Anarchy 84/A change is gonna come
|All I want|
Is a little respect
when I come home.
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.
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”—
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 and trumpeters emphasise the urgency of the singer’s message, while the bass line which runs throughout all these up-
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-