It is just over 50 years since Otis Redding’s private jet broke apart as it hit the surfaces of Lake Monona, Wisconsin, in December 1967. If the stuttering plane had continued for another mile it would have crash-landed into Madison’s heavily populated east side. A major air disaster had been averted but that was cold comfort to Redding’s wife, his young family, and the tightly knit gang of musicians at Stax Records in Memphis, whose heart had been ripped apart by the crash.
Police divers and local volunteers quickly gathered at the scene, and, defying the freezing cold, they plunged into the water looking for survivors. Already lost were four members of Redding’s backing band The Bar-Kays, mostly teenagers from the south side of Memphis. Only the trumpeter Ben Cauley miraculously survived. A razor-thin film of ice had formed on the bitter-cold water of the lake, and after a full day the rescue crew called the search off. A crane was hired from a local contractor, and police began the painstaking job of retrieving the debris. Fearful that the plane would break apart, they slowly winched the wreckage up from the lake. The dead body of Otis Redding, one of the greatest soul singers in the world, was finally dragged up from the water. A police photographer captured his face, inelegantly trapped between the winch and the police barge, his mouth battered and blood clotted around his lips. Those lips that had sung the sad songs so elegantly, and with such desperate male pleading – “Fa Fa Fa / I keep singing them sad, sad songs / Sad songs is all I know”. Redding’s capacity to sing sad songs (Pain in My Heart, These Arms of Mine, Try A Little Tenderness) gave him a vulnerability that remains emotionally appealing even today. But that was only one side of his creative character. He had grown up in the rough barrooms of Macon, Georgia, home to both Little Richard and James Brown, and his tough, throaty voice could devastate a concert hall. Some of his best songs are relatively unknown – among them the raucous dancer Look at the Girl, an undervalued Stax classic.
Otis Redding died at the pinnacle of his career. His now-classic album Otis Blue was released in the autumn of 1965 and had gone to No 1 in the R&B charts, then stayed in the pop charts for 34 weeks. Word-of-mouth had carried Redding’s reputation from the heartlands of southern soul to a worldwide audience of new teenagers. Rock critic Dave Marsh was convinced it was vocal range that set Redding apart, describing him as “one of the great live showmen… a masterful ballad singer and a true rocker in the spirit of his boyhood hero, Little Richard”. Only three months prior to his death Britain’s Melody Maker selected him as the world’s top male vocalist, dethroning Memphis’s most famous son, Elvis Presley, who had held the top spot for eight years. Redding’s fame had brought him to the attention of the White House, and he had accepted an invitation from Vice-President Hubert Humphrey to head a troupe of Stax/Volt artists to entertain US troops in Vietnam in spring 1968, and in a triumphant and now historic concert Redding and The Bar-Kays destroyed all opposition when they appeared at the celebrated Monterey International Pop Festival. It was this concert more than any other that transformed his reputation. Redding was already a star within southern black music, but suddenly and spectacularly he had won over an audience of mostly white students and anti-war activists; the vanguard of America’s youth counterculture at a time when opposition to the war in Vietnam was at its height. His crossover and future status was complete.
In the few weeks prior to his death, Redding had lived through three weeks of intense creativity, scribbling lyrics down on notepaper as he travelled restlessly, improvising ideas on stage and soaking up influences from urban soul to festival rock. Excitedly, Otis was in daily contact with his collaborator and sometime producer Steve Cropper, who as a teenager had bought his first guitar by mail order, and was now a mainstay of the Stax studio system. Redding rarely completed songs – he preferred to throw ideas about like confetti, often asking for help to complete the best of them. Cropper was his sounding board and often brought shape to the initial idea, sculpting it until it was ready to record. Unlike the more controlled Motown system, or more famously the Hollywood film studio system, Stax was informal, haphazard and collegiate.
Immediately prior to Redding’s death Cropper had been drawn to a ballad that Otis had part-written while relaxing on a houseboat on Waldo Point, California after a residency at the legendary San Francisco venue, The Fillmore. Cropper sensed that the song, (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay, had an appeal way beyond the narrower register of Redding’s trademark deep soul ballads, songs like I’ve Been Loving You Too Long or Try a Little Tenderness. The song was quiet and poetic and seemed to hint at a narrative of departure, loneliness and yearning, universal themes that could appeal far beyond the ghetto barrooms. It was one of a catalogue of songs Redding recorded in a period of intense activity at Stax studios in December 1967. His death brought the songs prophetically to life. In a fast turnaround, motivated by a mixture of requiem and market greed, Stax – with their distrusted colleagues at Atlantic Records in New York – rush-released the song. It hit the streets on January 8 1968 and became an instant success, reaching No 1 in the USA, the UK and much of Europe, and selling over four million copies on release. The song dominated awards throughout the year, proof of the commercial appeal of death and tragedy. Mastered after Redding’s death, Cropper had gone to a local sound effects studio in Memphis and back at the Stax studios dubbed on the sound of seagulls and distant waves. It was the making of the song for some, and an unnecessary contrivance for others. But what is beyond dispute is that the song has not only stood the test of time but has become an anthem of self-reflection and personal enquiry. Fifty years on, it remains an all-time classic.
Otis Redding: The Definitive Studio Albums Collection is out now on Rhino. Stuart Cosgrove’s book Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul is out now (Polygon, £16.99)