Otis Redding and his early death

Written on the 4th of June 2014

I’m not a huge soul fan and by no means an expert, actually I know almost nothing about it. I occasionally listen to Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, nothing else. Two good singers who died young for different (and unfortunate) reasons. This time I’ll write a short post about the first, basically about the story of (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, probably his best known song. If you’re into this kind of music I’m sure you already know it, but for casual listeners like me it may be interesting. Also, I bet you know it even if you don’t know its title!

Otis Redding was born in Georgia in 1941 to a gospel singer and a housekeeper, not the richest of families. When he was a child, he sang in the Vineville Baptist Church choir and learned guitar and piano, and when he was ten years old he also started taking drum and singing lessons. He sang in the school band at high school and he earned six dollars every Sunday by performing gospel songs for Macon radio station WIBB. Oh well, I guess you won’t be surprised if I tell you his passion was singing.

He didn’t have an easy life, as many black people in those times, I suppose. He had to abandon school to help his family financially when he was fifteen, as his father had tuberculosis and spent quite a lot of time hospitalized. His mother’s salary was obviously not enough for the whole family. Redding had several jobs, some of them related to music, of course.

When he was 19, he met Zelma, a 15 year old girl, they had a son and married the following year. Around that time, he started writing his own songs, which made him well known in a relatively short period of time (although he didn’t have much time to enjoy fame either). While his success was mostly amongst soul fans, he got a big amount of respect from many groups formed by write people. A good example of this is the two covers the Rolling Stones did (That’s How Strong my Love Is” and “Pain in my Heart”. However it is true that the year 1967 saw him being more successful with the white audience (he had an extremely well received performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival).

I won’t really talk about his career, as I haven’t heard most of his music, only his posthumous album The Dock of the Bay and some random songs here and there. What I really wanted to tell in this little post is how a beautiful voice left this world so early. Not much to say, to be honest. He perished in a plane accident in Wisconsin when he was only 26 years old. Four members of the Bar-Kays, his backup band, also died in the crash.  It was raining a lot, it was foggy too, but the plane took off in spite of the warnings. Who knows the stuff he would have done had he lived longer!

Anyway, I should indeed talk about music a little bit, so I’ll briefly talk about the only Redding album I’ve properly listened to, and I say briefly because I honestly don’t know what to say! The Dock of the Bay is apparently a mish-mash of singles and B-sides starting from July 1965, which makes the album not especially cohesive when it comes to musical styles. But who cares, his voice is great and the album is great.

(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay is obviously the best known song here, and maybe his best known song of all time. This song was recorded three days before the plane crash. I’ve read somewhere that apparently he was later going to properly sing the last part, but, as he obviously couldn’t, the song was left with the whistling (done by his bandleader, Sam “Bluzman” Taylor, after Redding’s death), which is one of the things that makes it so famous.

There are a few very good songs here, songs I’ve heard at some point (most of them) before getting my hands on this CD, so you may know them. If I had to choose some of them, I’d say Let Me Come on Home, The Glory of Love, I’m Coming Home to See About You and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out, a song I had previously heard in Eric Clapton’s fantastic Unplugged.

Hmmm. I guess I should stick to stuff I know a bit better, but this post was basically an excuse to write about Redding’s early death and the story of the song (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, as many of the friends I’ve told don’t know it.

But oh, let me show you a few more of his songs before I go to bed. They’re pretty famous and even a casual listener will probably recognize most of them, if not all.

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