The Afterlife of Otis Redding

Otis Redding’s five magnificent years in showbiz transformed the sound of soul music. His grainy, growling, and “squawking” voice kept the music rooted in the older traditions of the black church and black life in America. Yet his secularized sound—tempered with the sweetness of Sam Cooke, the flamboyant flair of Little Richard, and the showmanship of James Brown—also ushered in a new era of African American pop in the ’60s.

With a little help from his virtuosic, multiracial band, Redding’s appeal also managed to cross over to white audiences on stage. His show-stealing set at the Monterey Pop Festival led Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir to claim, after Redding’s performance, that he had “seen God on stage.” Chris’s brother Michael Lydon, a music journalist at the time, was also there covering the event. He described Otis’s appearance as “ecstasy, madness, loss, total screaming, fantastic.”

Six months later, that Monterey god died in a plane crash. “The crown prince of soul,” the Rolling Stone headline declared, “is dead.”

50 years after this tragic loss, we’re looking back at the living legacy of Otis Redding’s soul.

Jonathan Gould, author of the new biography, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Lifegives us the origin story—tracing Redding’s career from his humble gospel roots in Macon, Georgia to his magisterial turn onstage in Monterey, California. Redding’s death, for Gould, also punctuates the end of one era of soul music.

James Brown (left) backstage with Otis Redding (right)

Larry Watson, who sings and teaches the soul tradition at Berklee College of Music in Boston, hears a slightly different story. For him, Redding represents an ideal model of an unassimilated African voice. As he wrote to us in an email earlier this week:

Otis Redding is a special breed and one of our foremost classical voices. He represents royalty in African-centered, unapologetic musical Blackness without ever uttering one political slogan. His very presence and sound represent our collective ancestral memory. It is the rumblings of God’s unhappiness with the way we continue to treat one another. His sound is Blind Tom, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner. He is also the sound of that vulnerable Black Mother and the Motherless Child. His sound captures what Dubois and Malcolm and King eloquently wrote about. He was one of our main vessels allowing us to mourn and rejoice that we would see another day of life.
For Larry, you can hear everything you need to know about Otis’s technique in the difference between Sam Cooke’s original version of “A Change is Gonna Come” and Redding’s raw re-interpretation.

Janice Pendarvis, one of the legendary back-up singers featured in the documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, takes great delight in performing Redding’s music. She once sang “Dock of the Bay” in a rehearsal for the reggae legend Max Romeo. Still today, she hears Otis’s posthumous hit as a “perfect record,” but in order to really understand the nuances in Redding’s performance style, she says, listen to  “Try a Little Tenderness.”

Emily Lordi is a literary scholar of the soul tradition at UMass Amherst. She wrote a book on Redding’s iconic female contemporaries—from Mahalia to Aretha—and another on one of Otis’s successors, Donny Hathaway. As a scrupulous close reader of this generation of soul singers, she shows us how those little “Tenderness” tricks were later transformed–and in some sense distorted–by Kanye West and Jay-Z:

Ed Pavlic is a poet with a keen ear for the long history of black music in America—much of which he distilled in a book we love, Who Can Afford to Improvise? on the musical inheritance behind James Baldwin’s prose. He take us through the evolution of the Otis style and spirit that came roaring out of the church and is still moving in the world—particularly through younger singers like SZA and Ravyn Lenae. The key for Ed Pavlic is not the sound of any performer, but the sound of a community.

As an added bonus, Pavlic also put together a special “continuous soul” playlist for us. The set of songs traces Pavlic’s history of an evolving tradition. Listen to it here:

Guest List
Larry Watson
singer and professor of ensemble at Berklee College of Music.
Janice Pendarvis
singer and associate professor of voice at Berklee College of Music.
Emily Lordi
associate professor of English at UMass Amherst and author of Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature and Donny Hathaway Live
Ed Pavlic
professor of English and African-American Studies at University of Georgia and author of Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners .
Michael Lydon
co-founding editor of Rolling Stone and author of Ray Charles: Man and Music.

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  • Vanessa McClinchy

    Thanks so much for your wonderful remembrance of Otis Redding, and the wonderfully poignant and thoughtful observations of your guests-particularly Larry Watson, whose fabulously multi-faceted assessment of a seemingly simple yet complicated man-and the times through which he’d lived- moved me to tears, as i could once again see the faces of my beloved, honored dead, who’d been Otis’ age at the time.

    The daughter of a gospel -singing father, church pianist mother, and granddaughter to two former ‘Chitlin’ circuit’ Blues musicians, I grew up with the souls of Otis Redding (and Sam Cooke) as the soundtrack of my young life and, like so many whose lives he’d touched, took his sudden death as a personal loss.

    To sit back with closed eyes and allow the memories -and tears- to flow with each hard-won and heart-felt note was a restorative that I hadn’t been previously aware of needing, as I was returned to my younger, curious, and equally hopeful -self, basking in the same sensual and utterly innocent ‘sensory indulgence’ that can transport a young and open heart, from the first note of a song that resonates on the cellular level of Soul, and great classical music.

    Thank you for such a wonderful and unexpected gift.

    • zgoldhammer

      Thank you so much for this wonderful and very moving note! Deeply appreciate it, and thanks for listening.

  • PI Mack

    Yet another interesting show from C Lydon.
    However at about 52 minutes after the hour I got to hear a disparaging remark regarding the President. I do not tune into a show about Otis R for Trump-‘bashing.’
    Please stop it.

  • Potter

    Elevating! The biography and cultural history of the period around Redding..the Gospel aspect, so wonderful as told, all your guests. ‘Try a Little Tenderness” is a bridge from Tin Pan Alley to Soul; it’s conversion is to almost a prayer, or yes a prayer. It made me realize that Redding was preaching, reaching through the music from his own soul out, almost screaming (but not Little Richard’s screaming) with heartfelt desire and love.

    Thank you very much… a wonderful message about how to deal.