Happy Birthday, Otis Redding


Seen on Beale Street:

Watch Otis Redding’s live 1967 performance of “Try a Little Tenderness.”

In this performance, what always strikes me is where it starts … and then where it GOES. And the journey he takes in between.

That journey is orchestrated by him. He’s the maestro, of the song, yes, but also of himself. How much to let out, of himself, incrementally … until the song gets where it needs to get, becomes what it needs to become. He KNOWS where it needs to go. And he’s going to take it there, but in his own time, without pushing … the song itself will lead him. and yet he is never less than in charge.

It’s such an extraordinary example of an artist who is not obedient to anything other than his own story and the sound and his feel of what is right, from moment to moment to moment.

In our highly orchestrated concert age, where so little is left to chance that the actual PERFORMER becomes an obedient “employee” basically in thrall to the demands of the complex choreography/computerized lighting schemes/moving stages, etc. … watching a performance like this is even more thrilling, and a spectacle far greater than a fireworks display over a stadium.

What happens when you try to remove the risk of live performance, when you want a “sure thing” even before the song has started … is that you remove the possibility of watching an artist create electricity all by himself. This allows space for the audience … and it’s THAT space that gets filled. HE fills it, with his intention, his purpose, his understanding of where he needs to start out – and then where he needs to GO.

A tragically short life.

If you go to the Stax Museum in Memphis (which you definitely should), there’s a whole Otis Redding room. His instruments. His sheet music framed with his scribblings on it.

And then this. The telegram Elvis sent to Otis Redding’s wife, expressing condolences when he passed. Framed on the wall.


It’s worth it to watch the entirety of Little Richards’ relatively nuts speech inducting Otis Redding into the Hall of Fame. A rock ‘n roll star appears to be who Little Richard actually is. His speech is all about him somehow. Which is charming and perfect and makes total sense because he’s LITTLE RICHARD. “Shut up.” And he sings, boy. He sings his own songs, he sings Otis’ songs. They both hailed from Macon, Georgia.

As Little Richard says, Otis Redding was “a pillar of rock ‘n’ roll.”

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13 Responses to Happy Birthday, Otis Redding

  1. Classic. More proof of my theory about that one little spot in Georgia that, in the space of fifteen years, produced Little Richard, James Brown, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Brenda Lee, Gregg Allman. There’s clearly something in the water around there that makes the local singers…indomitable!

  2. Tracey K says:

    He was enormously talent and inspired SO many singers. And the telegram from Elvis really says a lot about HIM, and what he thought of Otis, and the kind person Elvis was.
    I don’t think enough people today are aware of that.

  3. Tracey K says:


    • sheila says:

      Guy – wow, thanks for this.

      • sheila says:

        This is amazing:

        // Those who didn’t have the opportunity to catch him live could only go by whatever his voice was telling. Every first encounter was a matter of registering that this was a voice that sounded like no one else’s. The timbre alone seemed to resonate among echoing interior corridors, never mind his capacity to modulate it through shades of roughness and sweetness, keening and crowing, sliding and deflecting and sharpening. The eccentric swerves of the phrasing, the quicksilver embellishments of tone or timing offered continual astonishment. He stood by himself even in an era when he was being judged in comparison with (for starters) Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, James Brown.//

  4. Robert Blake says:

    Scotty Moore said the crowds were so loud, in the early days of live shows, the band couldn’t even hear Elvis. They just watched his movements. Scotty said, “ we were the first rock n roll band to be led by an ass “ .
    Same for Otis, thanks for posting this today.

  5. Tracy says:

    My introduction to Otis came as a young child from the broody scene in Top Gun. We were reintroduced when Jon Cryer skidded across the floor of the record store in Pretty in Pink. But I think I truly met Otis in my late teens, the PERFECT time in growth and development to ingest that voice. I hadn’t lived enough to truly get what he was singing about, but his angst spoke directly to my teenage soul and he was forever mine. Otis is MOOD, and to this day, my life stops in its tracks when Otis is in the air.

  6. Bill Wolfe says:

    The hardest thing to see at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is the remnant of Otis’s plane. Two of the great What if’s for me are what if Sam Cooke had lived through the great Soul era of the Sixties, and what if Otis Redding had lived into the rise of funk in the Seventies. We’ll never know, but – to quote my favorite Otis recording – I’ve got dreams to remember.

    Oh, and on a completely unrelated note, I *love* the Ann Dvorak photos! One of my favorites. I make a point of watching anything TCM shows with her in it.

    • sheila says:

      I was on such a Dvorak tear last month I had to announce it by placing her everywhere on the site – thanks for noticing!

      I so wonder too about Cooke and Redding – Redding was ripped from this world, so so cruel. Cooke made terrible choices with women – it’s so degrading how he died – not to blame the victim – but I get pissed when I read about the steps that led up to that moment. I can’t even imagine what he would have become if he had lived to old age. I mean, he did so much while he was here – he changed music, he changed the industry.

      Christgau has an interesting essay about him – he teased out elements of his music I hadn’t really considered, or would have put into those specific words. He did a compare/contrast with Elvis – it’s in Christgau’s latest collection of writing.

      Always appreciate your comments – AND that you visit here regularly. I really appreciate it!

      • Bill Wolfe says:

        Thanks for the kind words.

        Re: Sam Cooke. I was thrilled – I stood up and cheered in my living room, watching it on TV – when Obama quoted Cooke in his acceptance speech on Election Night in 2008. Thinking about it later, it struck me that, had he not gone to the hotel that night, he might have lived long enough to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at Obama’s Inauguration. That would have been something to see.

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