And what he got was respect
, in the form of headlines in the evening papers—pop star dies in air crash
. True, this recognition of importance was tempered by the anonymity of “pop star” (although later editions did substitute “OTIS REDDING
…”), but even so it was interesting that the evening paper editors should have considered the singer’s death worthy of front page attention.
By the next day, the event had been reduced to incident; neither The Times
nor the Mirror
mentioned the accident, and the Guardian
confined itself to a smug comment anticipating the commercial success of the ironically titled LP, “History of Otis Redding
”, 5,000 copies of which have been imported to Britain by Polydor
. A few weeks
earlier, Ida Cox
’s death was observed in an obituary in The Times
, although she had been a much less creative and culturally significant singer in her time than Redding was in his. The difference, perhaps, was that Ida Cox was a blues
singer, with strong connections to the jazz
tradition; whereas Otis Redding was a soul
singer, with strong connections to pop music
(which is not yet recognised as having a tradition).
As the Guardian’s Miscellany columnist predicted, Otis Redding’s name will undoubtedly be added to the macabre Hall of Fame which lists these heroes of popular culture who died young. The implication always is that the artist died before he could realise his full potential; but the harsher truth is usually that the artist was already in decline at the time of his death. Bessie Smith, Chuck Willis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Jesse Belvin, and Nat “King” Cole had all made much better records earlier in their careers than they made just before their deaths; and this was true for Otis Redding. Only Sam Cooke can be said to have been singing more interesting songs late in his career: his best record, A Change is Gonna Come, which became a kind of anthem for the civil rights movement during the summer of 1965, was released posthumously.
Cooke was one of a number of Negro singers who abandoned the blues heritage which was the basis of Negro popular music for the first four decades of this century, and drew instead from the gospel music of the South. From 1955 to 1965 the character of Negro popular music changed drastically, from the direct expressiveness of the rock and roll singers, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, to the more sophisticated style of the soul singers, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Joe Tex. In between, the distinctive characteristics of the Negro cultural style were almost smothered by the attempts of record producers to assimilate Negro singers into the white culture. Full scale string and woodwind orchestras, choirs, and Tin Pan Alley songs were used to smooth the styles of Lloyd Price, Brook Benton, and Sam Cooke, or characterless dance songs and monotonous rhythms were provided for Chubby Checker and Bobby Lewis.
The re-emergence of a Negro cultural style after these years testifies to the strength of the American Negro culture, which is too often characterised as “delinquent”, “pathological”, and “self-destructive”. The singer most responsible for ensuring the continued existence of a Negro style was Ray Charles, whose first records show him to have been a blues singer (1949), but who anticipated the shift away from the blues as early as 1954, when he recorded I Got a Woman in a gospel style. Although he later suffered accompaniments by the slushiest orchestras and soupiest choirs that the ABC-Paramount studios could muster, Ray Charles always managed to project an integrity which became the main inspiration of the soul singers who followed him.
Charles (born in Georgia
), Little Richard (also born in Georgia), James Brown
and Bobby Bland
(born in Tennessee
), and Sam Cooke (born in Chicago
) became the major models for imitation during the period 1958-63 when recording supervisors generally showed little
concern for the way singers preferred to sing. All except Cooke came from the South, where they had learned to sing in churches which gave them experience of singing in front of audiences, and with accompaniment from instruments and other singers. Their success at transposing the style learned in churches to recording studios, theatres and television broadcasts inspired many younger Southern Negroes to seek a career in popular music.
Little Richard, whose Tutti Frutti was one of the first Negro rock and roll records in 1955, was a major inspiration to several singers, including Joe Tex and Otis Redding, whose first records are open attempts at reproducing Little Richard’s style. Tex later developed a style which used not only the vocal techniques of gospel singers, but the mode and form of their material, with a number of records which counselled lovers on how to treat each other, and even included breaks for “preaching”—spoken verses.
Otis Redding did not stay so close to the church tradition, but developed an intense, harsh singing style, using both material specially written for him and songs made famous by other people. Perhaps his outstanding recorded performance is his version of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, available only on the LP, Otis Blue. Taken at a slow, almost lazy, tempo, the song’s mood is established from the moment Redding begins to sing, as he almost cries, “Well I was born by a river …”. All the emphasis is on “born” as he begins the word on one note, moves easily up to another, holds that, and then goes on to the rest of the phrase. Throughout the performance, Redding displays his instinct for pausing at surprising yet appropriate places, and thereby altering the emphasis and meaning of a phrase. His ability to do this is revealed on several of the songs on the History of Otis Redding LP, which is a collection of his most popular records.
These Arms of Mine
, Pain in My Heart
, and I’ve Been Loving You Too Long
are all slow ballads, love songs which could easily become sentimental if performed by a singer who allowed the words to determine how he should sing them. But Redding brought himself to the material, and used the songs as a means of communicating deeply felt emotions to a particular person. Even on the fast songs, which most singers take simply as dance songs whose words are of secondary importance to the rhythm, Otis Redding still emphasised the emotional expression, as in Respect
, I Can’t Turn You Loose
, and Mr. Pitiful
. The speed at which the song is taken becomes an extra device to build up the intensity of feeling; the strident riffs played by the saxophonists
emphasise the urgency of the singer’s message, while the bass
line which runs throughout all these up-
tempo soul records helps to give the song a coherent form. A common failing of the records produced in Memphis
and neighbouring Southern cities is a lack of resolution in the construction of the songs, which tend to begin with the mood which is sustained throughout the performance and forces the unsatisfactory “fade-
out” ending. The style has become the content; if we have one record by Otis Redding at a fast tempo, and one at a slow tempo, these two in a sense constitute the “history of
Although he made his best records during the first four years he was with the Memphis company, Stax (1962-65), Redding did not achieve the ultimate in pop music respectability until 1967, when his duet with Carla Thomas, Tramp, sold over a million copies. A hastily released live-recording of Shake (recorded at the Finsbury Park Astoria, of all places) was also very popular, and Redding seemed poised for the breakthrough into the mass market. It is conceivable that this breakthrough will come anyway, through <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: re-release">re-release of his earlier records; if that happens, the public will get better records than anything Redding could have recorded specifically for the mass market. His premature death, at the age of 26, will undoubtedly ensure his reputation as the greatest soul singer; but this was Otis Redding’s due anyway.