
The year 1967 had been a big one for Redding, with the King & Queen’s success and the Monterey Pop Festival bringing new fans his way. A month after, he saw the release of his live album, Live in Europe (1967, Volt/Rhino). Shortly after that, Redding had dethroned Elvis Presley as the world’s top male singer, as voted by Melody Maker, who had elected the King for the previous 10 years in a row. But, as it turned out, 1967 would forever carry an somber tone for Redding and his fans, rather than a triumphant one.
On December 10, Redding and The Bar-Kays—the band that he’d selected to tour with him—boarded Redding’s private plane in Ohio and departed for a venue in Madison, Wisconsin. Due to undetermined causes, the twin engine plane began a gyration that ended with a crash into the frosty waters of Lake Monona, three miles away from their landing destination in Madison. Bar-Kays trumpeter Ben Cauley was the lone survivor of the ordeal, as the rest of his band had perished, along with the plane’s pilot. And Otis Redding himself, dead at 26 years of age.
Three days before the plane crash Redding had recorded “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” a song that he regarded as unfinished. He wrote it with career-long collaborator, Steve Cropper, who was also the guitarist for Booker T. & the MG’s, Redding’s go-to backing band. Redding had whistled his way out of the song, having forgotten the lyrics he wrote to its outro. Still, it was an absolute blockbuster, as Redding had never before had a #1 single on either the pop charts or the R&B charts—“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” went to #1 on both. It also picked up two Grammy’s for “Best Male Vocal” and “Best R&B Song.” A large portion of Redding’s material was released posthumously, the first album offered as a collection of rarities built around the new hit single, appropriately titled The Dock of the Bay (1968, Volt/Atco). Cropper assembled the collection of Redding songs dating back to 1965 for the record. The Dock of the Bay generated four singles, and it became a #1 R&B album. Surprisingly, the album reached #4 on the mainstream charts. Redding had finally found that mainstream success that had eluded him all those years, and sadly entered the most powerful stage of his career as he entered the grave.
In 1989, Redding was welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted at the ceremony by Little Richard, a man whom he had once said, “if it hadn’t been for Little Richard, I wouldn’t be here.”