Imagine you’re as free as you possibly could be – feeling as much rapturous emotion as you could ever feel – while simultaneously making others feel that way too… September 9th marked what would’ve been Otis Redding’s 74th birthday. He was a man who could make people feel those things just by stepping into a room. The entity of soul music is Otis. No one else can quite embody soul the way he did. His presence on a stage is even thrilling to see now, captured and played back on TV or a computer screen. His emotional delivery makes every last one of your bones tremble with delight from his achy ballads, and his voice is an absolute pleasure for ears with a sound one can ever forget.
Born in Dawson, Georgia and raised in Macon, Redding – also known as “The Big O” – grew up listening to the works of Little Richard and Sam Cooke. He was the son of a minister and thus ended up singing in the choir at his father’s church. At age fifteen, Redding dropped out of school to take care of his family’s financial needs. His father had fallen ill with tuberculosis. He first worked as a well digger and then an attendant at a gas station. Soon, he started working for The Upsetters (Little Richard’s band) which kick-started his realization that music was what he loved.
Mr. Redding’s first recorded song was “These Arms of Mine” in 1962. He was one of the first soul artists with a large Caucasian audience, which was pretty groundbreaking at the time. His big hit “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay” was the first ever #1 hit single released posthumously in the United States. It was recorded just three days before Redding tragically died on December 10th, 1967 in Madison, WI. He died in a plane crash that killed him and all but one of his
Redding had a memorable career. He changed the way people look at music and how deeply it can affect them. Although his music wasn’t overtly about racial discrimination, he firmly believed that changes were going to come at a time when changes were desperately needed. But to connect to all audiences, he knew he had to sing about something more relatable; something that individuals could interpret however they wished: love and relationships. Redding sang soul music the way a seed sprouts into a tree – naturally, and that is why he captured the attention of a large audience.
Redding got his big break at Stax Records, a recording studio that was friendly to those who were black and those who were white. It was the one place where everyone was considered a person and was treated like one. There, people could create music together in the otherwise bitterly divided south. Stax knew that they had hit a gold mine when Redding casually strolled in and politely asked to sing a song. He blew them away.
Jim Stewart (founder of Stax Records) immediately wanted Redding to record. No one could get enough of him. Redding was spreading through Memphis like an illness – impossible to contain – and although he was at first just playing in the small clubs and bars of Memphis, to him it was the real deal. Something was different about Redding and his performances. His audience was more than just one ethnic group. He was well loved, and without even really knowing it he was slowly bringing together two worlds that were once so fiercely isolated from each other. He was bringing people together like opposite ends of a magnet.
The genre of southern soul came about in the 1960s, and I believe Otis Redding was a mainly responsible for its creation. Of course, Blues, Rock and Roll, and Gospel genres all existed long before Redding, but soul was still a fresh concept when he began his career. Redding changed allowed the genre to flourish by letting his soul escape him and wander amongst the ears of eager listeners waiting to hear his emotions, feel his words, and understand that love can equally mend all wounds and tear you apart.
I absolutely love Otis Redding. As soon as I came across his voice I knew I had found someone sincerely beautiful, and it’s not often that something really feels that way anymore. We live in a world where new artists are singing new songs on the radio each day. They are without passion or purpose, just hoping to make a buck. When reading through articles and interviews with those who knew Redding, one can see a trend in how people viewed him; a gentle and happy man, who gave it his all every time he stepped out onto a stage. He truly was the King of Soul. You don’t call someone The King of anything if they haven’t practically created that something. Without Otis Redding would there be soul? Maybe. But it would have never been as satisfying or alluring.
Art is the quality, production, expression, or realm according to aesthetic principles of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. That is Otis.