Born today in 1941, the late, great Otis Ray Redding, Jr., may have been from Dawson, Georgia, but his name will forever be connected with Memphis, Tennessee. It was there where the singer, songwriter, talent scout, record producer and arranger crafted the music that would define the legendary Stax Records sound and launch him into international stardom as one of the most influential soul artists of the 1960s.
Redding is probably most known for his monster hit, "(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay," which became the first posthumous Number One record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. It was the lead-off track from his posthumously released 1968 LP, The Dock of the Bay, which became the first posthumous album to hit Number One on the UK albums chart.
Tragically, Redding died in a plane crash in 1967 at the age of 26. Later, James Brown claimed in his autobiography, The Godfather of Soul, that he warned Redding not to take that ill-fated flight, which took off, despite warnings, in heavy rain and fog. The only survivor of the crash was Bar-Kays member Ben Cauley.
Take a moment to remember the man known as "The King of Soul" and enjoy this video of his performance of his signature track "Try a Little Tenderness," originally written in 1932 by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods and previously covered by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Redding died just a day after this performance. He would have been 72 today.
"If there’s one song, one performance that really sort of sums up Otis and what he’s about, it’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness,’" said Stax co-founder Jim Stewart. "That one performance is so special and so unique that it expresses who he is."
Otis Redding is one of the greatest recording artists of the 20th century and also ever, has produced some absolutely essential jams and was taken from this world far too soon. These are all things I don’t even have to tell you, because they are common knowledge to anyone with a pulse. But despite the painfully abrupt end to his career, Otis Redding was surprisingly prolific, not only creating a catalog of essential hits, but a soundtrack to pretty much every possible mood or occasion, from the summer evening contemplation of "(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay" to the ebullient "Shout Bamalama."
But it is March, and even though Daylight Savings Time is just around the corner, it’s still pretty dreary and dark in certain parts of the country. And it is cold. And it is slushy. And maybe you’re lonely or your job sucks or you’re worried about this sequester thing or are sad that Enlightened is over. You just need a musical shoulder to cry on, and Otis Redding can be that too. This week, Stax/Volt (via the Concord Music Group label) released a compilation of some of Redding’s finest ballads called Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding, and even if you don’t need a late soul singer to pick you up, do yourself a favor and curl up with some of these songs this weekend. The spoken "Otis, I love you" and slow-burning saxes of "A Waste of Time" will warm you up; the first belted note of "I’ve Been Loving You too Long" still sends chills. And then, there is "These Arms of Mine," and admit it, you still get weepy at that scene in Dirty Dancing with that one. It’s okay, we all do. No one will tell. Do something nice for yourself this weekend, and listen to some Otis ballads.
Bettye LaVette has one of the greatest voices in R&B history, but we came very close to never hearing her sing. At sixteen she recorded her first song, “My Man – He’s a Loving Man,” in 1962, and that early success allowed her to tour the country with folks like Otis Redding and offered the promise of R&B stardom. Fate, however, wasn’t kind, and a string of bad luck and broken promises kept her from truly making it big. But with a dedicated circle of friends and fans, LaVette continued to perform, and in the early years of the new millennium she found success with albums released by indie label ANTI-, through which she recorded an album of songs by singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and Lucinda Williams, as well as a collaboration with southern rockers Drive-By Truckers.
It was her performance of The Who’s classic “Love, Reign O’er Me” at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors that delivered her much-deserved national spotlight, which led to her chance to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Now, the singer has a new album as well as a memoir, A Woman Like Me. The book is a no-holds-barred account of the roller coaster ride that was her career, featuring cameos by Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin—all of whom LaVette remembers at times fondly and, at times, with aversion.
I was excited to talk to the singer, who eagerly shared her excitement about writing a book, how she’s happy to share the stories from her life, and how the music industry has drastically changed in the last forty years.
What I really liked about your book was that it wasn’t the typical rock ’n’ roll memoir where you make it really big and than you have this giant tragedy. You kind of see that a lot in movies and books about people in the music industry. Did you have this idea of wanting to set the record straight about things that happened in your career? No, not at all. These were stories that I’ve told over the years. You have to remember, just a little while ago all I had was these memories, that was absolutely all I had. Someone would always say, “You need to write a book,” and I would say, “I’m sure somebody’s gonna write one, either my daughter or my best friend—the people who have heard these stories a million times or whatever—but I thought it would happen after my death because I didn’t think that I would be around long enough to have somebody write about me and a whole bunch of tawdry stories. So no, it wasn’t conceived in the way that most books are, and I didn’t know it’d be different from what I’m doing now: sharing my stories.
It comes across that way. It’s written with a more personal style, as if I were sitting and listening to you telling me tales. It jumps around a bit; you’ll end one story and pick it up later, and characters come back just as you’re giving your memories of how you remember them. That’s what I liked about it; it wasn’t the standard kind of memoir in that way. And I want people to know, too, that these stories are about who these people were. They’re not about who you know them to be. People sort of have problems with that because they know Marvin Gaye as a star. But I know Marvin Gaye as a man trying to be a star. So that’s completely different.
You’re pretty brutally honest about a lot people and give a lot of surprising opinions. You mention Ike Turner at one point and talk about the Ike Turner that you knew being different from the person portrayed on film and thought of in the popular culture. Were you at all worried about how people would react to how you were describing the people you were around at the time? I have the advantage now of almost being 70, so I don’t care what you think! I do not care what you think. You know, the thing of it is: there’s no reason to lie, and there’s nothing to lie about. The only people I would have been worried about were my grandchildren, and they are now 21 and 27, so at least I can explain myself thoroughly to them now. The people I spoke about in the book haven’t spoken to me at all this time. I wouldn’t be losing anything if they decided not to speak to me now.
It’s kind of surprising, I guess, when you think about your family reading it. I’ve seen so many movies and read stories about this era and of people in rock ’n’ roll, and it’s not super surprising— But Tyler, if you’re just twenty-something, you haven’t seen too many!
Well, I mean, there’s probably more of an expectation that I would get out of reading a book by a musician than maybe a that person’s grandchildren would have. Really, why?
Well, I can’t imagine my grandparents writing about sex and drugs. Ha, I love it!
But that’s interesting! It didn’t even cross my mind—thinking about how your family would react to it. I was thinking, “What if Diana Ross read this book, and what would she think about it?” I don’t know if I would have even written it had my mother still been alive. You were just saying about your grandparents—I know how much of it my mother would have understood, and it wouldn’t have been enough. If I were trying to explain it to a young kid, what they would understand would not be enough. Those are the only people I was concerned about.
I saw you perform at the Robert Johnson tribute show back in March, and I remember you saying it was the first time you had been at the Apollo since like some time in the mid-’60s and how it seemed a lot bigger to you when you were there the first time. It seemed like a little community theater!
It was the first time I had been there, too, and I was surprised because I had expected it to be much bigger. It’s such an iconic place, especially for R&B and African American artists. Was that a place you always strived to get to? Oh, absolutely. You certainly wanted to work at the Apollo—that was absolutely it. I remember touring Otis Redding and The Shirelles. When we got to Philadelphia, Otis and I headed back down south and The Shirelles would go on up to the Apollo. Then everything happened so fast, and it wasn’t a long time before Otis was at the Apollo—it was maybe like six months later.
I didn’t know much about the industry at the time, but these days it seems artists are getting a lot buzz before they’ve come out with a proper album and can tour on that early successful buzz. That’s what I thought of when I was reading your story; you had a lot of singles that were getting some pick-up, and you would get the chance to record an album and then that opportunity fell through. It seems like before there was the major crossover for African American artists the industry was much more competitive. Looking at how the industry works now, have things changed that much for new artists? I think the record industry today is virtually unrecognizable to anyone my age unless they’re, like, Clive Davis. My manager once introduced me to Billy Eckstine, who had a record on the charts for the first time in his twenty-year career. Whereas today you can sing for thirteen weeks and be on the cover of Vogue. The children have taken over! It’s just like the children running the house.
People are becoming successful based on nothing, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a long shelf life for them. Oh, no, they’re almost disposable. And I think that the thing that keeps me from being terrified of them; I know that they are disposable, and that none of them are going to run up against me way late at night in a little small joint where there’s nothing but a baby grand piano. So those two things keep me sane.
What you are doing even now is a little more classical in a way—you’re singing songs and interpreting them in your own way, and you can continue to find an audience. I first discovered you from hearing your covers of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” and Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different.” I’m a big fan of Marianne Faithfull, and she recently did an album where she covered a lot of contemporary indie-rock songs and recorded them in her own style, and that something she’s been doing for decades. Was that approach introduced to you and did someone suggest you record those covers? The songs, first of all, are just songs to me. Some people have small churches they have built dedicated to some of those tunes, and I don’t. They’re just songs to me. And I have always sung all kinds of songs because I’ve always heard all kinds of songs. It doesn’t make any difference what kind of song it is. If I sing, it’s gonna be rhythm and blues. None of them frighten me. I don’t think of them in categories or anything, because I know that if I did a song by Roy Rogers, it won’t sound like a Roy Rogers song when I sing it. It’ll sound like me.
● With rumors of an ecstasy, cocaine, and ketamine cocktail, it’s perhaps a comfort to hear that Amy Winehouse — who died Saturday at the age of 27 — expired in her own bed after telling a friend she needed sleep. [TMZ] ● Kim Kardashian ditched her own party to crash her fiance’s Las Vegas bachelor party, cameras in tow, of course. [PageSix/Us] ● Kristin Cavallari and Jay Cutler have called off their engagement, ending their just ten-month relationship. Kristin is “in shock that the dream wedding she was planning is going to end this way.” [People]
● Kristen Stewart’s Snow White looks very serious and a little spindly-kneed. [LAT] ● The Beckhams are donating the 9K or so worth of baby gifts they’ve received to charity. [ContactMusic] ● Otis Redding’s daughter says that she and her family really like the “swagger elements” of Jay-Z and Kanye’s ode to her father, “Otis.” [Billboard]
With official August release dates confirmed for Watch the Throne–and “H.A.M.” now relegated to bonus material on the album–Ye and Jay have finally released a new single. “Otis,” a sample of Otis Redding’s 1966 single “Try A Little Tenderness,” premiered on the radio yesterday. Several tagged versions immediately appeared on the web before Jay added a clean cut to his Life + Times blog.
Each of the rappers offers up about 8 bars at a time before switching things off to the other. Although Jay has admitted that there were some disagreements during the recording process, things are all good between the two, because at some point he threatens to “murk” anyone who takes issue with Yeezy. As for Kanye—“Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses/sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive”—expect lines that only he could deliver.
Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci created the artwork for both Watch the Throne and the new “Otis” single.