With his father suffering tuberculosis and often hospitalized, Otis Ray Redding Jr. quit school at the age of fifteen to help support the family. He worked at a gas station, but it was the occasional musical gig that got him noticed. From Macon (Georgia) talent contests to local bands, Redding later joined Little Richard’s band “The Upsetters” when the singer abandoned rock & roll music, for gospel.
Redding began his musical career touring the “chitlin circuit” at a time of racial segregation: a string of venues hospitable to black musicians, comedians and entertainers throughout the American south, northeast and upper Midwest. Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, and others.
Redding joined STAX Records in 1962, a portmanteau of the founding partners and siblings Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (STewart/AXton = Stax).
The label’s use of a single studio and a small stable of musicians and songwriters produced a readily identifiable sound based on black gospel and rhythm & blues which came to be known as Southern soul, or Memphis soul.
Singer-songwriter-musician Otis Redding became STAX Records’ biggest star in the five years before the plane crash that took his life: the “Big O”, the “King of Soul”.
Musicians from Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Janis Joplin and virtually every soul and R&B musician of the era have taken musical influence from Otis Redding. It was he who wrote the ballad R-E-S-P-E-C-T made famous by the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin.
His initial recordings were mainly popular with black audiences, but Redding and others crossed the “color barrier”, performing at “white owned” venues like Whisky a Go Go in LA, the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, and venues throughout Paris, London and other European cities.
Redding’s iconic song and #1 hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the bay“, became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. The album by the same name was the first posthumous album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart.
The song wasn’t intended to turn out the way it did.
Redding wanted to expand his musical footprint beyond the soul and R&B genre and took strong influence from the Beatles, particularly the layered sounds of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If you listen to the song – the seagulls, the sound of lapping waves – that’s what he was going for. Redding remembered those sounds from the rented houseboat in Sausalito where he wrote the first lines and asked Stax producer and guitarist Steve Cropper, to dub them in.
The “outro”, the twenty-five seconds’ whistling at the end, were nothing but a place holder. Cropper explains there’s “this little fadeout rap he was gonna do, an ad-lib. He forgot what it was so he started whistling.” No trouble, it could all be fixed an a second recording session session, after the tour.
That second session was never meant to be.
The kid who once pumped gas to help support the family boarded his own Beechcraft H-18 aircraft on December 10, 1967 along with Bar-Kays guitarist Jimmy King, tenor saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, trumpet player Ben Cauley, drummer Carl Cunningham, their valet Matthew Kelly and the pilot, Richard Fraser.
The band had played two nights in Cleveland. The next stop was Madison, Wisconsin. The plane took off despite warnings of foul weather. The show must go on. Ben Cauley remembers waking from a nap to see band-mate Phalon Jones look out a window and cry out “Oh No!” He then found himself alone, clutching a seat cushion in the 34-degree waters of Lake Monona. He was the only survivor.
True to his word, Cropper mixed Dock of the Bay as he said he would, adding in the crashing waves and the seagulls and keeping the outro, the way Otis had left it.
Rhythm & Blues stations were quick to add the song to playlists already saturated, with Otis Redding. The song shot to the top of R&B charts and pop charts, weren’t far behind. Dock of the Bay reached #1 on the billboard Hot 100 on March 16, 1968 and stayed there, for four weeks.
Since that time an impressive list of musical talent has joined Otis Redding, for producing # 1 songs released after the artist was gone. David Bowie. Biggie Smalls. Janis Joplin. Tupac Shakour. John Lennon.
It must be some kind of band they’ve got going up there.