Otis Redding's grainy voice and galvanizing stage shows made him one of the greatest soul singers of all time. At the time of his death, he was being hailed as the King of Southern Soul and was making his first significant impact on the pop audience after years as a favorite among blacks. Redding's songs have been covered by numerous artists: Aretha Franklin recorded the definitive version of "Respect," taking it to Number One in 1967; more than two decades later, the Black Crowes scored a hit with Redding's "Hard to Handle."
Born Otis Ray Redding, Jr. in Dawson, Georgia, on September 9, 1941, he was five when his family moved to Macon, the Georgia town Little Richard had put on the music map. In his youth, Redding was hugely influenced by Little Richard as well as Sam Cooke; early in Redding's career he was a member of Little Richard's backing band, the Upsetters. In the late Fifties, Redding met Johnny Jenkins, a local guitarist who invited him to join his group, the Pinetoppers, managed by Phil Walden, who later would manage the Allman Brothers Band. Feeling that he'd gone as far as he could go in Macon, Redding moved to L.A. in 1960. There he cut a handful of singles, including the Little Richard-esque "Gamma Lamma." Upon returning to Macon in 1961, he recorded "Shout Bamalama" and garnered some local attention.
After taking odd jobs around the South, Redding was working as a chauffeur and collaborating again with Jenkins when the guitarist landed a contract with Atlantic. One day in October 1962, when it seemed that Jenkins' session wasn't going anywhere, Redding hastily recorded his own ballad, "These Arms of Mine." He had accompanied Jenkins to the session hoping to get a chance to record. By 1963, "These Arms of Mine" had become Redding's first hit, reaching Number 20 on the R&B chart and establishing Redding as a recording artist. But it was his impassioned performances on the so-called chitlin' circuit that made Redding, next to James Brown, the most popular black entertainer of the mid-Sixties.
Redding wrote many of his own hits, including "Mr. Pitiful" (Number 41 pop, Number 10 R&B, 1965), "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)" (Number 29 pop, Number 12 R&B, 1966), and "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" (Number One pop, Number One R&B, 1968), all co-credited to Stax session guitarist Steve Cropper; "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (Number 21 pop, Number Two R&B, 1965), with Jerry Butler; "Respect" (Number 35 pop, Number Four R&B, 1965), "I Can't Turn You Loose" (Number 11 R&B, 1965), and "My Lover's Prayer" (Number 61 pop, Number 10 R&B, 1966).
He also had hits with the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" (Number 31 pop, Number Four R&B, 1966) and Sam Cooke's "Shake" (Number 47 pop, Number 16 R&B, 1967). Among his albums, Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (Number 73 pop, Number 5 R&B, 1966) is considered one of the best examples of the Memphis soul sound.
Redding also played an important role in the careers of other singers. In 1967 he cut a duet album with Carla Thomas, King and Queen, which had a hit in "Tramp" (Number 26 pop, Number Two R&B). Redding produced his protégé Arthur Conley's tribute "Sweet Soul Music" (Number Two pop and R&B, 1967) — an adaptation of Sam Cooke's "Yeah Man" — which became a soul standard. Also, Redding established his own label, Jotis, and was planning to get more deeply involved in talent management, development, and production.
Redding's appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 introduced the singer to white rock fans. His intense performance (captured in the film Monterey Pop and on the album Otis Redding/Jimi Hendrix) was enthusiastically received. As a gesture of thanks, Redding and Steve Cropper wrote "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay." It was recorded on December 6, 1967, at the end of a long session. The whistling at the end came about, Cropper claims, because Redding forgot a vocal fadeout he had rehearsed before. It would become his biggest hit, yet Redding never lived to see its release.
Four days after the recording session, on December 10, 1967, his chartered plane crashed into a Wisconsin lake, killing Redding and four members of his backup band, the Bar-Kays. In early 1968 "The Dock of the Bay" hit Number One on both the pop and R&B charts.
Redding had recorded enough material for Atlantic to release three more successful studio albums — The Immortal Otis Redding (Number 58 pop, Number 3 R&B, 1968), Love Man (Number 46 pop, Number 8 R&B, 1969), and Tell the Truth (1970) — and the hits kept coming after his death: "Amen" (Number 36 pop, Number 15 R&B, 1968), "The Happy Song (Dum-Dum)" (Number 25 pop, Number 10 R&B, 1968), "A Lover's Question" (Number 48 pop, Number 20 R&B, 1969), "Love Man" (Number 72 pop, Number 17 R&B, 1969), as well as such defining songs as "Hard to Handle" and "I've Got Dreams to Remember." In addition, a live album, In Person at the Whisky a Go Go, recorded in 1966, produced the 1969 hit "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" (Number 21 pop, Number 10 R&B).
In 1982, Redding's two sons and a nephew formed their own group, the Reddings, and covered "The Dock of the Bay" (Number 55 pop, Number 21 R&B). Little Richard inducted Redding into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Ten years later the singer received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. In 2008 Rolling Stone listed Redding among the top ten greatest singers of all time. The following year a tribute concert in Atlanta featured performances of Redding's songs by sons Dexter and Otis III, as well as a younger generation of R&B and hip-hop artists including Anthony Hamilton, Estelle, and rapper Ludacris.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.
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