If indeed Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul, then Otis Redding was the indisputable King. In the decades that have passed since the horrific plane crash that took his life and the lives of his bandmates on December 10, 1967, only a handful of performers have come close to equaling him in terms of passion, expression, and, yes, pure, gritty R&B.
Born September 9, 1941, Redding played in a variety of small-time groups before being signed to a then-fledgling Atlantic Records. An exceptional songwriter even in his formative stages, he immediately impressed the powers that were with his remarkable ballad "These Arms of Mine," which subsequently launched his career.
A successful debut album, Pain in My Heart, and a triumphant appearance at the venerable Apollo Theater helped fuel it further. Yet greater successes were to come -- with songs such as "Try a Little Tenderness," "Respect," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," and the track that served as his bittersweet epitaph, "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay." There were also triumphant appearances at the Whisky-A-Go-Go and Monterey Pop Festival. He successfully crossed over from R&B to the larger rock market and was ultimately embraced universally as one of the greatest singers of all time regardless of genre.
It's not surprising, then, that Redding parlayed the influence of other artists and infused them into his songs. It's also not surprising that many of his contemporaries and the performers who followed in his wake also attempted to integrate his sound.
Here are a few examples:
Redding insisted he was heavily influenced by Little Richard and Sam Cooke early on. In fact, his first big breakthrough came when he performed Richard's "Heebie Jeebies" at a local talent show, winning the $5 prize 15 weeks in a row until he was barred from competing. He was briefly employed by Richard's band as well. Cooke's album Live at the Copa also had a substantial impact on the young singer, and Redding's take on "Shake" became a staple of his sets.
Few artists dared to challenge the Stones on their own turf, and yet, Otis' cover of "Satisfaction" -- one of the Stones' signature songs -- not only does it justice but transforms it entirely. Where Mick, Keith, and company conceived it as a riff-ready rocker, Redding squeezes out its soul and emotion and makes it a personal affirmation of his own aspirations and frustrations.
George Harrison once acknowledged that "Respect" was a primary influence on the Beatles' "Drive My Car." Not surprisingly, then, that when Otis and his entourage arrived in London in March 1966, the Beatles sent their own car to pick them up at the airport.
"Respect" achieved its greatest acclaim via the version by Aretha Franklin, which in turn became the song for which she's best-known and the one that earned her two Grammys. Redding originally wrote the song for a singer named Speedo Sims, who intended to record it with his band the Singing Demons. That never transpired, and instead, Redding recorded it, delivering it as a plea from a man who's so desperate for love (and other favors) that he promises to give his woman whatever she wants. Aretha, on the other hand, turned it into a staunch feminist anthem, spelling out the title -- R-E-S-P-E-C-T -- in an assertive style with her background vocalists cooing behind her, "Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me." And she did!
Redding performed for "The Love Crowd," as he termed it, at the famous Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. As the only major soul act on the bill, it provided him with one of his first opportunities to play before a predominantly white rock audience.
His impact was immediate and assured his crossover success. Backstage, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix were rapt with awe. One of his final major concerts before the tragic plane crash that took his life, it was recorded and subsequently released as a split LP that also featured the landmark Monterey performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Bob Dylan attended Redding's landmark showcase at the Whisky-a-Go-Go in Los Angeles and was so impressed, he offered him a version of "Just Like a Woman." Redding rejected it, saying the lyrics were too long, in stark contrast to the short and simple verses he preferred. "When any music form becomes cluttered and/or complicated, you lose the average listener's ear," he once said. According to some sources, however, Otis later allowed that his decision not to record it was the biggest regret of his career.
Three of Otis' songs -- "Shake," "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," and "Try a Little Tenderness" were cited by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as among "the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll." Redding was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989 and given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award ten years later.
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Redding claimed that his final recording and his biggest hit, "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," was actually inspired by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The connection seems tenuous, but it did mark a significant change of style. The only song of his to hit number one, it invoked the ire of his record label and his backing band, all of whom thought he strayed way too far from his established sound. Still, Otis called it was the best song he ever wrote, and it's since inspired numerous cover versions, among them an early '80s take by future Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar.
In 2011, Kanye West and Jay-Z collaborated on a track called "Otis" that samples a snippet of "Try a Little Tenderness." While it may seem an ostensive tribute to Redding, it's actually more of a shared rumination on wealth, riches, and the perils of success.