Monterey Pop at 50: the day Otis Redding became a legend
In an exclusive book excerpt, a look back at Redding's landmark performance 50 years ago
This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival, where artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and many others elevated their careers to stratospheric heights. Another artist whose performance at the 1967 festival, in the midst of what would become to be known as the Summer of Love, was soul legend Otis Redding. The show captures Redding at the peak of his powers. As one critic wrote, "he had the audience spinning like a chicken on a spit."
Additionally, "Respect," one of the songs Redding had written and recorded, was a Billboard number one single for Aretha Franklin at the time. Playing with Stax labelmates Booker T. & the M.G.'s, this performance introduced Redding to a new audience he called "the love crowd," as he had up until then been performing for primarily black audiences. Tragically, his breakthrough to a larger audience was short-lived, as he was killed in a plane crash in December 1967, months before his signature song "Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay" would be released.
Otis Redding: an Unfinished Life is a new definitive book by music writer Jonathan Gould about the life of the Stax singer. Below is an excerpt from the book about Redding's legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17, 1967.
— Del Cowie, q digital staff
The five songs Otis Redding performed in his rain- and curfew- shortened set at Monterey comprised an overview of his brief career. The incendiary opening number, "Shake," had been a posthumous hit for Sam Cooke, the gospel singer turned pop star whose supple voice, clean-cut good looks, and consistent "crossover" success (with white and black listeners alike) had made him, along with Ray Charles, a role model for every soul artist of the 1960s. Following Cooke's untimely death in a shooting incident in 1964, Redding had consciously sought to assume his mantle by recording his songs and emulating his determination to be his own man in the music business.
Otis's second number, "Respect," was one of the three hit singles he released in 1965, the year he emerged as a full-fledged R&B recording star. "Respect" was a prototype of the sort of driving dance tune with a stamping beat and a syncopated chorus of horns that defined the sound of the Stax label, but it had recently gained a new and greater significance as a vehicle for Aretha Franklin, who recorded it as part of her stunning debut on Atlantic Records in the spring of 1967. Franklin turned Redding's song—in which "respect" served as a euphemism ("give it to me") for sexual attention—into a woman's demand for the real thing, complete with a newly written release in which she literally spelled out the meaning of the word.
By the time of Monterey, this feminist reprise of "Respect" stood at #1 on the Billboard Pop charts. "This is a song that a girl took away from me," Otis told the crowd. "But I'm still going to do it anyway." "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)" was another of Redding's breakthrough hits from 1965, and another hallmark of his style: a slow, imploring ballad in 12/8 time, paced by wistful arpeggios on the guitar and stately crescendos from the horns. "This is the Love Crowd, right?" Otis asked, alluding to the hippies' atmospheric embrace of love (advertised by a banner reading "Music, Love, and Flowers" that ran the length of the stage). He then launched into a romantic testimonial of excruciating intensity, addressed to a woman whose "love is growing cold . . . as our affair grows old."
Otis seemed to be drawing on a different dimension of feeling and experience than that of any other performer who would be heard at Monterey
Phrasing tremulously behind the beat, edging into the song like a man edging into a difficult conversation, Otis couched his appeal in expressions of empathy ("you are tired, and you want to be free") and gratitude ("with you my life has been so wonderful"), before plunging into an ad-libbed coda in which he searched and strained for the words that might persuade her to change her mind: pleading ("I'm down on my knees"), protesting ("No! Don't make me stop"), and finally culminating in a thunderous declaration of "Good God Almighty! I love you." In the nuanced emotionality of his singing on this song, Otis seemed to be drawing on a different dimension of feeling and experience than that of any other performer who would be heard at Monterey, and it dramatized the tension that lay at the core of his appeal: that a man so physically imposing and overtly self-possessed could indeed be so consumed, so utterly undone, by the force of his yearning, his desire, and his need.
Finally, with the rain coming down, the crowd in an uproar ("he had the audience spinning like a chicken on a spit," one reviewer wrote), and the local authorities demanding an immediate end to the evening, Red- ding concluded his performance with a pair of "cover" tunes. The first was a frenetic rendition of the Rolling Stones' hit "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," whose presence in his repertoire reflected a conscious effort to cater to a rock audience—the impulse that brought him to Monterey in the first place. By stripping the song down to its bare essentials of title, hook, and groove (and dispensing with the lyrics' pretensions to social commentary), Redding recast "Satisfaction" as a swaggering carnal comedy that took his hypersexualized stage presence nearly to the point of self-parody. In addition to earning him an R&B hit in 1966, the song had served as a familiar crowd pleaser on his European tours, where many fans, aware of the usual pattern of white appropriation, mistakenly assumed that the Stones' ver- sion must have been a cover of Redding's original.
The finale, "Try a Little Tenderness," was something else again. The song itself was a Tin Pan Alley standard, written in the early 1930s by a one-handed American pianist named Harry Woods and a pair of English lyricists, Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly, and recorded over the years by the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como.
The Depression-era lyric carried an economic subtext with its account of a woman who gets "weary wearing the same shabby dress." Redding's ver- sion, released as a single in the fall of 1966, was a seamless synthesis of the two strains of sensibility—soft and hard, seductive and aggressive—that ran through the body of his work. Otis retained the ballad tempo of the original in the opening verses, which he sang with an exaggerated tender- ness over the bare accompaniment of whole notes on the bass. (For the crowd at Monterey, he ad-libbed an appreciative reference to "that same old miniskirt dress.") The instruments drifted in as the song progressed—a looping sax, a distant trill of organ, a thin spine of drums—until the arrival of a jaunty rhythm guitar caused the meter to shift, the beat to so- lidify, and the entire arrangement to assume the form of one long musical and emotional crescendo.
Marching in place, waving his arms, jerking his torso like a man possessed, Otis punctuated his appeal to "hold her, squeeze her, never leave her" with strings of percussive scat syllables, extolling the need for "tenderness" with a ferocious insistence that defied the meaning of the word. When at last he had taken this exhortation as far as it could go—though not before the band had contrived a false ending, generating a dense cloud of sound from which Otis reemerged to sing a final chorus before leaving the stage for good—he had done to "Try a Little Tenderness" what black artists like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ray Charles had been doing for half a century to the genteel conventions and coy platitudes with which Tin Pan Alley composers had sought to sing the praises of love: he had cured the song of its cant and sentimentality, transforming it with a startling infusion of urgency and energy into something inextricably real.
"I've got to go. I don't want to go," Otis announced as he walked offstage. And the crowd, which had been standing on its collective feet since the opening number, responded by filling the cold, wet Northern California night with an ovation that lasted nearly ten minutes.
Excerpted from Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life. Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Gould. Published in the United States by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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