21. Otis Redding
By Steve Cropper
The first time we saw Otis Redding was in 1962, and he was driving a car for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers out of Macon, Georgia. They had a moderate hit, an instrumental called "Love Twist," and they wanted to record a follow-up in Memphis with my band, Booker T. and the MGs. I saw this big guy get out from behind the wheel and go to the back of the truck and start unloading equipment. That was Otis. And we had no idea he was also a singer. In those days, instrumental groups always carried a singer so they could play the songs on the radio that the kids wanted to dance to.
We had a few minutes left at the end of the session, and Al Jackson, our drummer, said, "This guy with Johnny, he wants us to hear him sing." Booker had already left for the day, so I sat down at the piano, which I play only a little for writing. Otis said, "Just gimme those church things."
We call them triplets in music. I said, "What key?"
He said, "It don't matter."
He started singing "These Arms of Mine." And, man, my hair stood on end. Jim [Stewart, co-owner of Stax] came running out and said, "That's it! That's it! Where is everybody? We gotta get this on tape!" So I grabbed all the musicians who hadn't left already for their night gigs, and we recorded it right there. When you hear something that's better than anything you ever heard, you know it, and it was unanimous. We almost wore out the tape playing it afterward. "These Arms of Mine" was the first of 17 hit singles he had in a row.
Otis had the softness of Sam Cooke and the harshness of Little Richard, and he was his own man. He was also fabulous to be around, always 100 percent full of energy. So many singers in those days, with all due respect, had just been in the business too long. They were bitter from the way they were treated. But Otis didn't have that. He was probably the most nonprejudiced human being I ever met. He seemed to be big in every way: physically, in his talent, in his wisdom about other people. After he died, I was surprised to find out I was the same age as he was, because I looked up to him as an older brother.
When I wrote with Otis, my job was to help him finish his songs. He had so many ideas that I'd just pick one and say, "Let's do this," and we'd write all night long. "I Can't Turn You Loose" was just a riff I'd used on a few songs with the MGs. Otis worked it up with the horns in about 10 minutes as the last thing we did one night in the studio. Just a riff and one verse that he sings over and over. That's all it is. With Otis, it was all about feeling and expression. Most of his songs had just two or three chord changes, so there wasn't a lot of music there. The dynamics, the energy, the way we attacked it — that's hard to teach. So many things now are computer-generated. They start at one level and they stop at the same level, so there isn't much dynamic, even if there are a lot of different sounds.
I miss Otis. I miss him as much now as I did after we lost him. I've been to the lake in Madison, Wisconsin, where they have the plaque. The best explanation I've read is that his plane missed the runway on the first approach, and it circled around over the lake when the wings iced up. That was December 10th, 1967. It's been difficult for me to listen to Otis since then. It brings back too many memories, all great except for the end.