Anarchy 84/A change is gonna come

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A change is gonna come


  All I want
Is a little respect
when I come home.

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 and trum­pe­ters 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
Otis Redding”.

  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.