Episode 163 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, Stax Records, and the short, tragic, life of Otis Redding. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a twenty-three minute bonus episode available, on “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
No Mixcloud this week, as there are too many songs by Redding, even if I split into multiple parts.
The main resource I used for the biographical details of Redding was Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul by Mark Ribowsky. Ribowsky is usually a very good, reliable, writer, but in this case there are a couple of lapses in editing which make it not a book I can wholeheartedly recommend, but the research on the biographical details of Redding seems to be the best.
Information about Stax comes primarily from two books: Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax by Rob Bowman, and Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon.
Country Soul by Charles L Hughes is a great overview of the soul music made in Muscle Shoals, Memphis, and Nashville in the sixties.
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A quick note before I begin — this episode ends with a description of a plane crash, which some people may find upsetting. There’s also a mention of gun violence.
In 2019 the film Summer of Soul came out. If you’re unfamiliar with this film, it’s a documentary of an event, the Harlem Cultural Festival, which gets called the “Black Woodstock” because it took place in the summer of 1969, overlapping the weekend that Woodstock happened. That event was a series of weekend free concerts in New York, performed by many of the greatest acts in Black music at that time — people like Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, and the Fifth Dimension.
One thing that that film did was to throw into sharp relief a lot of the performances we’ve seen over the years by legends of white rock music of the same time. If you watch the film of Woodstock, or the earlier Monterey Pop festival, it’s apparent that a lot of the musicians are quite sloppy. This is easy to dismiss as being a product of the situation — they’re playing outdoor venues, with no opportunity to soundcheck, using primitive PA systems, and often without monitors. Anyone would sound a bit sloppy in that situation, right?
That is until you listen to the performances on the Summer of Soul soundtrack. The performers on those shows are playing in the same kind of circumstances, and in the case of Woodstock literally at the same time, so it’s a fair comparison, and there really is no comparison.
Whatever you think of the quality of the *music* (and some of my very favourite artists played at Monterey and Woodstock), the *musicianship* is orders of magnitude better at the Harlem Cultural Festival
[Excerpt: Gladys Knight and the Pips “I Heard it Through the Grapevine (live)”]
And of course there’s a reason for this. Most of the people who played at those big hippie festivals had not had the same experiences as the Black musicians. The Black players were mostly veterans of the chitlin’ circuit, where you had to play multiple shows a day, in front of demanding crowds who wanted their money’s worth, and who wanted you to be able to play and also put on a show at the same time. When you’re playing for crowds of working people who have spent a significant proportion of their money to go to the show, and on a bill with a dozen other acts who are competing for that audience’s attention, you are going to get good or stop working.
The guitar bands at Woodstock and Monterey, though, hadn’t had the same kind of pressure. Their audiences were much more forgiving, much more willing to go with the musicians, view themselves as part of a community with them. And they had to play far fewer shows than the chitlin’ circuit veterans, so they simply didn’t develop the same chops before becoming famous (the best of them did after fame, of course).
And so it’s no surprise that while a lot of bands became more famous as a result of the Monterey Pop Festival, only three really became breakout stars in America as a direct result of it. One of those was the Who, who were already the third or fourth biggest band in the UK by that point, either just behind or just ahead of the Kinks, and so the surprise is more that it took them that long to become big in America. But the other two were themselves veterans of the chitlin’ circuit.
If you buy the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Monterey Pop, you get two extra discs along with the disc with the film of the full festival on it — the only two performances that were thought worth turning into their own short mini-films. One of them is Jimi Hendrix’s performance, and we will talk about that in a future episode. The other is titled Shake! Otis at Monterey:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Shake! (live at Monterey Pop Festival)”]
Otis Redding came from Macon, Georgia, the home town of Little Richard, who became one of his biggest early influences, and like Richard he was torn in his early years between religion and secular music — though in most other ways he was very different from Richard, and in particular he came from a much more supportive family. While his father, Otis senior, was a deacon in the church, and didn’t approve much of blues, R&B, or jazz music or listen to it himself, he didn’t prevent his son from listening to it, so young Otis grew up listening to records by Richard — of whom he later said “If it hadn’t been for Little Richard I would not be here… Richard has soul too. My present music has a lot of him in it” — and another favourite, Clyde McPhatter:
[Excerpt: Billy Ward and the Dominoes, “Have Mercy Baby”]
Indeed, it’s unclear exactly how much Otis senior *did* disapprove of those supposedly-sinful kinds of music. The biography I used as a source for this, and which says that Otis senior wouldn’t listen to blues or jazz music at all, also quotes his son as saying that when he was a child his mother and father used to play him “a calypso song out then called ‘Run Joe'”
That will of course be this one:
[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, “Run Joe”]
I find it hard to reconcile the idea of someone who refused to listen to the blues or jazz listening to Louis Jordan, but then people are complex.
Whatever Otis senior’s feelings about secular music, he recognised from a very early age that his son had a special talent, and encouraged him to become a gospel singer. And at the same time he was listening to Little Richard, young Otis was also listening to gospel singers. One particular influence was a blind street singer, Reverend Pearly Brown:
[Excerpt: Reverend Pearly Brown, “Ninety Nine and a Half Won’t Do”]
Redding was someone who cared deeply about his father’s opinion, and it might well have been that he would eventually have become a gospel performer, because he started his career with a foot in both camps.
What seems to have made the difference is that when he was sixteen, his father came down with tuberculosis. Even a few years earlier this would have been a terminal diagnosis, but thankfully by this point antibiotics had been invented, and the deacon eventually recovered. But it did mean that Otis junior had to become the family breadwinner while his father was sick, and so he turned decisively towards the kind of music that could make more money.
He’d already started performing secular music. He’d joined a band led by Gladys Williams, who was the first female bandleader in the area. Williams sadly doesn’t seem to have recorded anything — discogs has a listing of a funk single by a Gladys Williams on a tiny label which may or may not be the same person, but in general she avoided recording studios, only wanting to play live — but she was a very influential figure in Georgia music. According to her former trumpeter Newton Collier, who later went on to play with Redding and others, she trained both Fats Gonder and Lewis Hamlin, who went on to join the lineup of James Brown’s band that made Live at the Apollo, and Collier says that Hamlin’s arrangements for that album, and the way the band would segue from one track to another, were all things he’d been taught by Miss Gladys.
Redding sang with Gladys Williams for a while, and she took him under her wing, trained him, and became his de facto first manager. She got him to perform at local talent shows, where he won fifteen weeks in a row, before he got banned from performing to give everyone else a chance. At all of these shows, the song he performed was one that Miss Gladys had rehearsed with him, Little Richard’s “Heeby Jeebies”:
[Excerpt: Little Richard, “Heeby Jeebies”]
At this time, Redding’s repertoire was largely made up of songs by the two greats of fifties Georgia R&B — Little Richard and James Brown — plus some by his other idol Sam Cooke, and those singers would remain his greatest influences throughout his career.
After his stint with Williams, Redding went on to join another band, Pat T Cake and the Mighty Panthers, whose guitarist Johnny Jenkins would be a major presence in his life for several years. The Mighty Panthers were soon giving Redding top billing, and advertising gigs as featuring Otis “Rockin’ Robin” Redding — presumably that was another song in his live repertoire.
By this time Redding was sounding enough like Little Richard that when Richard’s old backing band, The Upsetters, were looking for a new singer after Richard quit rock and roll for the ministry, they took Redding on as their vocalist for a tour.
Once that tour had ended, Redding returned home to find that Johnny Jenkins had quit the Mighty Panthers and formed a new band, the Pinetoppers. Redding joined that band, who were managed by a white teenager named Phil Walden, who soon became Redding’s personal manager as well.
Walden and Redding developed a very strong bond, to the extent that Walden, who was studying at university, spent all his tuition money promoting Redding and almost got kicked out. When Redding found this out, he actually went round to everyone he knew and got loans from everyone until he had enough to pay for Walden’s tuition — much of it paid in coins.
They had a strong enough bond that Walden would remain his manager for the rest of Redding’s life, and even when Walden had to do two years in the Army in Germany, he managed Redding long-distance, with his brother looking after things at home.
But of course, there wasn’t much of a music industry in Georgia, and so with Walden’s blessing and support, he moved to LA in 1960 to try to become a star.
Just before he left, his girlfriend Zelma told him she was pregnant. He assured her that he was only going to be away for a few months, and that he would be back in time for the birth, and that he intended to come back to Georgia rich and marry her. Her response was “Sure you is”.
In LA, Redding met up with a local record producer, James “Jimmy Mack” McEachin, who would later go on to become an actor, appearing in several films with Clint Eastwood. McEachin produced a session for Redding at Gold Star studios, with arrangements by Rene Hall and using several of the musicians who later became the Wrecking Crew. “She’s All Right”, the first single that came from that session, was intended to sound as much like Jackie Wilson as possible, and was released under the name of The Shooters, the vocal group who provided the backing vocals:
[Excerpt: The Shooters, “She’s All Right”]
“She’s All Right” was released on Trans World, a small label owned by Morris Bernstein, who also owned Finer Arts records (and “She’s All Right” seems to have been released on both labels). Neither of Bernstein’s labels had any great success — the biggest record they put out was a single by the Hollywood Argyles that came out after they’d stopped having hits — and they didn’t have any connection to the R&B market. Redding and McEachin couldn’t find any R&B labels that wanted to pick up their recordings, and so Redding did return to Georgia and marry Zelma a few days before the birth of their son Dexter.
Back in Georgia, he hooked up again with the Pinetoppers, and he and Jenkins started trying local record labels, attempting to get records put out by either of them.
Redding was the first, and Otis Redding and the Pinetoppers put out a single, “Shout Bamalama”, a slight reworking of a song that he’d recorded as “Gamma Lamma” for McEachin, which was obviously heavily influenced by Little Richard:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding and the Pinetoppers, “Shout Bamalama”]
That single was produced by a local record company owner, Bobby Smith, who signed Redding to a contract which Redding didn’t read, but which turned out to be a management contract as well as a record contract. This would later be a problem, as Redding didn’t have an actual contract with Phil Walden — one thing that comes up time and again in stories about music in the Deep South at this time is people operating on handshake deals and presuming good faith on the part of each other.
There was a problem with the record which nobody had foreseen though — Redding was the first Black artist signed to Smith’s label, which was called Confederate Records, and its logo was the Southern Cross. Now Smith, by all accounts, was less personally racist than most white men in Georgia at the time, and hadn’t intended that as any kind of statement of white supremacy — he’d just used a popular local symbol, without thinking through the implications.
But as the phrase goes, intent isn’t magic, and while Smith didn’t intend it as racist, rather unsurprisingly Black DJs and record shops didn’t see things in the same light. Smith was told by several DJs that they wouldn’t play the record while it was on that label, and he started up a new subsidiary label, Orbit, and put the record out on that label.
Redding and Smith continued collaborating, and there were plans for Redding to put out a second single on Orbit. That single was going to be “These Arms of Mine”, a song Redding had originally given to another Confederate artist, a rockabilly performer called Buddy Leach (who doesn’t seem to be the same Buddy Leach as the Democratic politician from Louisiana, or the saxophone player with George Thorogood and the Destroyers). Leach had recorded it as a B-side, with the slightly altered title “These Arms Are Mine”. Sadly I can’t provide an excerpt of that, as the record is so rare that even websites I’ve found by rockabilly collectors who are trying to get everything on Confederate Records haven’t managed to get hold of copies.
Meanwhile, Johnny Jenkins had been recording on another label, Tifco, and had put out a single called “Pinetop”:
[Excerpt: Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, “Pinetop”]
That record had attracted the attention of Joe Galkin. Galkin was a semi-independent record promoter, who had worked for Atlantic in New York before moving back to his home town of Macon. Galkin had proved himself as a promoter by being responsible for the massive amounts of airplay given to Solomon Burke’s “Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms)”:
[Excerpt: Solomon Burke, “Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms)”]
After that, Jerry Wexler had given Galkin fifty dollars a week and an expense account, and Galkin would drive to all the Black radio stations in the South and pitch Atlantic’s records to them. But Galkin also had his own record label, Gerald Records, and when he went to those stations and heard them playing something from a smaller label, he would quickly negotiate with that smaller label, buy the master and the artist’s contract, and put the record out on Gerald Records — and then he would sell the track and the artist on to Atlantic, taking ten percent of the record’s future earnings and a finder’s fee.
This is what happened with Johnny Jenkins’ single, which was reissued on Gerald and then on Atlantic. Galkin signed Jenkins to a contract — another of those contracts which also made him Jenkins’ manager, and indeed the manager of the Pinetops.
Jenkins’ record ended up selling about twenty-five thousand records, but when Galkin saw the Pinetoppers performing live, he realised that Otis Redding was the real star.
Since he had a contract with Jenkins, he came to an agreement with Walden, who was still Jenkins’ manager as well as Redding’s — Walden would get fifty percent of Jenkins’ publishing and they would be co-managers of Jenkins. But Galkin had plans for Redding, which he didn’t tell anyone about, not even Redding himself.
The one person he did tell was Jerry Wexler, who he phoned up and asked for two thousand dollars, explaining that he wanted to record Jenkins’ follow-up single at Stax, and he also wanted to bring along a singer he’d discovered, who sang with Jenkins’ band. Wexler agreed — Atlantic had recently started distributing Stax’s records on a handshake deal of much the same kind that Redding had with Walden.
As far as everyone else was concerned, though, the session was just for Johnny Jenkins, the known quantity who’d already released a single for Atlantic. Otis Redding, meanwhile, was having to work a lot of odd jobs to feed his rapidly growing family, and one of those jobs was to work as Johnny Jenkins’ driver, as Jenkins didn’t have a driving license. So Galkin suggested that, given that Memphis was quite a long drive, Redding should drive Galkin and Jenkins to Stax, and carry the equipment for them.
Bobby Smith, who still thought of himself as Redding’s manager, was eager to help his friend’s bandmate with his big break (and to help Galkin, in the hope that maybe Atlantic would start distributing Confederate too), and so he lent Redding the company station wagon to drive them to the session.The other Pinetoppers wouldn’t be going — Jenkins was going to be backed by Booker T and the MGs, the normal Stax backing band.
Phil Walden, though, had told Redding that he should try to take the opportunity to get himself heard by Stax, and he pestered the musicians as they recorded Jenkins’ “Spunky”:
[Excerpt: Johnny Jenkins, “Spunky”]
Cropper later remembered “During the session, Al Jackson says to me, ‘The big tall guy that was driving Johnny, he’s been bugging me to death, wanting me to hear him sing,’ Al said, ‘Would you take some time and get this guy off of my back and listen to him?’ And I said, ‘After the session I’ll try to do it,’ and then I just forgot about it.”
What Redding didn’t know, though Walden might have, is that Galkin had planned all along to get Redding to record while he was there. Galkin claimed to be Redding’s manager, and told Jim Stewart, the co-owner of Stax who acted as main engineer and supervising producer on the sessions at this point, that Wexler had only funded the session on the basis that Redding would also get a shot at recording. Stewart was unimpressed — Jenkins’ session had not gone well, and it had taken them more than two hours to get two tracks down, but Galkin offered Stewart a trade — Galkin, as Redding’s manager, would take half of Stax’s mechanical royalties for the records (which wouldn’t be much) but in turn would give Stewart half the publishing on Redding’s songs.
That was enough to make Stewart interested, but by this point Booker T. Jones had already left the studio, so Steve Cropper moved to the piano for the forty minutes that was left of the session, with Jenkins remaining on guitar, and they tried to get two sides of a single cut.
The first track they cut was “Hey Hey Baby”, which didn’t impress Stewart much — he simply said that the world didn’t need another Little Richard — and so with time running out they cut another track, the ballad Redding had already given to Buddy Leach. He asked Cropper, who didn’t play piano well, to play “church chords”, by which he meant triplets, and Cropper said “he started singing ‘These Arms of Mine’ and I know my hair lifted about three inches and I couldn’t believe this guy’s voice”:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “These Arms of Mine”]
That was more impressive, though Stewart carefully feigned disinterest. Stewart and Galkin put together a contract which signed Redding to Stax — though they put the single out on the less-important Volt subsidiary, as they did for much of Redding’s subsequent output — and gave Galkin and Stewart fifty percent each of the publishing rights to Redding’s songs. Redding signed it, not even realising he was signing a proper contract rather than just one for a single record, because he was just used to signing whatever bit of paper was put in front of him at the time.
This one was slightly different though, because Redding had had his twenty-first birthday since the last time he’d signed a contract, and so Galkin assumed that that meant all his other contracts were invalid — not realising that Redding’s contract with Bobby Smith had been countersigned by Redding’s mother, and so was also legal.
Walden also didn’t realise that, but *did* realise that Galkin representing himself as Redding’s manager to Stax might be a problem, so he quickly got Redding to sign a proper contract, formalising the handshake basis they’d been operating on up to that point. Walden was at this point in the middle of his Army service, but got the signature while he was home on leave.
Walden then signed a deal with Galkin, giving Walden half of Galkin’s fifty percent cut of Redding’s publishing in return for Galkin getting a share of Walden’s management proceeds.
By this point everyone was on the same page — Otis Redding was going to be a big star, and he became everyone’s prime focus. Johnny Jenkins remained signed to Walden’s agency — which quickly grew to represent almost every big soul star that wasn’t signed to Motown — but he was regarded as a footnote. His record came out eventually on Volt, almost two years later, but he didn’t release another record until 1968.
Jenkins did, though, go on to have some influence. In 1970 he was given the opportunity to sing lead on an album backed by Duane Allman and the members of the Muscle Shoals studio band, many of whom went on to form the Allman Brothers Band. That record contained a cover of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” which was later sampled by Beck for “Loser”, the Wu-Tang Clan for “Gun Will Go” and Oasis for their hit “Go Let it Out”:
[Excerpt: Johnny Jenkins, “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”]
Jenkins would play guitar on several future Otis Redding sessions, but would hold a grudge against Redding for the rest of his life for taking the stardom he thought was rightfully his, and would be one of the few people to have anything negative to say about Redding after his early death.
When Bobby Smith heard about the release of “These Arms of Mine”, he was furious, as his contract with Redding *was* in fact legally valid, and he’d been intending to get Redding to record the song himself. However, he realised that Stax could call on the resources of Atlantic Records, and Joe Galkin also hinted that if he played nice Atlantic might start distributing Confederate, too. Smith signed away all his rights to Redding — again, thinking that he was only signing away the rights to a single record and song, and not reading the contract closely enough.
In this case, Smith only had one working eye, and that wasn’t good enough to see clearly — he had to hold paper right up to his face to read anything on it — and he simply couldn’t read the small print on the contract, and so signed over Otis Redding’s management, record contract, and publishing, for a flat seven hundred dollars.
Now everything was legally — if perhaps not ethically — in the clear. Phil Walden was Otis Redding’s manager, Stax was his record label, Joe Galkin got a cut off the top, and Walden, Galkin, and Jim Stewart all shared Redding’s publishing.
Although, to make it a hit, one more thing had to happen, and one more person had to get a cut of the song:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “These Arms of Mine”]
That sound was becoming out of fashion among Black listeners at the time. It was considered passe, and even though the Stax musicians loved the record, Jim Stewart didn’t, and put it out not because he believed in Otis Redding, but because he believed in Joe Galkin. As Stewart later said “The Black radio stations were getting out of that Black country sound, we put it out to appease and please Joe.”
For the most part DJs ignored the record, despite Galkin pushing it — it was released in October 1962, that month which we have already pinpointed as the start of the sixties, and came out at the same time as a couple of other Stax releases, and the one they were really pushing was Carla Thomas’ “I’ll Bring it Home to You”, an answer record to Sam Cooke’s “Bring it On Home to Me”:
[Excerpt: Carla Thomas, “I’ll Bring it Home to You”]
“These Arms of Mine” wasn’t even released as the A-side — that was “Hey Hey Baby” — until John R came along. John R was a Nashville DJ, and in fact he was the reason that Bobby Smith even knew that Redding had signed to Stax. R had heard Buddy Leach’s version of the song, and called Smith, who was a friend of his, to tell him that his record had been covered, and that was the first Smith had heard of the matter.
But R also called Jim Stewart at Stax, and told him that he was promoting the wrong side, and that if they started promoting “These Arms of Mine”, R would play the record on his radio show, which could be heard in twenty-eight states. And, as a gesture of thanks for this suggestion — and definitely not as payola, which would be very illegal — Stewart gave R his share of the publishing rights to the song, which eventually made the top twenty on the R&B charts, and slipped into the lower end of the Hot One Hundred.
“These Arms of Mine” was actually recorded at a turning point for Stax as an organisation. By the time it was released, Booker T Jones had left Memphis to go to university in Indiana to study music, with his tuition being paid for by his share of the royalties for “Green Onions”, which hit the charts around the same time as Redding’s first session:
[Excerpt: Booker T. and the MGs, “Green Onions”]
Most of Stax’s most important sessions were recorded at weekends — Jim Stewart still had a day job as a bank manager at this point, and he supervised the records that were likely to be hits — so Jones could often commute back to the studio for session work, and could play sessions during his holidays. The rest of the time, other people would cover the piano parts, often Cropper, who played piano on Redding’s next sessions, with Jenkins once again on guitar.
As “These Arms of Mine” didn’t start to become a hit until March, Redding didn’t go into the studio again until June, when he cut the follow-up, “That’s What My Heart Needs”, with the MGs, Jenkins, and the horn section of the Mar-Keys. That made number twenty-seven on the Cashbox R&B chart — this was in the period when Billboard had stopped having one. The follow-up, “Pain in My Heart”, was cut in September and did even better, making number eleven on the Cashbox R&B chart:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Pain in My Heart”]
It did well enough in fact that the Rolling Stones cut a cover version of the track:
[Excerpt: The Rolling Stones, “Pain in My Heart”]
Though Redding didn’t get the songwriting royalties — by that point Allen Toussaint had noticed how closely it resembled a song he’d written for Irma Thomas, “Ruler of My Heart”:
[Excerpt: Irma Thomas, “Ruler of My Heart”]
And so the writing credit was changed to be Naomi Neville, one of the pseudonyms Toussaint used.
By this point Redding was getting steady work, and becoming a popular live act. He’d put together his own band, and had asked Jenkins to join, but Jenkins didn’t want to play second fiddle to him, and refused, and soon stopped being invited to the recording sessions as well.
Indeed, Redding was *eager* to get as many of his old friends working with him as he could. For his second and third sessions, as well as bringing Jenkins, he’d brought along a whole gang of musicians from his touring show, and persuaded Stax to put out records by them, too. At those sessions, as well as Redding’s singles, they also cut records by his valet (which was the term R&B performers in those years used for what we’d now call a gofer or roadie) Oscar Mack:
[Excerpt: Oscar Mack, “Don’t Be Afraid of Love”]
For Eddie Kirkland, the guitarist in his touring band, who had previously played with John Lee Hooker and whose single was released under the name “Eddie Kirk”:
[Excerpt: Eddie Kirk, “The Hawg, Part 1”]
And Bobby Marchan, a singer and female impersonator from New Orleans who had had some massive hits a few years earlier both on his own and as the singer with Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, but had ended up in Macon without a record deal and been taken under Redding’s wing:
[Excerpt: Bobby Marchan, “What Can I Do?”]
Redding would continue, throughout his life, to be someone who tried to build musical careers for his friends, though none of those singles was successful.
The changes in Stax continued. In late autumn 1963, Atlantic got worried by the lack of new product coming from Stax. Carla Thomas had had a couple of R&B hits, and they were expecting a new single, but every time Jerry Wexler phoned Stax asking where the new single was, he was told it would be coming soon but the equipment was broken.
After a couple of weeks of this, Wexler decided something fishy was going on, and sent Tom Dowd, his genius engineer, down to Stax to investigate. Dowd found when he got there that the equipment *was* broken, and had been for weeks, and was a simple fix. When Dowd spoke to Stewart, though, he discovered that they didn’t know where to source replacement parts from. Dowd phoned his assistant in New York, and told him to go to the electronics shop and get the parts he needed. Then, as there were no next-day courier services at that time, Dowd’s assistant went to the airport, found a flight attendant who was flying to Memphis, and gave her the parts and twenty-five dollars, with a promise of twenty-five more if she gave them to Dowd at the other end.
The next morning, Dowd had the equipment fixed, and everyone involved became convinced that Dowd was a miracle worker, especially after he showed Steve Cropper some rudimentary tape-manipulation techniques that Cropper had never encountered before. Dowd had to wait around in Memphis for his flight, so he went to play golf with the musicians for a bit, and then they thought they might as well pop back to the studio and test the equipment out. When they did, Rufus Thomas — Carla Thomas’ father, who had also had a number of hits himself on Stax and Sun — popped his head round the door to see if the equipment was working now.
They told him it was, and he said he had a song if they were up for a spot of recording. They were, and so when Dowd flew back that night, he was able to tell Wexler not only that the next Carla Thomas single would soon be on its way, but that he had the tapes of a big hit single with him right there:
[Excerpt: Rufus Thomas, “Walking the Dog”]
“Walking the Dog” was a sensation. Jim Stewart later said “I remember our first order out of Chicago. I was in New York in Jerry Wexler’s office at the time and Paul Glass, who was our distributor in Chicago, called in an order for sixty-five thousand records. I said to Jerry, ‘Do you mean sixty-five hundred?’ And he said, ‘Hell no, he wants sixty-five thousand.’ That was the first order! He believed in the record so much that we ended up selling about two hundred thousand in Chicago alone.”
The record made the top ten on the pop charts, but that wasn’t the biggest thing that Dowd had taken away from the session. He came back raving to Wexler about the way they made records in Memphis, and how different it was from the New York way. In New York, there was a strict separation between the people in the control room and the musicians in the studio, the musicians were playing from written charts, and everyone had a job and did just that job. In Memphis, the musicians were making up the arrangements as they went, and everyone was producing or engineering all at the same time.
Dowd, as someone with more technical ability than anyone at Stax, and who was also a trained musician who could make musical suggestions, was soon regularly commuting down to Memphis to be part of the production team, and Jerry Wexler was soon going down to record with other Atlantic artists there, as we heard about in the episode on “Midnight Hour”.
Shortly after Dowd’s first visit to Memphis, another key member of the Stax team entered the picture. Right at the end of 1963, Floyd Newman recorded a track called “Frog Stomp”, on which he used his own band rather than the MGs and Mar-Keys:
[Excerpt: Floyd Newman, “Frog Stomp”]
The piano player and co-writer on that track was a young man named Isaac Hayes, who had been trying to get work at Stax for some time. He’d started out as a singer, and had made a record, “Laura, We’re On Our Last Go-Round”, at American Sound, the studio run by the former Stax engineer and musician Chips Moman:
[Excerpt: Isaac Hayes, “Laura, We’re On Our Last Go-Round”]
But that hadn’t been a success, and Hayes had continued working a day job at a slaughterhouse — and would continue doing so for much of the next few years, even after he started working at Stax (it’s truly amazing how many of the people involved in Stax were making music as what we would now call a side-hustle).
Hayes had become a piano player as a way of getting a little extra money — he’d been offered a job as a fill-in when someone else had pulled out at the last minute on a gig on New Year’s Eve, and took it even though he couldn’t actually play piano, and spent his first show desperately vamping with two fingers, and was just lucky the audience was too drunk to care. But he had a remarkable facility for the instrument, and while unlike Booker T Jones he would never gain a great deal of technical knowledge, and was embarrassed for the rest of his life by both his playing ability and his lack of theory knowledge, he was as great as they come at soul, at playing with feel, and at inventing new harmonies on the fly.
They still didn’t have a musician at Stax that could replace Booker T, who was still off at university, so Isaac Hayes was taken on as a second session keyboard player, to cover for Jones when Jones was in Indiana — though Hayes himself also had to work his own sessions around his dayjob, so didn’t end up playing on “In the Midnight Hour”, for example, because he was at the slaughterhouse.
The first recording session that Hayes played on as a session player was an Otis Redding single, either his fourth single for Stax, “Come to Me”, or his fifth, “Security”:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Security”]
“Security” is usually pointed to by fans as the point at which Redding really comes into his own, and started directing the musicians more. There’s a distinct difference, in particular, in the interplay between Cropper’s guitar, the Mar-Keys’ horns, and Redding’s voice. Where previously the horns had tended to play mostly pads, just holding chords under Redding’s voice, now they were starting to do answering phrases.
Jim Stewart always said that the only reason Stax used a horn section at all was because he’d been unable to find a decent group of backing vocalists, and the function the horns played on most of the early Stax recordings was somewhat similar to the one that the Jordanaires had played for Elvis, or the Picks for Buddy Holly, basically doing “oooh” sounds to fatten out the sound, plus the odd sax solo or simple riff.
The way Redding used the horns, though, was more like the way Ray Charles used the Raelettes, or the interplay of a doo-wop vocal group, with call and response, interjections, and asides. He also did something in “Security” that would become a hallmark of records made at Stax — instead of a solo, the instrumental break is played by the horns as an ensemble:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Security”]
According to Wayne Jackson, the Mar-Keys’ trumpeter, Redding was the one who had the idea of doing these horn ensemble sections, and the musicians liked them enough that they continued doing them on all the future sessions, no matter who with.
The last Stax single of 1964 took the “Security” sound and refined it, and became the template for every big Stax hit to follow. “Mr. Pitiful” was the first collaboration between Redding and Steve Cropper, and was primarily Cropper’s idea. Cropper later remembered “There was a disc jockey here named Moohah. He started calling Otis ‘Mr. Pitiful’ ’cause he sounded so pitiful singing his ballads. So I said, ‘Great idea for a song!’ I got the idea for writing about it in the shower. I was on my way down to pick up Otis. I got down there and I was humming it in the car. I said, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ We just wrote the song on the way to the studio, just slapping our hands on our legs. We wrote it in about ten minutes, went in, showed it to the guys, he hummed a horn line, boom—we had it. When Jim Stewart walked in we had it all worked up. Two or three cuts later, there it was.”
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Mr. Pitiful”]
Cropper would often note later that Redding would never write about himself, but that Cropper would put details of Redding’s life and persona into the songs, from “Mr. Pitiful” right up to their final collaboration, in which Cropper came up with lines about leaving home in Georgia.
“Mr Pitiful” went to number ten on the R&B chart and peaked at number forty-one on the hot one hundred, and its B-side, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, also made the R&B top twenty.
Cropper and Redding soon settled into a fruitful writing partnership, to the extent that Cropper even kept a guitar permanently tuned to an open chord so that Redding could use it. Redding couldn’t play the guitar, but liked to use one as a songwriting tool. When a guitar is tuned in standard tuning, you have to be able to make chord shapes to play it, because the sound of the open strings is a discord:
But you can tune a guitar so all the strings are the notes of a single chord, so they sound good together even when you don’t make a chord shape:
[demonstrates open-E tuning]
With one of these open tunings, you can play chords with just a single finger barring a fret, and so they’re very popular with, for example, slide guitarists who use a metal slide to play, or someone like Dolly Parton who has such long fingernails it’s difficult to form chord shapes.
Someone like Parton is of course an accomplished player, but open tunings also mean that someone who can’t play well can just put their finger down on a fret and have it be a chord, so you can write songs just by running one finger up and down the fretboard:
So Redding could write, and even play acoustic rhythm guitar on some songs, which he did quite a lot in later years, without ever learning how to make chords.
Now, there’s a downside to this — which is why standard tuning is still standard. If you tune to an open major chord, you can play major chords easily but minor chords become far more difficult. Handily, that wasn’t a problem at Stax, because according to Isaac Hayes, Jim Stewart banned minor chords from being played at Stax. Hayes said “We’d play a chord in a session, and Jim would say, ‘I don’t want to hear that chord.’ Jim’s ears were just tuned into one, four, and five. I mean, just simple changes. He said they were the breadwinners. He didn’t like minor chords. Marvell and I always would try to put that pretty stuff in there. Jim didn’t like that. We’d bump heads about that stuff. Me and Marvell fought all the time that. Booker wanted change as well. As time progressed, I was able to sneak a few in.”
Of course, minor chords weren’t *completely* banned from Stax, and some did sneak through, but even ballads would often have only major chords — like Redding’s next single, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”.
That track had its origins with Jerry Butler, the singer who had been lead vocalist of the Impressions before starting a solo career and having success with tracks like “For Your Precious Love”:
[Excerpt: Jerry Butler, “For Your Precious Love”]
Redding liked that song, and covered it himself on his second album, and he had become friendly with Butler.
Butler had half-written a song, and played it for Redding, who told him he’d like to fiddle with it, see what he could do. Butler forgot about the conversation, until he got a phone call from Redding, telling him that he’d recorded the song. Butler was confused, and also a little upset — he’d been planning to finish the song himself, and record it. But then Redding played him the track, and Butler decided that doing so would be pointless — it was Redding’s song now:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”]
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” became Redding’s first really big hit, making number two on the R&B chart and twenty-one on the Hot One Hundred. It was soon being covered by the Rolling Stones and Ike & Tina Turner, and while Redding was still not really known to the white pop market, he was quickly becoming one of the biggest stars on the R&B scene. His record sales were still not matching his live performances — he would always make far more money from appearances than from records — but he was by now the performer that every other soul singer wanted to copy.
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” came out just after Redding’s second album, The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads, which happened to be the first album released on Volt Records. Before that, while Stax and Volt had released the singles, they’d licensed all the album tracks to Atlantic’s Atco subsidiary, which had released the small number of albums put out by Stax artists.
But times were changing and the LP market was becoming bigger. And more importantly, the *stereo* LP market was becoming bigger. Singles were still only released in mono, and would be for the next few years, but the album market had a substantial number of audiophiles, and they wanted stereo.
This was a problem for Stax, because they only had a mono tape recorder, and they were scared of changing anything about their setup in case it destroyed their sound. Tom Dowd, who had been recording in eight track for years, was appalled by the technical limitations at the McLemore Ave studio, but eventually managed to get Jim Stewart, who despite — or possibly because of — being a white country musician was the most concerned that they keep their Black soul sound, to agree to a compromise.
They would keep everything hooked up exactly the same — the same primitive mixers, the same mono tape recorder — and Stax would continue doing their mixes for mono, and all their singles would come directly off that mono tape.
But at the same time, they would *also* have a two-track tape recorder plugged in to the mixer, with half the channels going on one track and half on the other. So while they were making the mix, they’d *also* be getting a stereo dump of that mix. The limitations of the situation meant that they might end up with drums and vocals in one channel and everything else in the other — although as the musicians cut everything together in the studio, which had a lot of natural echo, leakage meant there was a *bit* of everything on every track — but it would still be stereo.
Redding’s next album, Otis Blue, was recorded on this new equipment, with Dowd travelling down from New York to operate it. Dowd was so keen on making the album stereo that during that session, they rerecorded Redding’s two most recent singles, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Respect” (which hadn’t yet come out but was in the process of being released) in soundalike versions so there would be stereo versions of the songs on the album — so the stereo and mono versions of Otis Blue actually have different performances of those songs on them.
It shows how intense the work rate was at Stax — and how good they were at their jobs — that apart from the opening track “Ole Man Trouble”, which had already been recorded as a B-side, all of Otis Blue, which is often considered the greatest soul album in history, was recorded in a twenty-eight hour period, and it would have been shorter but there was a four-hour break in the middle, from 10PM to 2AM, so that the musicians on the session could play their regular local club gigs. And then after the album was finished, Otis left the session to perform a gig that evening.
Tom Dowd, in particular, was astonished by the way Redding took charge in the studio, and how even though he had no technical musical knowledge, he would direct the musicians. Dowd called Redding a genius and told Phil Walden that the only two other artists he’d worked with who had as much ability in the studio were Bobby Darin and Ray Charles.
Other than those singles and “Ole Man Trouble”, Otis Blue was made up entirely of cover versions. There were three versions of songs by Sam Cooke, who had died just a few months earlier, and whose death had hit Redding hard — for all that he styled himself on Little Richard vocally, he was also in awe of Cooke as a singer and stage presence. There were also covers of songs by The Temptations, William Bell, and B.B. King.
And there was also an odd choice — Steve Cropper suggested that Redding cut a cover of a song by a white band that was in the charts at the time:
[Excerpt: The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”]
Redding had never heard the song before — he was not paying attention to the white pop scene at the time, just to his competition on the R&B charts — but he was interested in doing it. Cropper sat by the turntable, scribbling down what he thought the lyrics Jagger was singing were, and they cut the track. Redding starts out more or less singing the right words:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”]
But quickly ends up just ad-libbing random exclamations in the same way that he would in many of his live performances:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”]
Otis Blue made number one on the R&B album chart, and also made number six on the UK album chart — Redding, like many soul artists, was far more popular in the UK than in the US. It only made number seventy-five on the pop album charts in the US, but it did a remarkable thing as far as Stax was concerned — it *stayed* in the lower reaches of the charts, and on the R&B album charts, for a long time.
Redding had become what is known as a “catalogue artist”, something that was almost unknown in rock and soul music at this time, but which was just starting to appear. Up to 1965, the interlinked genres that we now think of as rock and roll, rock, pop, blues, R&B, and soul, had all operated on the basis that singles were where the money was, and that singles should be treated like periodicals — they go on the shelves, stay there for a few weeks, get replaced by the new thing, and nobody’s interested any more. This had contributed to the explosive rate of change in pop music between about 1954 and 1968. You’d package old singles up into albums, and stick some filler tracks on there as a way of making a tiny bit of money from tracks which weren’t good enough to release as singles, but that was just squeezing the last few drops of juice out of the orange, it wasn’t really where the money was. The only exceptions were those artists like Ray Charles who crossed over into the jazz and adult pop markets.
But in general, your record sales in the first few weeks and months *were* your record sales.
But by the mid-sixties, as album sales started to take off more, things started to change. And Otis Redding was one of the first artists to really benefit from that. He wasn’t having huge hit singles, and his albums weren’t making the pop top forty, but they *kept selling*. Redding wouldn’t have an album make the top forty in his lifetime, but they sold consistently, and everything from Otis Blue onward sold two hundred thousand or so copies — a massive number in the much smaller album market of the time.
These sales gave Redding some leverage. His contract with Stax was coming to an end in a few months, and he was getting offers from other companies. As part of his contract renegotiation, he got Jim Stewart — who like so many people in this story including Redding himself liked to operate on handshake deals and assumptions of good faith on the part of everyone else, and who prided himself on being totally fair and not driving hard bargains — to rework his publishing deal. Now Redding’s music was going to be published by Redwal Music — named after Redding and Phil Walden — which was owned as a four-way split between Redding, Walden, Stewart, and Joe Galkin.
Redding also got the right as part of his contract negotiations to record other artists using Stax’s facilities and musicians. He set up his own label, Jotis Records — a portmanteau of Joe and Otis, for Joe Galkin and himself, and put out records by Arthur Conley:
[Excerpt: Arthur Conley, “Who’s Fooling Who?”]
[Excerpt: Loretta Williams, “I’m Missing You”]
and Billy Young
[Excerpt: Billy Young, “The Sloopy”]
None of these was a success, but it was another example of how Redding was trying to use his success to boost others.
There were other changes going on at Stax as well. The company was becoming more tightly integrated with Atlantic Records — Tom Dowd had started engineering more sessions, Jerry Wexler was turning up all the time, and they were starting to make records for Atlantic, as we discussed in the episode on “In the Midnight Hour”. Atlantic were also loaning Stax Sam and Dave, who were contracted to Atlantic but treated as Stax artists, and whose hits were written by the new Stax songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter:
[Excerpt: Sam and Dave, “Soul Man”]
Redding was not hugely impressed by Sam and Dave, once saying in an interview “When I first heard the Righteous Brothers, I thought they were colored. I think they sing better than Sam and Dave”, but they were having more and bigger chart hits than him, though they didn’t have the same level of album sales.
Also, by now Booker T and the MGs had a new bass player. Donald “Duck” Dunn had always been the “other” bass player at Stax, ever since he’d started with the Mar-Keys, and he’d played on many of Redding’s recordings, as had Lewie Steinberg, the original bass player with the MGs. But in early 1965, the Stax studio musicians had cut a record originally intending it to be a Mar-Keys record, but decided to put it out as by Booker T and the MGs, even though Booker T wasn’t there at the time — Isaac Hayes played keyboards on the track:
[Excerpt: Booker T and the MGs, “Boot-Leg”]
Booker T Jones would always have a place at Stax, and would soon be back full time as he finished his degree, but from that point on Duck Dunn, not Lewie Steinberg, was the bass player for the MGs.
Another change in 1965 was that Stax got serious about promotion. Up to this point, they’d just relied on Atlantic to promote their records, but obviously Atlantic put more effort into promoting records on which it made all the money than ones it just distributed. But as part of the deal to make records with Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett, Atlantic had finally put their arrangement with Stax on a contractual footing, rather than their previous handshake deal, and they’d agreed to pay half the salary of a publicity person for Stax.
Stax brought in Al Bell, who made a huge impression. Bell had been a DJ in Memphis, who had gone off to work with Martin Luther King for a while, before leaving after a year because, as he put it “I was not about passive resistance. I was about economic development, economic empowerment.”
He’d returned to DJing, first in Memphis, then in Washington DC, where he’d been one of the biggest boosters of Stax records in the area. While he was in Washington, he’d also started making records himself. He’d produced several singles for Grover Mitchell on Decca:
[Excerpt: Grover Mitchell, “Midnight Tears”]
Those records were supervised by Milt Gabler, the same Milt Gabler who produced Louis Jordan’s records and “Rock Around the Clock”, and Bell co-produced them with Eddie Floyd, who wrote that song, and Chester Simmons, formerly of the Moonglows, and the three of them started their own label, Safice, which had put out a few records by Floyd and others, on the same kind of deal with Atlantic that Stax had:
[Excerpt: Eddie Floyd, “Make Up Your Mind”]
Floyd would himself soon become a staff songwriter at Stax.
As with almost every decision at Stax, the decision to hire Bell was a cause of disagreement between Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, the “Ax” in Stax, who wasn’t as involved in the day-to-day studio operations as her brother, but who was often regarded by the musicians as at least as important to the spirit of the label, and who tended to disagree with her brother on pretty much everything. Stewart didn’t want to hire Bell, but according to Cropper “Estelle and I said, ‘Hey, we need somebody that can liaison between the disc jockeys and he’s the man to do it. Atlantic’s going into a radio station with six Atlantic records and one Stax record. We’re not getting our due.’ We knew that. We needed more promotion and he had all the pull with all those disc jockeys. He knew E. Rodney Jones and all the big cats, the Montagues and so on. He knew every one of them.”
Many people at Stax will say that the label didn’t even really start until Bell joined — and he became so important to the label that he would eventually take it over from Stewart and Axton.
Bell came in every day and immediately started phoning DJs, all day every day, starting in the morning with the drivetime East Coast DJs, and working his way across the US, ending up at midnight phoning the evening DJs in California. Booker T Jones said of him “He had energy like Otis Redding, except he wasn’t a singer. He had the same type of energy. He’d come in the room, pull up his shoulders and that energy would start. He would start talking about the music business or what was going on and he energized everywhere he was. He was our Otis for promotion. It was the same type of energy charisma.”
Meanwhile, of course, Redding was constantly releasing singles. Two more singles were released from Otis Blue — his versions of “My Girl” and “Satisfaction”, and he also released “I Can’t Turn You Loose”, which was originally the B-side to “Just One More Day” but ended up charting higher than its original A-side.
It’s around this time that Redding did something which seems completely out of character, but which really must be mentioned given that with very few exceptions everyone in his life talks about him as some kind of saint. One of Redding’s friends was beaten up, and Redding, the friend, and another friend drove to the assailant’s house and started shooting through the windows, starting a gun battle in which Redding got grazed. His friend got convicted of attempted murder, and got two years’ probation, while Redding himself didn’t face any criminal charges but did get sued by the victims, and settled out of court for a few hundred dollars.
By this point Redding was becoming hugely rich from his concert appearances and album sales, but he still hadn’t had a top twenty pop hit. He needed to break the white market. And so in April 1966, Redding went to LA, to play the Sunset Strip:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Respect (live at the Whisky A-Go-Go)”]
Redding’s performance at the Whisky A-Go-Go, a venue which otherwise hosted bands like the Doors, the Byrds, the Mothers of Invention, and Love, was his first real interaction with the white rock scene, part of a process that had started with his recording of “Satisfaction”. The three-day residency got rave reviews, though the plans to release a live album of the shows were scuppered when Jim Stewart listened back to the tapes and decided that Redding’s horn players were often out of tune.
But almost everyone on the LA scene came out to see the shows, and Redding blew them away. According to one biography of Redding I used, it was seeing how Redding tuned his guitar that inspired the guitarist from the support band, the Rising Sons, to start playing in the same tuning — though I can’t believe for a moment that Ry Cooder, one of the greatest slide guitarists of his generation, didn’t already know about open tunings. But Redding definitely impressed that band — Taj Mahal, their lead singer, later said it was “one of the most amazing performances I’d ever seen”.
Also at the gigs was Bob Dylan, who played Redding a song he’d just recorded but not yet released:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Just Like a Woman”]
Redding agreed that the song sounded perfect for him, and said he would record it. He apparently made some attempts at rehearsing it at least, but never ended up recording it. He thought the first verse and chorus were great, but had problems with the second verse:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Just Like a Woman”]
Those lyrics were just too abstract for him to find a way to connect with them emotionally, and as a result he found himself completely unable to sing them. But like his recording of “Satisfaction”, this was another clue to him that he should start paying more attention to what was going on in the white music industry, and that there might be things he could incorporate into his own style.
As a result of the LA gigs, Bill Graham booked Redding for the Fillmore in San Francisco. Redding was at first cautious, thinking this might be a step too far, and that he wouldn’t go down well with the hippie crowd, but Graham persuaded him, saying that whenever he asked any of the people who the San Francisco crowds most loved — Jerry Garcia or Paul Butterfield or Mike Bloomfield — who *they* most wanted to see play there, they all said Otis Redding.
Redding reluctantly agreed, but before he took a trip to San Francisco, there was somewhere even further out for him to go.
Redding was about to head to England but before he did there was another album to make, and this one would see even more of a push for the white market, though still trying to keep everything soulful. As well as Redding originals, including “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”, another song in the mould of “Mr. Pitiful”, there was another cover of a contemporary hit by a guitar band — this time a version of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” — and two covers of old standards; the country song “Tennessee Waltz”, which had recently been covered by Sam Cooke, and a song made famous by Bing Crosby, “Try a Little Tenderness”. That song almost certainly came to mind because it had recently been used in the film Dr. Strangelove, but it had also been covered relatively recently by two soul greats, Aretha Franklin:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Try a Little Tenderness”]
And Sam Cooke:
[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, “Live Medley: I Love You For Sentimental Reasons/Try a Little Tenderness/You Send Me”]
This version had horn parts arranged by Isaac Hayes, who by this point had been elevated to be considered one of the “Big Six” at Stax records — Hayes, his songwriting partner David Porter, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T. Jones, and Al Jackson, were all given special status at the company, and treated as co-producers on every record — all the records were now credited as produced by “staff”, but it was the Big Six who split the royalties.
Hayes came up with a horn part that was inspired by Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”, and which dominated the early part of the track:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness”]
Then the band came in, slowly at first:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness”]
But Al Jackson surprised them when they ran through the track by deciding that after the main song had been played, he’d kick the track into double-time, and give Redding a chance to stretch out and do his trademark grunts and “got-ta”s. The single version faded out shortly after that, but the version on the album kept going for an extra thirty seconds:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness”]
As Booker T. Jones said “Al came up with the idea of breaking up the rhythm, and Otis just took that and ran with it. He really got excited once he found out what Al was going to do on the drums. He realized how he could finish the song. That he could start it like a ballad and finish it full of emotion. That’s how a lot of our arrangements would come together. Somebody would come up with something totally outrageous.”
And it would have lasted longer but Jim Stewart pushed the faders down, realising the track was an uncommercial length even as it was. Live, the track could often stretch out to seven minutes or longer, as Redding drove the crowd into a frenzy, and it soon became one of the highlights of his live set, and a signature song for him:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness (live in London)”]
In September 1966, Redding went on his first tour outside the US. His records had all done much better in the UK than they had in America, and they were huge favourites of everyone on the Mod scene, and when he arrived in the UK he had a limo sent by Brian Epstein to meet him at the airport.
The tour was an odd one, with multiple London shows, shows in a couple of big cities like Manchester and Bristol, and shows in smallish towns in Hampshire and Lincolnshire. Apparently the shows outside London weren’t particularly well attended, but the London shows were all packed to overflowing. Redding also got his own episode of Ready! Steady! Go!, on which he performed solo as well as with guest stars Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, Chris Farlowe and Eric Burdon, “Shake/Land of a Thousand Dances”]
After the UK tour, he went on a short tour of the Eastern US with Sam and Dave as his support act, and then headed west to the Fillmore for his three day residency there, introducing him to the San Francisco music scene. His first night at the venue was supported by the Grateful Dead, the second by Johnny Talbot and De Thangs and the third by Country Joe and the Fish, but there was no question that it was Otis Redding that everyone was coming to see. Janis Joplin turned up at the Fillmore every day at 3PM, to make sure she could be right at the front for Redding’s shows that night, and Bill Graham said, decades later, “By far, Otis Redding was the single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen. There was no comparison. Then or now.”
However, after the Fillmore gigs, for the first time ever he started missing shows. The Sentinel, a Black newspaper in LA, reported a few days later “Otis Redding, the rock singer, failed to make many friends here the other day when he was slated to appear on the Christmas Eve show[…] Failed to draw well, and Redding reportedly would not go on.”
The Sentinel seem to think that Redding was just being a diva, but it’s likely that this was the first sign of a problem that would change everything about his career — he was developing vocal polyps that were making singing painful.
It’s notable though that the Sentinel refers to Redding as a “rock” singer, and shows again how different genres appeared in the mid-sixties to how they appear today. In that light, it’s interesting to look at a quote from Redding from a few months later — “Everybody thinks that all songs by colored people are rhythm and blues, but that’s not true. Johnny Taylor, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King are blues singers. James Brown is not a blues singer. He has a rock and roll beat and he can sing slow pop songs. My own songs “Respect” and “Mr Pitiful” aren’t blues songs. I’m speaking in terms of the beat and structure of the music. A blues is a song that goes twelve bars all the way through. Most of my songs are soul songs.”
So in Redding’s eyes, neither he nor James Brown were R&B — he was soul, which was a different thing from R&B, while Brown was rock and roll and pop, not soul, but journalists thought that Redding was rock.
But while the lines between these things were far less distinct than they are today, and Redding was trying to cross over to the white audience, he knew what genre he was in, and celebrated that in a song he wrote with his friend Arthur Conley:
[Excerpt: Arthur Conley, “Sweet Soul Music”]
Or at least the label credits on that single, which Redding produced for Conley, who he got signed to Atco after Jotis Records closed down, say it was written by Redding and Conley. Some might say that it bears a slight resemblance to Sam Cooke’s song, “Yeah”:
[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, “Yeah”]
Certainly J.W. Alexander, Cooke’s old friend and music publisher, thought so. Luckily for Redding and Conley, Alexander was a good sport about it, and agreed to a deal in which Redding would give Alexander the publishing, and would keep on cutting covers of Sam Cooke songs on his albums — hardly a hardship for Redding, who had been doing so regularly anyway.
Indeed he did so on his next album, an album of duets with Carla Thomas:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, “Bring it On Home to Me”]
That album had been suggested by Jim Stewart, who wanted to replicate the success of “It Takes Two” by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston. which had just become a big hit two years after it was recorded:
[Excerpt: Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston, “It Takes Two”]
This was something Stax did a lot — Al Bell talked about how he’d got friends working for Motown who would tell him what Motown’s new releases were going to be, and Bell would try to co-ordinate Stax releases so they’d have something similar come out at the same time, reasoning that people who were in the shop for the Motown record would be more likely to buy a similar Stax release.
Redding had plans for several more albums, including one intriguing project he talked about where he’d cut his greatest hits, but with the styles swapped around, so “I Can’t Turn You Loose” would be reworked as a slow-burn ballad, while “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” would become an uptempo stomper.
But first, there was another tour to do. A Stax tour of Europe.
When Redding had toured the UK, it had been a revelation for him, and he came back telling tales of a place where the lemonade was syruppy and full of bubbles, and where they loved his music. Quickly another tour was set up, and this time, while some shows were billed as the Otis Redding Show, in fact it was a much bigger event than just Otis. Phil Walden, Jerry Wexler, and the people at Polydor, Atlantic’s UK distributor, put together a list of Walden’s acts to tour as a package deal, to promote Stax as a brand in Europe the way that Motown had already been promoted. The list was all those acts that Polydor thought most likely to go down well — which caused some ruffled feathers among those like Rufus Thomas who didn’t get invited. The final lineup was Redding, Carla Thomas (though she had to go back to the USA early and miss much of the tour), Sam and Dave, and Eddie Floyd — plus Booker T and the MGs and the Stax horn section (billed as the Mar-Keys) backing everyone, and the non-Stax act Arthur Conley, included because he’d just had a big hit and was a friend of Redding’s and managed by Walden.
The tour started with an invite-only show at the Bag O’Nails club in London, and while Carla Thomas regretted having to go home after only a few shows, she would always remember seeing Paul McCartney watch her as she performed his song “Yesterday”:
[Excerpt: Carla Thomas, “Yesterday (Live in London)”]
While most of the singers had toured widely, the musicians were studio musicians first and foremost, and the horn players, unlike the MGs, weren’t even salaried studio players — they actually worried if they could go at all, because they had to ask for time off at a regular gig they played, and were told “you can go, but don’t come back”, and lost $15 a week each.
There was also the problem that, as Wayne Jackson put it, “Everybody assumed that Booker T. and the MG’s had played on the records, the Mar-Keys had played on the records, and we knew the stuff—wrong! You use slate memory when you’re doing records. You remember something for three minutes over and over and when you start the next song, you erase that. We didn’t play those numbers all the time. We had to try to learn a bunch of them, we had to hustle real hard. We had to rehearse the day we got there with no sleep and hung over, of course. It was like a ship constantly on the verge of going out of control.”
They also, amusingly, tried to rehearse a version of “Winchester Cathedral” for the UK audience, but gave up when Redding kept singing “Westchester”, and never ended up performing it.
The tour went beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, and everyone remembers it as a contest between Redding and Sam and Dave as to who could put on the most dynamic show, with most giving the slightest edge to Sam and Dave:
[Excerpt: Sam and Dave, “Hold On, I’m Comin’ (Live in London)”]
But the tour did something else, too. It showed the musicians they were important. As Steve Cropper later said “It was totally a mind-blower. Hell, we were just in Memphis cutting records; we didn’t know. Then we got over there, there were hordes of people waiting at the airport, autograph hounds and all that sort of stuff. … That was something that happened to Elvis or Ricky Nelson, but it didn’t happen to the Stax-Volt band.”
Wayne Jackson said “We didn’t know we were stars. We thought we were kids working at the club to make enough money to pay the rent and making records just getting by. We found out there was a big world out there and that we were a big part of that world. We weren’t just playing horns in a nightclub and putting horn parts on other people’s records for a fee. We had had an impact.”
This led to immediate changes. Cropper and Al Bell, who was along as the MC, had a massive row on the tour over what Bell saw as Cropper’s ego and Crooper saw as someone who’d been with the company five minutes trying to take over, and both nearly quit. At the end of the tour, Bell got promoted to executive vice president, but where before the production credits had been to “staff”, now they would go solely to the musician who did most to produce the record — which a lot of the time would be Cropper. And there was more to do on the production side, because by now Tom Dowd had managed to persuade them to upgrade to an actual four-track machine.
Meanwhile, the Mar-Keys horn section had realised that *they* should be getting a salary just like the MGs — they were stars too, after all. One of them, Joe Arnold, quit working for Stax, so the others were quickly put on a salary.
As a result of the tour, Redding got voted the top international male vocalist in the Melody Maker poll in September that year, knocking Elvis off the top spot for the first time in a decade. With typical humility, Redding said that Wilson Pickett should have won.
After Europe, the next thing was Monterey. Redding had broken his own band up, as he was planning on getting off the road soon — he needed to deal with his vocal polyps, which were getting worse — so for Monterey, he was once again backed by Booker T and the MGs, and the Mar-Keys. He followed Jefferson Airplane, and Jerry Wexler, having seen their performance with a psychedelic light show, was convinced that Redding, in his natty green chitlin’ circuit style suit, would go down like a lead balloon.
On the other hand, Janis Joplin was busily going round telling everyone she could that they needed to watch Redding, because “Otis Redding is God”.
The crowds agreed with Janis:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Shake! Live at Monterey”]
After that, he did a short tour of California. On that tour he was backed by a new band, the Bar-Kays, named in imitation of the Mar-Keys, who had been signed to Stax recently and had had a hit with “Soul Finger”:
[Excerpt: The Bar-Kays, “Soul Finger”]
The Bar-Kays were all teenagers, and were being groomed as the next Booker T and the MGs or Mar-Keys, studio players who could have their own hits. Redding got on well with them, and decided that when he resumed touring in December, he’d have them as his full-time backing band.
But for now, as he finished up the short tour of California in San Francisco, he was looking forward to getting off the road. He had an operation booked to deal with his polyps, and was nervous about what that might do to his voice, but he also wanted to relax. While he was in San Francisco, he had to leave the hotel he was staying in, because he was getting mobbed by fans, and he ended up staying on a houseboat owned by Bill Graham. While he was there, he and his road manager Speedo Sims would sit and watch the boats in the dock, and Redding started working on a song about it.
It wasn’t like anything else he’d ever worked on. For the last few months he’d been absorbing the new psychedelic rock — he would spend the summer listening obsessively to Sgt Pepper and Revolver, and of course he’d just been at the centre of the new movement and seen the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and the rest.
He’d also been impressed by Bob Dylan, even though he did find some of Dylan’s lyrics a little abstract, and Al Bell had suggested he should do an album of folk songs. Maybe he would… this song sounded a bit folky.
But it was different. Speedo Sims said “I couldn’t quite follow it. We must have been out there three or four days before… I could get any concept of where he was going with the song… He was changing with the times is what was happening.”
Similarly, when he got home and played what he had to his wife, she didn’t like it, and said “Oh God, you’re changing”, to which his response was “Yeah, I think it’s time for me to change my music. People might be tired of me.”
That wasn’t the only reason he had to change. After his polyp surgery, he wasn’t allowed even to talk for two months, but he kept writing new material, and by the time he could get back into the studio again in late November, he was bursting with songs. He spent three weeks recording, in a creative explosion, songs like “Happy Song (Dum Dum)”, a self-mocking reworking of his old “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Happy Song (Dum Dum)”]
But he had to sing differently — he had to develop a whole new style of singing. He couldn’t rely any more on yelling and grunting and “Got-ta got-ta got-ta”, as effective as those were. His vocal cords were simply too delicate. He had to sing gently. But his new style worked.
Redding had about thirty new songs he wanted to record in those three weeks, and not only that, he wanted to redo some of his old stuff. According to Cropper “There was only one reason and that was because he had his throat operated on. He was singing better than he ever had in his life, it was just obvious. So we went back and listened to the things that had been cut on four-track. Things that he didn’t sound all that good on, we recut them; things that probably would never have come out. Some of them were over a year old.”
Many of these tracks weren’t initially recorded by the full band. Redding was doing so much recording, and cutting so many tracks, that a lot of the time it would come down to a group they called the Midnight Recorders — Redding on acoustic rhythm guitar, Cropper on lead, and Ronnie Capone on drums. Capone wasn’t even a drummer, he was a trainee engineer at Stax, but he was willing to stay up all night drinking whisky with Cropper and Redding and playing a basic beat while they recorded, and Carl Cunningham of the Bar-Kays would later overdub drum fills, a possibility now they had actual multitracking.
What happened next has been so mythologised that every single aspect of the rest of this story comes in about four different versions, happening in a different order and with different events depending on who you ask. This version of the story seems to be the one that fits the facts best, but everything in it might be wrong in its details.
Redding was on his way to the airport to start a tour, and for the first time he was going to be travelling by private plane, something he’d been bragging about for a while. He’d actually bought his own plane — not yet a Lear jet like James Brown, but a small eight-seater plane — and he’d been taking flying lessons, though he had hired a pilot for the tour. He got to the airport, remembered he had one more song to cut, and phoned Steve Cropper from the airport, saying “I’ve got a smash!”
He turned round, got back to the studio, and played Cropper the one verse he had:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay (take one)”]
Cropper argued with him about the lyrics, saying that boats don’t roll, and if they did they’d sink. But Redding insisted that those were the lyrics he wanted. Cropper said OK, and then worked with him on a second verse, which as Cropper so often did involved elements of Redding’s actual life, going from Georgia to the San Francisco Bay.
Cropper also came up with the middle eight, and here he took inspiration from an unusual source, one of the other acts who’d performed at Monterey. The Association are often derided now, as they were a bit too soft-pop for modern tastes, but Cropper was impressed by how many ideas their records had, and in particular their recent hit “Windy”, written by Ruthann Friedman. He didn’t steal anything directly from the record, but there’s a definite resemblance between the bridges of “Windy”:
[Excerpt: The Association, “Windy”]
and “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”]
It was recorded, with the full complement of MGs and Mar-Keys there, and at the end of the track, Cropper did what he usually did, and left a long instrumental section for Redding to vamp on. But this time, instead of his got-ta-got-ta vamping, he did something very different and whistled:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”]
Cropper got to work overdubbing the track. He added lead guitar, some of his most tasteful playing, and was pleased with the results, though opinion was split in Stax. Al Bell wasn’t sure if the track was commercial, and Duck Dunn was hesitant, saying “It had no R&B whatsoever” and “It didn’t impress me. I thought it might even be detrimental.” Steve Cropper, on the other hand, was sure it was a smash, and Booker T called it “a mother”.
Redding was convinced it was going to be his first million-seller, though he thought the tape was still missing something when he went off on tour. It was only after he left that Cropper had the perfect idea. He remembered that on the early takes, Redding had joked around making seagull noises at the beginning of the song — and it’s interesting to think given how much he was listening to the Beatles that Redding might have had the sound effects on “Tomorrow Never Knows” in mind when he did that. Cropper went to a nearby ad agency and borrowed a couple of tapes from their sound effects library, waves and seagulls, and overdubbed them on to parts of the track:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”]
But as Cropper said later, “Otis never heard the waves, he never heard the seagulls, and he never heard the guitar fills that I did”. Indeed, some versions of the story have Cropper not even adding them while Redding was still alive.
Because three days after recording the track, on the tenth of December, 1967, precisely three years after the death of his idol, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding got on a plane from Cleveland, Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin. Just like Buddy Holly, though for very different reasons, he was making a late-night flight in an upper-Midwestern winter, and just like with Holly there were two more people travelling than there was room for on the plane. For every tour stop, two members of the touring party would have to fly commercial rather than go on Redding’s plane, and this time it was James Alexander, the bass player with the Bar-Kays, and Carl Simms, the backing vocalist.
The other five members of the Bar-Kays, plus Redding, the pilot, and Redding’s valet, were all on the plane when, just after radioing asking for permission to land in Madison, it crashed into Lake Monona, four miles from its destination.
The only survivor of the crash was the trumpet player, Ben Cauley. Cauley had fallen asleep on the plane, clutching his seat cushion, which would work as a floatation device, and with his seatbelt unbuckled. He only woke up when he heard Phalon Jones, the sax player for the group, say “Oh no” — the last words the nineteen-year-old would ever say. Cauley’s story varied over the years, understandably given how traumatic the event was, but it seems that he was flung away from the crash, still clutching his seat cushion, and was saved because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The cushion kept him afloat even though he couldn’t swim. Everyone else in the plane was trapped in the ice-cold water, and died. Otis Redding was twenty-six. The four members of the Bar-Kays who died were eighteen and nineteen.
“(Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay” became the obvious song to release after Redding’s death. Jerry Wexler wanted Steve Cropper to remix it, thinking the vocals weren’t loud enough, but Cropper couldn’t face touching the track again so soon after his friend’s death. The track nearly didn’t come out, but then Cropper remembered that what he’d sent Wexler was the stereo tape, with Redding’s voice just in one channel. If he sent him the mono mix, Redding’s voice would sound louder. He did, Wexler was happy, and the record came out, and became the first posthumous number one record ever in America:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”]
The second would come sooner than anyone hoped, and would be by Janis Joplin, the woman who had been such a fan of Redding.
“(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” marked the end of the first phase of Stax in many ways. Not only had Otis Redding been the face and voice of Stax, and the one person everyone looked up to, but just after it was released, it was announced that Atlantic had been sold to Warner Brothers.
Stax’s agreement with Atlantic said that if Atlantic was ever sold, they had the ability to walk away from Atlantic, and they chose to do so. And it was only then that Jim Stewart found out that the contract he’d signed, which he thought formalised their handshake agreement, actually said “You hereby sell, assign and transfer to us, our successors or assigns, absolutely and forever and without any limitations or restrictions whatever, not specifically set forth herein, the entire right, title and interest in and to each of such masters and to each of the performances embodied thereon.”
He’d sold all the rights to every record Stax had made up to that moment for a dollar. Otis Redding was dead, Sam and Dave were signed to Atlantic, not to Stax, and it turned out that for nearly three years they’d all been living a lie. They’d thought they were working for themselves, for a company which gave its musicians shares of the profits, for one big family. Now the favourite son of the family had died young, and it turned out they’d sold the family silver for a dollar to a massive corporation. While Jerry Wexler always claimed that he’d known nothing of that clause, and it was inserted by lawyers, according to Al Bell, Wexler did it deliberately, and had wanted to take over Stax, but now that Otis Redding was dead he just wanted to leave them to rot.
Otis Redding Sr, the father who Otis had loved and respected so much, never recovered from his son’s death. He lived to see “Dock of the Bay” at the top of the charts, but soon after it left the top spot, he died himself of a heart attack.
There’s one final coda, in the words of Steve Cropper, “Years later, I was in Sausalito on tour and found myself at a place by the bay having a hamburger. I was watching the water when my eye caught something. The ferries crossing from San Francisco turned a little as they came in, to slow themselves down. The move created a rolling wave to cushion their arrival at the pier. That’s when it hit me. Otis had been watching the ferries roll in”
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” whistling fade into tag]