Otis Redding would have celebrated his 70th birthday today, so we're delighted that the opening of the Rock Hall’s Otis Redding exhibit coincides with and commemorates his birth and remarkable life. The spotlight exhibit allows Redding's life and legacy to shine through with a collection of treasured personal effects and career mementos.
Otis Redding’s life and music embodied the essence of soul. He was a self-professed country boy from Macon, Georgia, and he had it all: a big, gravelly voice, an immense gift for songwriting and a generous, hardworking disposition. There was earthiness and candor in his every performance, be it slow, soulful ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Try a Little Tenderness” or fast-paced numbers like “Respect” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Producer Jerry Wexler said of Redding’s performances, “You could feel this plea coming from him.” Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. and the MG’s recalled: “Otis would come in, and boy, he’d just bring everybody up. ‘Cause you knew something was gonna be different. When Otis was there, it was just revitalization of the whole thing. You wanted to play with Otis. He brought out the best in you. If there was a best, he brought it out.”
After building a following on the concert circuit and cutting a string of brilliant records – “These Arms of Mine” (1963, #20) “Pain In My Heart” (1963, #11) “Mr. Pitiful” (1965, #10), a reworking of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (1966, #4) – for the Memphis-based Volt label (a Stax subsidiary), Redding stole the show at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones was in the audience at Monterey and was reduced to tears by Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Wayne Jackson of the Mar-Keys, Redding’s backing band, noted: “When Otis came on, it was over. Over. End of story for anyone who had played up to that point. The crowd just went absolutely bananas. They were mobbing the stage just wanting to touch Otis.” [Pictured, left: 1965 Otis Redding promotional poster. Otis Redding’s recording of his composition “Respect” hit #35 in October 1965. Two years later, Aretha Franklin recorded the song, and it became her trademark.]
Redding needed an operation to treat throat polyps in October 1967, and he stopped performing for two months to recuperate. By December, he had a backlog of material and was eager to get into the recording studio and back on the road. He recorded the unforgettable “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” on December 6 at the end of a long session in the studio. MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper recalls that Redding had worked up a vocal fade out to the song, but forgot it at the end of the grueling session. He started whistling the line instead, giving the mournful song a final note of optimism. On December 9, he traveled to Cleveland to kick off his tour, appearing on the syndicated television show Upbeat in the afternoon and then two shows at legendary Leo’s Casino in the evening. The next morning, Redding headed to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and flew off into history. Happy birthday, Otis. We will always remember your shining light.
WATCH: Otis Redding performs "Try a Little Tenderness" at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival