Otis Redding was the quintessential Southern soul singer. Not only has his emotion-gripping Georgia-hewn style come to epitomize the Stax/Volt Memphis sound of the Sixties, but as a vocalist, songwriter, and arranger, he played a key role in shaping it.
The year 1992 marks the 25th anniversary of Redding’s tragic death, an occasion honored by the release of Remember Me, the first collection of "new” Redding material to be issued in a decade. Compiled by Roger Armstrong from the Stax/Volt library of tapes purchased in 1977 by Fantasy Records and annotated by leading Stax authority Rob Bowman, the compact disc affords a fascinating and ultimately rewarding glimpse into the soul titan’s genius at work in the studio.
Of the 22 selections included in Remember Me, 14 are previously unheard diamonds—some polished, others still rough—spanning Redding’s five-year association with Stax Records. A number of the performances, including the driving "Trick or Treat” and the haunting title track, are so fully realized that it’s a wonder they weren’t released at the time. Three are covers, with Little Richard’s "Send Me Some Lovin’” and Sam Cooke’s "Cupid” being heartfelt Redding tributes to his two primary stylistic mentors.
Seven tracks are alternate takes or remakes of previously released Redding songs, including such all-time classics as "Respect,” "Try a Little Tenderness,” "I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” and "(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay.” The remake of "Respect” is taken at the breakneck tempo Redding favored in live performance, while the other three are presented in embryonic form. "I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” is delivered with wife Zelma Redding’s original lyrics, with different chord changes on the bridge, and without the background vocals that were dubbed onto the issued version. The two early treatments of "Dock of the Bay,” Redding’s biggest hit, dispel the myth that he began whistling near the end because he forgot his own lyrics; he was whistling all along, though it took him a while to perfect his pucker.
The son of Otis and Fanny Redding, Otis Redding Jr. was born on September 9, 1941 in Dawson, Georgia and raised a hundred miles to the north in the Bellevue section of Macon. The Georgia city was a hotbed of rhythm and blues activity during the Fifties, and the huge success of two Macon-based singers—Little Richard and James Brown—gave impetus to young Redding’s desire to become a professional entertainer. He began doing Little Richard and Elvis Presley songs at talent shows in the area and, in 1958, briefly toured with the Upsetters, the very band Little Richard had just abandoned due to his religious calling.
A visit to a sister in Los Angeles during the summer of 1960 found Redding making his first recordings, including "She’s All Right” (a later rendition of which is included on Remember Me), but they went nowhere. "Shout Bamalama,” a Little Richard—inspired raveup that he recorded the following year in Athens, Georgia, caused a minor stir in the South, but real success continued to elude Redding. He performed mostly around Macon with extrovert guitarist Johnny Jenkins’s Pinetoppers, a band managed by Phil Walden, a white teenager who would soon shepherd Redding’s rise to stardom.
Redding made his first trip to Memphis in October 1962 as Jenkins’s driver. At the tail end of the guitarist’s session, however, Redding was given the opportunity to record two songs. "Hey Hey Baby” was yet another Little Richard takeoff, but the pleading, highly distinctive "These Arms of Mine” so impressed Stax co-owner Jim Stewart that Redding was signed to the company, where his recordings were issued on the Volt subsidiary.
An immediate smash in the South, "These Arms of Mine” eventually reached number 20 on Billboard’s R&B chart. Bigger hits followed over the next five years, including "Mr. Pitiful,” "I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” "Respect” (success-fully revived by Aretha Franklin), "Satisfaction,” "Try a Little Tenderness,” and "Tramp” (a duet with Carla Thomas), establishing Redding as a major attraction on both sides of the Atlantic. He proved an ideal collaborator with the crack Stax house band, and his unique major-key chord progressions and the riveting riffs he dictated to the Mar-Keys horn section greatly influenced the direction the band took with other artists who recorded at Stax.
A sensation in the black community from the onset of his tenure at Stax, Redding was in the process of a major crossover to white audiences, having toured Europe several times and appeared at 1967’s groundbreaking Monterey Pop Festival, when he and four members of his band perished in a Wisconsin plane crash on December 10, 1967. Ironically, full-scale crossover was finally achieved when the innovative "(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay,” recorded several days before the accident, topped both the R&B and pop charts in early 1968.
Otis Redding was just 26 at the time of his death. Had he lived, no one knows what other stylistic directions he would have taken or how much further his star might have ascended. He did, however, leave behind a wealth of sweet and gritty, timeless soul music, of which Remember Me is a most welcome reminder.