Death of the King of Soul
Twenty-seven years after his death, Otis Redding's influence is still strong
Otis Redding may have begun as a Little Richard imitator, but he wound up the undisputed King of Soul. With such up-tempo tunes as ?Respect? (which he also wrote) and ballads like ?Try a Little Tenderness,? Redding was instrumental in opening up the world of Southern rhythm & blues to a broad (white) audience: After his smash performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, rock critic Jon Landau came to the conclusion that, ?Otis Redding is rock & roll.? Six months later, on December 10, 1967, Redding died in a plane crash at age 26 — a month before his biggest hit, ?(Sittin? on) The Dock of the Bay,? was released.
Redding grew up in a Macon, Ga., housing project. Singing gospel in church and drumming in the school band, he vowed to use music as his way out of poverty. That way opened up when, at a 1962 recording session in Memphis for his friend Johnny Jenkins, Redding was given the opportunity to record ?These Arms of Mine.? It became a smash; and soon his vulnerable, quavering voice on such ballads as ?Mr. Pitiful? and ?Pain in My Heart? made him a major star with black audiences. In 1965, he scored three top 10 R&B hits, including ?Respect.?
Beloved and revered by his colleagues, Redding was also a devoted family man (he and his wife, Zelma, had three children: Karla, Dexter, and Otis III). Though he often sang about heartache, Redding?s manager, Phil Walden, who today runs Capricorn Records, says, ?Otis hurt like we all do, of course, but he took out his frustrations in his songs. Songwriting was great therapy for him.?
On Pearl Harbor Day, 1967, Redding recorded ?(Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay? in Memphis. Three days later, en route to a show in Madison, Wis., the twin-engine plane carrying him and his touring band, the Bar-Kays, crashed into Wisconsin?s Lake Monona. Trumpeter Ben Cauley was the only survivor. A month later, ?Dock of the Bay? became Redding?s first No. 1 single.
But it wasn?t his last hit. The Black Crowes reached No. 26 with Redding?s ?Hard to Handle? in 1991. And Rhino?s 1993 four-CD boxed set, Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding, has sold over 50,000 copies. Now a long-planned film about him is again in the works. After hearing the story, Walden recalls, ?one studio executive said, ?The problem is, it?s just too good to be true. Nobody was that nice. Nobody had that much talent.? He didn?t know Otis Redding.?