Although his career was relatively brief, cut short by a tragic plane crash, Otis Redding was a singer of such commanding stature that to this day he embodies the essence of soul music in its purist form.
His name is synonymous with the term soul, music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying. Redding left behind a legacy of recordings made during the four-year period from his first sessions for Stax/Volt Records in 1963 until his death in 1967. Ironically, although he consistently impacted the R&B charts beginning with "Pain In My Heart" in 1964, none of his singles fared better than #21 on the pop Top Forty until the posthumous release of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
That landmark song, recorded just four days before Redding’s death, went to #1 and stayed there for four weeks in early 1968. It marked a new direction for the singer toward a soul-folk-pop synthesis that drew from such influences as Bob Dylan and the new breed of performers at the Monterey International Pop Festival, at which Redding had performed.
Redding’s relatively unspectacular showing on the pop charts at a time when he was laying down some of the most titanic soul ever recorded - classics like “Respect” (a song he wrote, later covered by Aretha Franklin), “Try a Little Tenderness” and his terse, funky deconstruction of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” - may mean that he was too intensely soulful for the mainstream market at that time. He was, in many ways, larger than life. Redding, a proudly self-professed country boy from Macon, Georgia, had it all: a big, gravely voice, an enormous natural talent for songwriting and arranging, and a hard-working nature and generous disposition. As a singer, he styled himself after Little Richard (a fellow Macon native) and Sam Cooke in the early days, but he gradually acquired his own voice, imparting gruff, syncopated inflections to ballad and uptempo material.
Redding was discovered while singing with Macon guitarist Johnny Jenkins’ band, the Pinetoppers, and first recorded as a member of that group for the tiny Confederate label in 1960. When Jenkins was booked to cut some sides at Stax Records in Memphis in October 1962, Redding was given an opportunity at the end of a session, and he recorded “These Arms of Mine,” a stately, self-penned ballad. Redding thereupon embarked upon a fruitful recording career as a staple of the Stax roster, collaborating with Booker T. and the M.G.s (house band at the Stax studio), especially guitarist Steve Cropper. Redding himself was a guitarist, and he integrally involved himself with the arrangements of his songs, whistling parts he envisaged to the horn section. His recording sessions were galvanic, impassioned and intense - the very apotheosis of soul. Donald “Duck” Dunn, bassist with the M.G.s, recalls: “Otis would come in, and he’d just bring everybody up. You wanted to play with Otis. He brought out the best in you.”
There was earthiness and candor in his every performance, be it slow, soulful ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” or fast-paced numbers such as “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Such albums as Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul - which was recorded in a single 24-hour period in 1965 - is a virtual soul-music primer. In concert, Redding routinely incited pandemonium through the thunderous intensity of his performances, which included vocal ad-libs and false endings - devices that were evident in his memorable rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” at the Monterey International Pop Festival on June 17, 1967. Redding stole the show at Monterey, as a wide-eyed new audience - the youthful counterculture - enthusiastically opened up to him. Given that launching pad and his songwriting breakthrough with “Sittin’ On (The Dock of the Bay),” Redding was poised for superstardom at the time his twin-engine Beechcraft crashed into Wisconsin’s Lake Monona on December 10, 1967, killing him and four members of his touring band, the Bar-Kays.