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The Outstanding Otis Redding

by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"

 

Soul singer Otis Redding first crossed my music radar in a meaningful way in 1966. Sure, I’d heard him many times during the past year or two but it was his live appearance on a special edition of the groundbreaking British television show Ready Steady Go! that really caught my full attention. People who’d seen him live spoke of his dynamic singing and showmanship. I’d only heard him on disc before the show, but it was soon pretty evident from what was on screen that what they said about Redding wasn’t exaggerated. He shared the bill with Eric Burdon of The Animals and fellow Brit singer Chris Farlowe, both no mean purveyors of gutsy, belting, raucous blues. They were good, very good in fact, but Redding was exceptional. He held the young audience in the palm of his hand. They couldn’t get enough of him. It was a display of pure genius, which sounds maybe a bit of a cliché, but genius was the right description.

All of his songs were magnificently delivered, but the piece de resistance was Shake, a riot of a number with Redding sharing vocals with Burdon and Farlowe. The power captured by the cameras was mesmerising and still comes across today in all its glory (catch it on You Tube if you get a chance).

The Ready Steady Go! performance made me a big fan. So, it was exciting when in March 1967 Redding returned to Britain as part of the Stax tour, supported by Sam & Dave and Booker T and the MGs. The first port of call was the Finsbury Park Astoria in north London, a grand art décor cinema later to be the famous Rainbow rock venue. I lived just up the road from the theatre and it had hosted some memorable rock concerts in recent years, so it was no surprise when it became a fully-fledged rock establishment. Artists like Otis Redding helped put it on the music map. Alas, I never got to see the show. When I arrived at the theatre to book tickets, there were none available. The tickets had sold out. I was disappointed to say the least. I could have kicked myself for not acting faster.

The only satisfaction I got from missing out, was that the concert was a smash hit and the rest of the tour was equally as successful. Which was no real surprise. Music lovers in Britain had been keen enthusiasts of Redding’s music for some time.

In fact, at one point he was so popular that a readers’ poll in a leading British weekly music paper voted Redding as their favourite vocalist. It was a well-deserved accolade. He’d laid down his credentials with such classics as Respect, a barnstorming version of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, in my opinion one of the best-ever covers of a Rolling Stones’ number, and I’ve Been Loving You Too Long. Now, it seemed that there was nothing standing in his way. He was surely destined for greatness. I told myself I’d catch him next time around …

But, alas, that wasn’t to be. Just a few months down the line, on a chilly day in early December, the plane carrying Redding and his backing band, The Mar-Keys, plunged into a lake in Wisconsin. Redding, aged just 26, and all but one of the band, died. It was a terrible blow for his family, his fans and the music fraternity. I first heard about his death during a radio news bulletin. I hadn’t been in from work very long. I recall changing and then sitting down to relax for the evening. It was dark outside and the curtains were closed. It had been a cold, chilly day and the news made things even bleaker. What made it all the more sad was the fact that Redding had only days earlier finished recording a track that would become something of a signature tune for him and become a favourite with his fans. The song, of course, was (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.

Move forward three months to early March 1968 and the song was just making its debut in the British top-selling records chart. Throughout the month it would climb to the Number 3 position and be heard regularly on the airwaves. It was a month in which an anti-Vietnam War protest outside the American Embassy in London erupted in violence. It was a month when two announcements in the world of politics made massive headlines: the first being Robert Kennedy’s declaration to stand as a candidate for the US presidency, the other being the shock statement by President Lyndon Johnson that he would not seek re-election. It was also a month in which Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, died when the plane he was flying crashed. Seven years earlier he became the first man in space. He had been a hero in his own country but was also highly regarded worldwide.

Of all these noteworthy events, the one that stands out for me is the Grosvenor Square protest in which scores of police and demonstrators were injured. The violence ended in more than 200 people being arrested. A friend got caught up in the turmoil but was rescued from being trampled under foot by charging police on horseback when a group of fellow protestors dragged him to safety. Like most people taking part in the demo he wasn’t anti the ordinary fighting soldier. He just thought that too many of them were paying the ultimate sacrifice in a conflict that he felt should never have started in the first place. Myself, I was never big on protesting. I was just saddened by the fact that war seemed something we were unable to eradicate. I just wanted everyone to get on with each other in peace and harmony. Idealistic, I know, but that’s how I felt at the time.

Anyway, life moved on and the war in Vietnam escalated and later in the year a pile of 45s landed on my desk for review. I flicked through them without mush enthusiasm until one caught my attention. It was Redding’s Hard To Handle. One listen and I was hooked. The disc got played over and over again during the following weeks. It’s still one of my favourite Redding songs. Along with Dock Of The Bay, I can never hear it now without thinking back to those dramatic, turbulent times.

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.

 

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