By Peter Lindblad
As untimely as his passing was, Redding, it seems, may have known beforehand that his time on this earth was up.
At least that’s the impression you’re left with after watching the new DVD “Dreams To Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding,” from Reelin’ In The Years Productions and Stax Records.
“When you watch the film, it wasn’t a conscious decision on our part, but it almost seems like from day one, he had some kind of premonition,” says one of the documentary’s producers, David Peck.
As evidence, there’s the Redding’s song “Just One More Day,” and then, in the film, Redding responds to an interviewer asking him a fairly innocuous question about his future by saying, “Well, in five years, if I’m living …”
“What 25-year-old man talks about that?” asks Peck.
Does that constitute precognition? Maybe not, but there is more. As Zelma Redding, Otis’ wife, relates in the documentary, Otis called her from the road the morning of that fateful flight and asked to speak to his children.
“And she’s like, they’re not up yet,” says Peck, but Otis insists on talking to them.
“And then, they told me a story that [Otis’] brother Rogers Redding … Otis had desperately been trying to call him days before he died and could not reach him, and you know, his brother was really cut up about that,” says Peck. “So, it was almost like he was trying to tie up loose ends.”
Spliced in among 16 vintage TV performances — available here for the first time on DVD — are a new video for “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” featuring footage of the boathouse where Redding wrote the song, and interviews with some of the people who were closest to Redding, including Stax Records founder Jim Stewart, the Memphis Horns’ Wayne Jackson and Booker T. & The MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper. Cropper talked about receiving the news of Otis’ death in one of the film’s most poignant moments.
“The one that moved me was really when Steve Cropper said that he was mixing [(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay], and they hadn’t even found his body yet,” says Peck. “That’s just a dagger. That’s like someone stuck a knife in my chest.”
It’s impossible to tell the story of Otis Redding without dealing with his death, but Peck and fellow producer Phil Galloway, who worked on similar documentaries about the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, took great pains not to exploit the tragedy.
“When we chose how to cut this small portion of [the film], obviously we didn’t want to show images of the plane or just a bunch of kind of famous images associated with it that are a little more morbid,” explains Galloway. “We just really wanted to go with people who remembered — obviously, Zelma getting that phone call of Otis’ in the morning, and that’s really powerful; Steve Cropper talking about having to mix ‘Dock of the Bay’ over his body; [Memphis Horns’ trumpet player] Wayne Jackson talking about how he heard it. We really consciously wanted to stay on them more.”
Conducted by longtime music journalist and Stax Records authority Rob Bowman, the 40 minutes of interviews paint a portrait of a beloved artist who touched everyone he met.
“You hear them talk, and it’s almost like he was one of the apostles or something,” says Peck. “It’s just like, I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, but it’s almost like he was a deity. Just the way they talk about him, there’s just a light in their eyes.”
Audiences reacted much the same way to Redding. The very embodiment of Southern “deep soul,” Redding’s rich, smooth voice and emotional, pleading delivery captivated crowds in ways other performers couldn’t.
“There’s just so many great songs the man did,” says Peck. “For me, my favorite performance on the DVD, and one of my favorite performances of all-time, is ‘My Lover’s Prayer.’ Every time I see it, and I’ve seen it a trillion times, I get chills up my spine.”
The archival TV footage for the DVD came from various sources, including Reelin’ In The Years’ own library and companies like Research Video and Dick Clark Media Archives. Among the pieces is Redding’s last televised performance.
“One of the most unique clips is obviously the footage of Otis 16 hours before he died,” says Peck. “You know, I watched that clip for years, and every time I watch it, I want to change history. I keep thinking, ‘Don’t leave the studio.’ It’s like watching President Kennedy’s motorcade, and it’s like, ‘Man, don’t turn down that street.’ And, sadly, you can’t change history, but it’s very poignant and powerful.”
On the show, Redding belted out powerhouse, gut-wrenching versions of “Try A Little Tenderness” and “Respect.”
“You know, it’s funny. We’ve shown the film to a number of people — not theatrically or anything — and I’ve shown it to a lot of men in their 30s and 40s, like myself, and it’s really amazed me that all of them cry at the end of the movie,” says Peck. “It’s kind of like, ‘Wow!’ I think if you can create something that entertains, educates and touches somebody emotionally — not necessarily to get them crying — you’ve done something really powerful.”
‘Powerful” is a word often associated with Redding the performer. Behind the scenes, Redding was just as electrifying. Even in the studio, when he’d be arranging horn parts, Redding, also a songwriter in his own right, brought passion to the job.
“Wayne Jackson even talked about a shift in the energy in the studio when Otis was parking his car and getting ready to come into the studio,” relates Galloway.
Without interruption, Cropper and Jackson talk in the film about Redding preparing for his Monterey Pop Festival show and how Redding took over the stage. And that’s how Galloway and Peck make documentaries, not by employing clips taken from a thousand camera angles like an MTV movie, but just by using simple storytelling techniques and a minimum of camera shots.
“All we had to do was get out of the way and let them talk,” says Galloway. “And also, when they mention, and I still think about this, when [Jackson] says, ‘And when Otis hit that stage, the energy level and heat went up.’ That level of power and that level of excitement that the man generated …
“Otis was very different from Sam and Dave. He wasn’t a whirlwind all around the stage. He wasn’t a dynamo or anything like that. He was kind of, in a certain way, almost lumbering at times, but he had this incredible power, and this incredible voice, and this incredible excitement and presence. And so, it’s like we didn’t even have to call that out. One of the things Zelma talked about was how he wasn’t a very good lip-syncer, and … he’s kind of clumsy on stage, but he’s still the amazingly powerful Otis Redding the whole time.”