The Death of Otis Redding

The New York Times gave only four inches at the bottom of a column on page 19 to the death exactly one month ago of Otis Redding. The Times reported the plane crash and listed the musicians who were killed. In view of the awed tone of accounts of other deaths, and pages on funerals which the President attends, one must be at least bemused by the ways in which the world distributes honor.

There are incredible and complete geniuses around all the time. In comparison, our professional and recognized artists seem effete and limited. Like Chaplin, Redding worked in a popular and unpretentious field. Also like Chaplin his genius was in evoking shared humanity.

Otis Redding's age was deceptive. He was 26 when he was killed but he seemed much older. This is largely because he had perfect taste and a disregard for fashion. For one thing, he never confused expressiveness with frenzy, the way Wilson Pickett often seems to do. Redding was absolutely uncompromised. He never felt obliged to cater to night-club audiences in the way Ray Charles does and Sam Cooke--who died three years to the day before Redding--did (though Cooke was coerced by the orientation of the company he recorded for). Redding was infinitely far from the frame of mind which characterizes the Motown corporation with its grossly defective cultural antennae. Motown will naively release its first album with a psychedelic cover five years from now.

Hardly any of even Redding's greatest fans realized he was only 26. The average guess, I suspect, would have been 35. The shock of his death was compounded by the shock of the discovery of his youth which makes his talent seem so much the more extraordinary. He wrote most of his greatest songs including "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "Mr. Pitiful," "Come to Me," and "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa." He reportedly wrote "Satisfaction" for the Stones, although he never publicly acknowledged it.

He did all of his own arrangements, many of which are almost as extraordinary as his voice. Often, his arrangement of another's song amounted to a re-writing. This is true of "Try a Little Tenderness," "You Send Me," and "Tell It Like It Is." His version of "Knock on Wood," though it retains almost nothing of the great Eddie Floyd original, is undoubtedly the definitive version of that song. His arrangements are infinitely varied. Before one understands the arrangement of "Tell It Like It Is," recorded on his joint album with Carla Thomas, it sounds as though it is being played at the wrong speed. The greatness of the effect may take some time to become clear.

There is no question that a taste for Otis Redding must be an acquired one. However, once one has adjusted one's sensitivity to his greatness, he loses nothing even after years and years. The point is finally reached where even the briefest snatch of any of his songs is seen to contain more than the entire work of any other singer.

Redding was born in 1941 in Dawson, Georgia, and lived for most of his youth in Macon. During this period another Macon resident, Little Richard, went through his period of greatest recognition, and Redding was inspired by his example. Though far from obvious, Little Richard's influence is perceptible in Redding's style. Redding recorded a Version of Little Richard's 1956 hit, "Lucille." His first professional job was as lead singer for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, though he never had a hit in association with them. His first success was with "These Arms of Mine." The first time that northern radio stations played him was when he recorded "Mr. Pitiful" in 1963. He is still much more a standard figure on southern juke-boxes than on northern ones. In between "These Arms of Mine," in November of 1962, and "Mr. Pitiful," he had a large success with "Pain In My Heart." Perhaps his greatest hit was "I've Been Loving You Too Long," released in the summer of 1965. Of all his songs, there have been really only two which were promoted in such a way that they were played on white rock and roll stations. They were his own version of his "Satisfaction," and his last hit, "Try a Little Tenderness." Those who did not know he had written it some-times thought "Satisfaction" was the only song he recorded which suggests a capitulation to mass popularity. But his version was really so good that they were mollified.

It is a very difficult thing to give an idea in words of Redding's genius. The values with which he dealt were not so much musical as human and emotional. It's a little misleading to think of him as merely a singer. What he attempted to do was to transcend the artifice of the song. Most singers are more or less content with the pleasantness of the artifice, and exploit it. An actor must never seem to be just a guy saying some lines he has memorized. When that happens, the result is ludicrous and the profession seems puerile.

Redding's talent had a great deal in common with the talent of an actor. Each song is an example of voice control for the purpose of expressiveness. The notes are really nothing. Much less was his ability related to the creation of pleasant or harmonious sounds. He would never hold a clear note the way Sam Cooke would do. That kind of thing had nothing to do with his genius. The things he could do with his voice were amazing, but none of the effects he could achieve were gratuitous. Viewed in this light, every one of his songs is a masterpiece. The effects are remarkable because they are so perfectly communicative. The excitement Redding provided comes from seeing the ingredients of humanity communicated so lucidly. It's possible to understand him completely and implicitly. It is impressive that the human mind is capable of such subtle communication, and this is the satisfaction he provides.

Redding was also a great comic, and this would have been much more obvious had he chosen to use that ability more often. In the song "Tramp" on the album with Carla Thomas, Redding plays the part of a southern provincial. His lines are really hilarious, as when Carla accuses him of being from the Georgia woods and he replies in the most accurate vacuous Georgia woods fashion, "That's good!"

Redding would often sing in subtle opposition to the beat. In "It's Too Late," on the album "Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads," the opening comes so close to being in disregard of the music, and yet is not quite, that somehow the sound expresses complete desolation.

Otis Redding was often introduced to black audiences as "our president." For a man of 25 this was a singular honor, but one which he no doubt deserved. His appearances had a quality somewhat different from those of other singers. The anticipation in the audience was like the anticipation of a crowd awaiting the appearance of the President. He was very good in person, if less athletic than many. He would fall on his knees. But he had a dignity about him, because of his recordings, that related to his mind and not to his physical presence. He disappointed audiences in Paris, which much preferred Sam and Dave. But he never disappointed his real audience, no more than the reception accorded a saint depends on the advance billing of a miracle. He inspired reverence more than frenzy and he inspired pride and determination.