Monday, December 11, 2017

Otis Redding Died Yesterday, 50 Years Ago, Age 26... 26--Hard To Believe


I took my job as chairman of the Student Activities Board at my college, Stony Brook, very seriously. I did all I could to offer the students the best concert and lecture series anywhere in America. We had historic concerts by Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Ravi Shankar, Smokey Robinson, The Byrds, Tim Buckley, Big Brother, The Dead, The Temptations and in 1967-- in between the release of King & Queen with Carla Thomas and his tragic death, at 26 years old, in a plane crash in bad weather-- Otis Redding. That tragic plane crash was on December 10 50 years and one day ago.

Sunday morning Jonathan Gould commemorated the day with a brief retrospective and memorial for the New Yorker. Gould wrote that Redding was "the most charismatic and beloved soul singer of his generation, the male counterpart to Aretha Franklin, whom he had recently endowed with the hit song Respect. In the preceding year, on the strength of his triumphant tours of Britain, France, and Scandinavia, his appearances at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and his domineering performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, Redding had pushed beyond the commercial constraints of the so-called 'Chitlin’ Circuit' of ghetto theatres and Southern night clubs. He was determined to become the first African-American artist to connect with the burgeoning audience for album rock that had transformed the world of popular music since the arrival of the Beatles in America, in 1964." The concert at Stony Brook was part of that determination-- his and mine.
Redding’s success with this new, ostensibly hip, predominantly white audience had brought him to a turning point in his career. Thrilled with the results of a throat surgery that left his voice stronger and suppler than ever before, he resolved to scale back his relentless schedule of live performances in order to place a greater emphasis on recording, songwriting, and production. In the weeks before his death, he had written and recorded a spate of ambitious new songs. One of these, the contemplative ballad (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, became his self-written epitaph when it was released as a single, in January of 1968. A sombre overture to the year of the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon as President, the song went on to become the first posthumous No. 1 record in the history of the Billboard charts, selling more than two million copies and earning Redding the unequivocal “crossover” hit he had sought since his début on the Memphis-based label Stax, in 1962. To this day, according to the performance-rights organization BMI, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” remains one of the most frequently played (and streamed) recordings in the annals of American music.

In an age of pop culture replete with African-American superstars like Michael Jackson, Prince, Usher, Bruno Mars, Kanye West, and Jay-Z, it is hard for modern audiences to appreciate how revolutionary the self-presentations of soul singers like Otis Redding were when they first came on the scene. Prior to the mid-fifties, it had simply been taboo for a black man to perform in an overtly sexualized manner in front of a white audience in America. (Female black entertainers, by contrast, had been all but required to do so.) In the South, especially, the social psychology of the Jim Crow regime was founded on a paranoid fantasy of interracial rape that was institutionalized by the press and popular culture in the malignant stereotype of the “black brute,” which explicitly sexualized the threat posed by black men to white women and white supremacy. Born in Georgia in 1941, the same year as Emmett Till, Otis Redding grew up in a world where any “suggestive” behavior by a black male in the presence of whites was potentially suicidal.

In 2007, forty years on, a panel of artists, critics, and music-business professionals assembled by Rolling Stone ranked Otis Redding eighth on a list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.” This placed him in a constellation of talent that included his contemporaries Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown, who together represented the greatest generation of church-bred African-American singers in the history of popular music. What distinguished Redding in this august company was the heartbreaking brevity of his career. In his five short years as a professional entertainer, his incomparable voice and vocal persona established him as soul music’s foremost apostle of devotion, a singer who implored his listeners to “try a little tenderness” with a ferocity that defied the meaning of the word. His singular combination of strength and sensitivity, dignity and self-discipline, made him the musical embodiment of the “soul force” that Martin Luther King, Jr., extolled in his epic “I Have a Dream” speech as the African-American counterweight to generations of racist oppression. In the way he looked and the way he sang and the way he led his tragically unfinished life, this princely son of Georgia sharecroppers was a one-man repudiation of the depraved doctrine of “white supremacy,” whose dark vestiges still contaminate our world.
Jim Morrison, Jim Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding were all kids when they died, each soon after I had gotten to know them, fell in love with their music and eagerly shared it with my fellow students. I buried the horror-- of that, of the assassinations, of the brutal war against Vietnam-- in drugs and then left the country for over 6 years to try to discover who I was and why this was all going on around me. I'm still working on it. But I sure do hope Otis and the rest are singing for Jesus in Heaven today.

Labels: ,


At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Thanks for the article. Is there a more soulful song than "Try a Little Tenderness"? I am hard pressed to think of one...RIP Otis.

At 4:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was a very cold winter day in Chicago - grey skies, cold wind from the northwest, and flurries. Hearing the news about Otis Redding only made the day that much colder for me.


Post a Comment

<< Home