He may have been a Georgia native, but the name Otis Redding will always be synonymous with Memphis, Tennessee. The music he made there has become among the most influential in the 20th Century. For the man known by millions as “The King of Soul,” his ties to the city began with one of the most serendipitous moments in music history.
When the Georgia band Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers traveled to Memphis in 1962 for a session at Stax Records, Jenkins didn’t have a driver’s license so he hired a friend from Macon to drive him and his band there. Throughout their session, the hired hand asked Stax producers to let him sing. They did, and he began singing “These Arms of Mine.” That driver was Otis Redding.
Born in Dawson, Georgia on September 9, 1941, Redding moved to Macon at any early age and began competing in local talent shows in high school. He was soon forced to stop competing after winning the $5 prize 15 times in a row. After a brief stint with Little Richard’s former backup band, The Upsetters, Redding began sitting in occasionally with the Pinetoppers, until that impromptu session at Stax.
Once signed to the Stax imprint Volt Records, Redding began his rise to fame with some 30 singles including “Pain In My Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” “Try A Little Tenderness,” “Mr. Pitiful,” and “Respect,” which he wrote and recorded at Stax in 1965 and which was famously covered and released in 1967 by Aretha Franklin. His six Stax studio albums and a slew of live ones also helped catapult him into the international limelight.
As popular as Redding’s recordings were, his live performances and larger than life stage presence drove crowds wild. He became a favorite at such venues as The Apollo in New York, The Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles, and at various locations around the South.
Redding’s two European trips, in 1966 and 1967, introduced him to an entire new audience. Also in 1967, Redding, backed by Stax house band Booker T. & the MGs, performed before his first large, U.S., predominantly white audience at the Monterrey Pop Festival in California. He was a massive hit with the “Summer of Love” crowd, and it positioned him to become of the industry’s most successful crossover artists.
All of that sadly ended, however, just months later on December 10, 1967. While en route that day to a concert gig in Madison, Wisconsin, Redding’s private plane crashed just a few miles from Madison’s airport, killing Redding, just 26 years old, and all but two members of his traveling band, the Bar-Kays. Redding left his wife Zelma and his children Karla, Dexter, and Otis Redding III. The incident left the world in shock.
Just the month before, Redding had recorded an unfinished version of a song he co-wrote with Booker T. & the MGs guitarist and Stax executive Steve Cropper. Cropper and other Stax studio musicians finished the song and it was released in January 1968. The song was “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” and, by 1999, it became the sixth most-aired songs in U.S. history, aired more than six million times.
Redding’s songs have been covered and sampled for decades by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, Al Green, Pearl Jam, John Mayer, Christine Aguilera, Etta James, Rod Stewart, Kanye West, and even Mae West. Among many other posthumous accolades, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.
In 2010, another music industry icon covered another Redding/Cropper song. On Huey Lewis and The News’ first LP in nine years, Soulsville, Lewis performs the lesser-known hit “Just One More Day.” And it wasn’t just one more song for Lewis, who says it was daunting.
“I mean, it’s Otis Redding,” Lewis says. “I was nervous about trying to do one of his songs because there’s just never been anyone like him in the world. He was one of the greatest singers of all time.”