The Sunday Magazine

Tribute to Otis Redding

Exactly 50 years ago this Sunday, the American soul singer Otis Redding died in a plane crash, just after recording his best-known song, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
Exactly 50 years ago this Sunday, the American soul singer Otis Redding died in a plane crash, just after recording his best-known song, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay." (Elaine Mayes/Instagram/MontereyPopFest)

On December 10, 1967 — fifty years ago today — the American soul singer Otis Redding died in a plane crash. He was just 26 years old.         

He had vaulted into stardom only 6 months before, at the Monterey Pop Festival. 

Redding was unknown to most of the audience when he came onstage after midnight. His finale, "Try a Little Tenderness," became a sensation.

Here's how Redding's biographer Jonathan Gould describes the performance: 

"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, 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."
Otis Redding was born in Dawson, Georgia. His great-grandparents were ex-slaves, and his father was a sharecropper.   

Redding was five years old when his family moved to Macon, home to another great soul singer, Little Richard. 

He sang in the church choir, and from age 10, he took drum and singing lessons. He left school at age 15, to help support his family.

At a local talent contest, Redding meet a guitarist named Johnny Jenkins, and when Jenkins landed a contract with Atlantic Records, he went along. While they were at the studio, Otis Redding recorded his own ballad, "These Arms of Mine".   

It became his first big hit, selling more than 800,000 copies. 

Redding couldn't read music, and he wasn't a virtuoso on any instrument. But his voice sounded like no one else's.

Geoffrey O'Brien, writing in the New York Review of Books, describes it like this: 

"The timbre alone seemed to resonate among echoing interior corridors, never mind his capacity to modulate it through shades of roughness and sweetness, keening and crowing, sliding and deflecting and sharpening. The eccentric swerves of the phrasing, the quicksilver embellishments of tone or timing offered continual astonishment."

Throughout his too-short career, Otis Redding built a reputation as a hard worker, a valued collaborator, and a decent person. 

His success was all the more remarkable given the circumstances. He grew up in the deep South, at the time when the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, was fighting its culture of segregation and violence against African-Americans. 

Otis Redding built a reputation as a hard worker and valued collaborator throughout his short career. (Volt Records: Wikimedia Commons)
One of Redding's songs became a huge hit when it was recorded by someone else. He told the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival: "This is a song that a girl took away from me."   
That song was "Respect," performed by Aretha Franklin and composed by Otis Redding.

But it was "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" that gave Otis Redding his first million seller — and its huge success came after his death.   

Here is music writer Marc Myers describing what happened on CBC Radio's Q:
Music writer Marc Myers on Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay"
In 1989, Otis Redding was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by the other famous R&B singer from his home-town, Little Richard. 
"Otis Redding Sittin on the Dock of the Bay" statue in Gateway Park in Macon, Georgia. Statue by Bradley Cooley and Bradley Cooley Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)
You can learn more about Otis Redding by reading Jonathan Gould's Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, or by watching Gould's interview on ABC, below.

Click 'listen' above to hear our full tribute.