Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Remembering Mr. Pitiful

Early one May morning in 1965, Keith Richards woke up in his St. John's Wood flat with a three-note riff in his head. He grabbed a cassette recorder and an acoustic guitar and quickly committed the riff to tape before going back to sleep. Or so he thought.

"Thank God for that little Philips cassette player," Richards recalled in his autobiography, Life. He knew he'd put a brand new tape in the night before, but on inspection, saw that the tape was at its end. "Then I pushed rewind and there was [I Can't Get NoSatisfaction," and, he explains, 45 minutes of snoring.

"It was just a rough idea," Richards remembered, "the bare bones of the song, and it didn't have that noise." That noise being the demonic Gibson fuzzbox-fed sequence of notes that would become the Rolling Stones' signature song.

Mick Jagger recalls that his Glimmer Twin's original sounded more country on the original acoustic guitar-played tape. "It didn't sound like rock. But [Keith] didn't really like it, he thought it was a joke... He really didn't think it was single material, and we all said 'You're off your head.' Which he was, of course."

Richards' dissatisfaction with Satisfaction was that he felt the riff should, in fact, have been performed by horns rather than a guitar. Two months after a horns-free Satisfaction was recorded for posterity - and acclaim as one of the greatest pop songs ever - Georgia-born soul and blues singer Otis Redding walked into Stax Studios in Memphis to record, over the weekend of July 9, 1965, his third album, Otis Blue.

Amongst the songs - and at the suggestion of Booker T & The MGs guitarist Steve Cropper - Redding took a stab at Satisfaction Richards' guitar riff was replaced by a more upbeat brass fusillade by Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns. The song, dreamed up thousands of miles away in a North-West London apartment, was finally recorded as Keith Richards had imagined it.

With a collection of Redding originals like Respect and I've Been Loving You Too Long and covers like Satisfaction, Sam Cooke's Change Gonna Come, Solomon Burke's Down in the Valley, and B.B. King's Rock Me BabyOtis Blue established Redding as the undisputed King of Soul.

It was, however, a throne he would continue to occupy for just two more years before - until December 10, 1967 - 45 years ago this week - when he tragically joined Buddy Holly, Jim Reeves, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in a tragic line-up of early pop stars to die in plane crashes.

Redding's Beechcraft Twin Beech plane - which he often co-piloted - was a symbol of his rapidly acquired business acumen.

Unlike many of his blues and R'n'B contemporaries, who invariably had found themselves ripped off contractually and perpetually touring to pay off divorces and paternity suits, Redding had, by the time he died at just 26, built a portfolio of good investments, such as the plane and his beloved 'Big-O' ranch in Round Oak, Georgia.

Born in the small Georgia town of Dawson (Pop. 5500) on September 9, 1941, the Redding family moved to the 'big' city of Macon, 100 miles away. At school, Otis discovered a talent for music, repeatedly entering a local talent show, winning its five-dollar prize 15 times before being barred from entering the contest further.

By the age of 21, Redding had become a member of a local Macon band, Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. When they landed a recording session at Stax Records in Memphis, the tall, striking Redding managed to secure a solo recording for himself - which produced the ballad These Arms of Mine.

Like the hits that followed - Try A Little Tenderness, My Girl, Mr Pitiful and I Can't Turn You Loose (later adopted by The Blues Brothers) - These Arms of Mine instantly captured Redding's strength: a formidable voice, seeped in the South's gospel, blues and even country music, that was both hopelessly romantic and rebelliously sexual at the same time.

Satisfaction and Otis Blue catapulted Redding into another level of superstardom, notably a black performer challenging the pop charts at a time of continued segregation in America.

As the '60s progressed - in all meanings of the word - so did Redding's career as he established his leadership of the soul movement, leading packaged tours of Stax artists throughout North America and Europe, touring along with protogĂ©es like Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas and Arthur Conley.

Redding made worshippers out of young British blues performers, like Eric Burdon of The Animals who became a close friend, and Pete Townshend of The Who, whose 'maximum R'n'B' maxim fitted perfectly with the sweaty soul that the elegant Redding had crafted in Memphis and exported across the northern hemisphere. Another disciple was schoolboy Peter Gabriel who, in 1967, travelled up from his outrageously exclusive public school, Charterhouse in deepest Surrey, to see Redding play in London.

"I was extremely lucky, when I was 17 years old, to go and see Otis Redding perform at the Ram Jam Club in Brixton," Gabriel told ABC's Nightline in 2010. "When he came on, it was like the sun coming out. It was just this amazing voice, totally in command, great band, great grooves and passion that permeated everything." 19 years later, Gabriel repaid the impact Redding had had on him by releasing Sledgehammer, an unexpurgated tribute that even included Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns on the track.

When The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on June 1, 1967, barely five years had lapsed since them recording the sugary I Wanna Hold Your Hand. And yet here they were with an opus of free-thinking psychedelia, that opened up and expanded people's minds in a way few recordings had done before. Otis Redding listened to it constantly as he took temporary accomodation on a houseboat on the other side of the San Francisco Bay in the hippy commune of Sausalito while playing a week's residency at the Fillmore West. Inspired by Sgt. Pepper and the body of water between him and San Francisco, he wrote his own signature song, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.

Compared with the energetic oomph of much of his other songs, Dock Of The Bay was a gentle, simple song, musically and lyrically. A strummed guitar motif, which seemed to copy the gentle lapping of the cold bay's water against the houseboat, was married to the down-home story of Otis's life so far - "I left my home in Georgia, Headed for the 'Frisco bay". It became his biggest hit. And the last song he ever recorded.

On the night of Sunday, December 10, 1967, while at the pinnacle of his career, Otis Redding's Beechcraft crashed into a lake in Madison, Wisconsin, while attempting to land at the nearby municipal airport. The crash killed Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays, his backing band. He was just 26-years-old and left behind his wife, Zelma and their three children Dexter, Carla and Otis III.

"The irony of Otis Redding was his personal ambition to fill the gap left in the soul world by the shooting in 1964 of Sam Cooke," wrote Soul Music Monthly magazine in a tribute published soon after Redding's death. "In an all-too-short career he achieved that ambition — and achieved it so decisively that in the last four years no one has filled the even larger gap left by his own death."

"His loss was all the greater because he was the man who turned soul from a minority interest in Britain into a major explosion," SMM added.

There have been plenty of soul singers since - singers cut from the same southern traditions, white singers like Janis Joplin who have channeled the same vocal passion. But not even contemporaries like Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Eddie Floyd, Isaac Hayes, Ike and Tina Turner, Al Green, Marvin Gaye or Sly Stone came close to the lethal cocktail that Otis Redding perfected for the five short years of his career.

"His death was a loss to the whole world," said Steve Cropper at the time, reflecting the sentiment of the entire 'Memphis Brotherhood'. "Nobody will ever know what he had in store for them. He was just starting to get into something. He was starting to get out of hard rhythm and blues. He went beyond that. He was hitting everybody all over the world."

Redding's influence found its way far and wide: Peter Gabriel may have been hiding it while performing Supper's Ready in Genesis, but as a former drummer stimulated by 'groove', there was a frustrated soul boy fighting to get out of that prog rock titan. You could say much the same about Robert Plant - a blues singer performing heavy rock - he, too, was channeling the boy from Macon, Georgia.

Otis Redding may have been a soul performer, but the southern blues were within him. The irony, however, of him covering the Rolling Stones' most famous song is that he helped turn them into an even bigger R'n'B band, still going 45 years after that fateful night in 1967.

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