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Otis Redding

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Otis Redding

This article originally appeared in Issue 12/13 of Crawdaddy in November, 1967

It is over a year now that I’ve been writing about rock ‘n’ roll, and certain things about my own attitudes are beginning to crystallize. In my writing thus far I have talked about the blues, English rock, and Motown: three distinct aspects of what’s happening in pop music at the moment. The reason that I’ve written about these things and not others is that this is what I dig, what moves me. In the course of my articles l have tried to show what characteristics of a piece account for my digging it, or what failing on the part of the musicians accounts for my not digging it. I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about West Coast rock, because I don’t dig the idiom as a whole. I don’t believe the Doors or the Airplane make good rock, or, for that matter, even good music.

It is not an accident that a person likes one type of music and not another. I think there are certain characteristics common to all the types of music I like that are lacking in music I don’t like. For example, I like formal music, structured music if you will. Perhaps that’s the reason that one of the West Coast groups I really dig is the Byrds. I also like music which is unpretentious. I would rather hear someone do something simple perfectly than hear someone do something extremely complex terribly. For example, I would rather hear B. B. King sing “Sweet Sixteen” than listen to the Doors do “The End.” This doesn’t mean that I believe art can only advance by stages. Nobody is going to go out tomorrow and start a whole new music devoid of the characteristics of all older forms of music. Whatever comes tomorrow will necessarily be a dialectical outgrowth of contradictions that exist within the art of today.

What I dig is people capturing totally what happened yesterday, and then going on to explode the past. In other words, I would probably like the Doors better if they had learned how to play hard rock or the blues before trying to do what they’re doing now. They didn’t, and as a result their music sounds to me like it exists in a void—fundamentally unrelated to the exciting musical developments going on everywhere. And maybe this accounts for why I enjoy the Stones, the Beatles, and the Who so much. It is obvious that these groups mastered some of the older styles before moving on. The fact that they learned straight rock and r&b first gives their music a certain perspective, a certain relatedness, a certain wholeness, which I find lacking in groups that never served such musical apprenticeships. I love the Who’s “l Can See for Miles” because it is rock ‘n’ roll, catches the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, has the perspective of rock ‘n’ roll, and therefore can become more than rock ‘n’ roll: it has the potentiality to transcend rock ‘n’ roll. And the same is true of the Beatles, who began at the beginning, the very beginning, and worked themselves one record at a time to where they are now. Anyone who thinks that he can start at the Sgt. Pepper level is out of his head. The Beatles couldn’t be doing what they are doing now without having lived with the experience of what they did before.

This doesn’t mean that everyone should start out in a hard rock or blues band and then work his way into the current scene. It does mean that every artist must confront the experience of the past in whatever way he chooses or finds most efficient, in order to advance beyond the contradictions of the past.

All of which brings me to Otis Redding. Otis Redding is past, present, and future, which makes him an extraordinary artist. His music contains both the contradictions of the older musical forms of which his style is an outgrowth, and the resolution, or potential for resolution, that these contradictions cry out for. His music is at the same time innovation, tradition, and immediacy, which gives it an overall sense of completeness and unity not often encountered in pop music—or anywhere else, for that matter. In terms of rock ‘n’ roll, his music is timeless in the way that Chuck Berry has proven to be timeless, the way the Stones are timeless, the way that James Brown is timeless. All of these people’s music expresses microcosmically the entire continuum of rock ‘n’ roll’s development. What that continuum is can only be felt subjectively, but it is, nonetheless, reality. It is the ethos of rock ‘n’ roll that ties together all that is rock and separates it from music that is not rock. I can only define the ethos in terms of the specific, such as the guitar introduction to “Johnny B. Goode,” or Bob Dylan’s “aah” before the fourth verse of “Like a Rolling Stone,” or the Beatles screaming “Help!” or the Four Tops saying “Just look over your shoulder” or Steve Cropper playing his solo on Booker T.’s “Groovin’“ or Otis Redding ordering us to “Shake.” These instances and a thousand others are noteworthy for the fact that they are so much more than mere fragments of excellent recordings. They are united by a quality of transcendence that takes one beyond the immediate listening experience. They are expressions of the totality of rock ‘n’ roll, not just that which their authors intended them to be, or the casual listener may take them to be.

I don’t consider all this to be very mystical, either. I’m talking totally about a reality situation, a nonmystical reality, and I am simply saying that particular works of art go far beyond others in their capacity to express the unity of all art of a certain type. In fact, ultimately it is just such works of art that define the idiom as a whole, because it is just such works that express and communicate most precisely and with the greatest clarity what that idiom is all about.

For the last six months I have been convinced that Otis Redding’s performances constitute, as a whole, the highest level of expression rock ‘n’ roll has yet attained, a level I think he shares with several other rock artists. In his own totally individual and distinctive way, he says it all. It took him a while to get there; some of his older records are a drag, but by the time you get down to the Dictionary of Soul there is absolutely no doubt about it.

Otis himself, of course, is part of a very specific development in contemporary music: the Stax-Volt scene. His sidemen are usually Booker T. and the MGs and the horns of the Mar-Keys, two fabulous Memphis groups. The man Otis works with most closely is his guitarist Steve Cropper, who has written some of Otis’s material, as well as writing such stuff as “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Midnight Hour,” which he co-authored with W. Pickett. Cropper is a great rhythm guitarist and has an amazingly subtle chord style, as the aforementioned solo on Booker T’s “Groovin’” demonstrates. Like Otis, he prefers to keep it simple. No fuzz tones, no reverb, or, as Steve himself puts it, no gimmicks. Booker, the piano-organ man, obviously feels the same way about it. He is very influenced by country and western, Floyd Cramer type stuff, as his background doodling on the live version of “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa” illustrates. But the main man that Otis relies on to give him the right sound is obviously drummer Al Jackson. The man is indisputably in charge of soul drumming. It is hard to pinpoint what makes his soul so distinctive; perhaps it’s the tom-tom-like sound he gets out of his snare by tuning the heads so loose, or maybe it’s the way they record him, or something like that. In any event, his drumming is kinetic. It makes you feel that more is going on than really is. lt’s understated: Jackson waits until you have taken all you can before he socks it to you. For example, on “Try a Little Tenderness,” notice that he waits until the absolute last moment before he actually plays a roll and moves into the Motown beat he uses to finish out the tune. Also, his bass drum work is amazing.

Ultimately it is Otis who runs his own show, is responsible for his own sessions, and deserves the credit. He has a highly developed state of consciousness of his own art. For example, in the September 18th issue of Soul magazine he is quoted in an interview:

Basically I like any music that remains simple, and I feel this is the formula that has made soul music successful. When any music form becomes cluttered and/or complicated you lose the average listener’s ear. There is nothing more beautiful than a simple blues tune. There is beauty in simplicity, whether you are talking about architecture, art or music.

No more apt description of what Otis is getting at could be formulated than this explanation by Otis himself. His music is stark. If something isn’t essential, it isn’t there. There is no ornamentation of any kind. On “Good to Me” (The Soul Album, Volt 413), this point is perfectly illustrated. During the body of the tune, the arrangement calls for the horn section to play exactly one eighth note every other line. Jackson literally stands still on the drums. Only during the last thirty seconds of the cut, when there is the standard melodramatic buildup in the vocal line, do Jackson and the horns expand their parts, in perfect coordination with Otis’s delineation of the vocal.

Of course, we must realize that by simplicity Otis does not mean inanity or insignificance. He means clarity of expression. Clearness of purpose. Unambivalent development of a single thought. And he does every unsubtle, seemingly inartistic thing he possibly can to communicate what this simple idea happens to be. He’ll plead with you, beg you, argue with you, instruct you, even sing to you, in hopes that you’ll get the idea.

In some respects, Otis is most effective in his handling of the slow material. One of his all-time great performances is certainly the incredibly slow and drawn-out “You’re Still My Baby” (Dictionary of Soul, Volt 415). The song is rendered with total deliberateness. There is no room for doubt. The feeling of the thing is inexorable. It is messianic. The whole world may change, but you’re still my baby. That is what the words are saying (although what Otis is saying isn’t as clear).

Another masterpiece is “Nobody Knows You” (Volt 413). Instrumentally, Cropper and
Jackson outdo themselves in the last half minute of the cut, with a beautiful piece of interaction between Cropper’s unbelievable rhythm and Jackson’s snare-bass combinations. And again Otis rides over the whole thing with his drawn-out, unequivocal “This is the way it is, and this is the way it will always be” style. This deliberateness and this confidence in the presentation of a song are an integral part of Otis’s approach. It is not a pose. It is a way of life. It is Otis’s way of saying that “this is so” or “I have found this out, and it is true.” Regardless of what the words he says are, the feeling and performance tell us that this music is religious, in the Western sense, even if it be secular religion. In such pieces, Otis is revealing to us nothing less than his faith.

Of course the other side of the coin is in the ecstatic joy that Otis gets across in his faster pieces. Dig “Shake” (on the Live in Europe album, not the Stax-Volt Revue version). Unmitigated joy. It is absolutely total and in case anyone feels left out, Otis has the audience repeat the title until everything shakes at the end of the cut. “Day Tripper” on the Dictionary of Soul album exhibits Otis’s peculiarly verbal style in an attempt to accomplish the same thing. Otis’s philosophy here is “when in doubt, say something.” He keeps up a continuous stream of verbiage. Total energy, and though the girl the lyrics portray is rather fickle, Otis seems to be very enthusiastic about the whole thing. On the so-called “Sad Song” (live version), a song which is theoretically communicating sadness turns into a hysterical orgy, which yields feelings of both ecstasy and desperateness at the same time.

But this is not to ignore the highest aspects of Otis’s art, which are again summed up in the word kineticism, or implied motion. On the live album we get this in two places especially. The first is on “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” In the middle of the song Otis breaks the rhythm altogether, literally suspends time, and over no band at all shouts, “I know you think we’re gonna stop. We ain’t gonna stop. We’re going, one time” and then back into the song. It is breathtaking to hear him do it. The other is on one of Otis’s greatest recorded performances, the live version of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Here, after one verse, he simply stops. He doesn’t say anything, the band doesn’t play anything—silence. And then the song again, with the ultimate inexorable buildups. During the last minute of the thing it sounds like Otis is climbing Mount Everest straight up.

Well, I could go on and on. The only other cut I wish to comment on is “Try a Little Tenderness,” and then only because it stands as the greatest of all Otis’s recordings and helps me to sum up some of the ideas I’ve been trying to get across. First of all, there is the inexorable movement and buildup of this piece. It is linear in the sense that the motion is in only one direction and is totally deliberate. Secondly, there is the absolute confidence and unambivalence in the presentation. Otis constantly assures us that “That’s all you’ve got to do.” Thirdly, there is the characteristic frenzy of the uptempo pieces, especially toward the end. And finally, I might add almost parenthetically, there are the characteristic instrumental-vocal mannerisms that Otis always relies on to effect all of this, such as his off-handed, off-mike asides, his peculiar use of phrases like “sock it to you,” and, on other cuts, the word “man” or “maan.”

The ultimate consequence of all this is a music of great directness and intimacy. It is a music of involvement. Involvement with existence. Unlike Jim Morrison, Otis does not seem to be overwhelmingly concerned with man’s fate or destiny. He is a pragmatist: he does the best he can to put things together and then to live with it. His music is one of extremes. His conception of life is not amorphous in the least. When he’s up, he takes you with him, all of the way. And when he’s down, well, he’s down. And there just isn’t too much in-between in Otis’s world.

The music of Otis Redding is a primitive music which doesn’t pretend to be art, but is art just the same. For in his music, in his own way, Otis never ceases to explore the potentiality of his chosen musical form. His music was born of a far simpler era in rock in which the music existed unto itself, and was not considered to be a cultural form, let alone an artistic one, by too many people. And I for one believe we may soon find ourselves recognizing that much of the old rock is as artistically valid as anything on Sgt. Pepper, and that we may soon find ourselves again re-exploring the capacity and potential of past musical forms to speak to the contemporary situation—a capacity and potential which far exceeds that of the Doors, the Airplane, or the Vanilla Fudge. And it is in this sense that I said earlier that Otis’s music is not only of the past and present, but for the future. For no one understands so well as Otis the significance of the old rock, the blues and all that. But understanding this, no one has seen the limitations of these older forms of expression more clearly than Otis. And, therefore, no one has done more to confront these limitations and to expand our consciousness of what the blues are, what rock ‘n’ roll is, and what all of this has come to. Much more than any of the white groups, Otis has exploded the limitations of the past. And in so doing he has truly set us all free. His music is the new music. And the new music is rock ‘n’ roll. And how could his music be anything else, when Otis Redding is rock ‘n’ roll?

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