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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