Runnin’ Otis Blue

Otis Redding defined authenticity.

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I have been inspired by the music of Otis Redding for a long time. I consider him one of my primary influences as a singer, alongside Ray Charles and Jim Morrison. I have also lived in Madison, the city where Redding met his tragic end, for most of my life. Yet until about a year ago, I hadn’t heard of the Monona Terrace memorial that bears his name. Once I learned of its existence, I naturally had to go see it for myself, to pay my respects and to grasp this thin connection I had to one of the greatest singers that ever lived. So I took the bus down to the Capitol one afternoon, wandered around aimlessly until I found the Terrace, and searched for quite a while around the area, not exactly sure what the memorial looked like or where it would be. I was about to give up my manhood and actually ask someone where it was when finally I found it, on a stone tucked away on the left side of the rooftop, overlooking the waters where the plane crashed and Redding took his last breath.

Redding’s legacy goes well beyond the words on this tablet. More than anything, Redding was an example of authenticity in a genre that struggled at times with the concept. He was the star of Stax Records, a label of gritty southern soul that stood in stark contrast to the polished R&B of Motown. He wrote many of his own songs, which was almost unheard of for soul singers. And his singing style was as authentic as they come, with a plaintive, nervous timbre that both shouted and whimpered to words that were frequently improvised and sometimes made up entirely (we may never know what a “yessiram” is). It wasn’t always pretty, but it was never phoned in or gussied up. Redding was shy and inexperienced, the opposite of a showman, which gave his performances a sense of both innocence and legitimacy. The man tried because he couldn’t afford not to.
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When he wrote “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” Redding predicted it would be his first #1 hit, despite his bandmates’ disapproval of the song. Redding was right: the song went to the top of the US charts after his death, becoming the first posthumous single to do so. The song’s lyrics are also chillingly prophetic, describing a dismayed concession to fate at the water’s edge. Three days after Redding finished recording it, he was gone, disappearing into the waters of Lake Monona. He was 26 years old.

Here are five of Redding’s most enduring hits:

“These Arms of Mine”

Redding surprised the head of Stax Records with this original ballad during a recording session for Redding’s friend Johnny Jenkins. The song got Redding signed to the Stax label.

“Respect”

It might come as a surprise to some that Redding wrote this song as a man’s plea for recognition two years before Aretha Franklin flipped the perspective and turned it into a feminist anthem.

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Redding took this traditional pop standard and gave it the “Stairway to Heaven” treatment, with a slow beginning that picks up speed until it hits a frenzied climax.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

Redding was inspired by the Beatles when he wrote his signature song, as evidenced by its unusual melody and maritime sound effects. Recorded three days before his death, it provides a glimpse into the direction that Redding might have gone had he lived.

“Hard to Handle”

This Redding original is probably best known for the Black Crowes’ cover, which is a shame, as Redding’s version is a fiery funk-soul classic. The intro also lent itself to one of the best samples of all time in Marley Marl’s “The Symphony.”

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Remember, no matter what genre you’re into, WUD Music has you covered. Like us on Facebook and/or follow us on Twitter (@WUDmusic) to stay up to date on all the artists and bands playing the Rathskeller, the Terrace, or the Sett each week.

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4 thoughts on “Runnin’ Otis Blue

  1. I love Otis Redding, so it was nice to read this article. However, be careful with your language. “I was about to give up my manhood,” is there something womanly about not finding out the answer for yourself? Also, he couldn’t have given “Try a Little Tenderness” the “Stairway to Heaven” treatment. That song didn’t come out yet.

    • The “Stairway to Heaven” treatment basically refers to any song with that build-to-climax structure. I use it only because less people would get the reference to, for example, the “Bolero” structure. Otis probably wasn’t inspired by a premonition of a 70’s rock anthem, but who knows?

      As for manhood, it’s a lame stereotype–and one that fits me completely . I almost never ask for directions, which has gotten me lost many times, including in Barcelona, but that’s a story for another day. The journey is half the fun, after all.

      • Holy cow of Moscow, WordPress is a glitchfest. It took me half a dozen tries and three computers to post this reply, and now I can’t approve the comment I was replying to. Sorry!

  2. Pingback: Otis Redding-My Girl***messymandella*** | messymandella

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