Otis Redding was king of the Sunset Strip in 1966

By Harvey Kubernik

Otis Redding’s “Live On The Sunset Strip,” culled from three full sets of his Whisky A Go Go shows in 1966, is a definitive live statement from Redding and songs are sequenced exactly as they went down. The collection includes some of Redding’s best-known songs: “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Security,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” “Satisfaction,” “Respect,” “These Arms of Mine” and “Just One More Day.”

Even better, the digitally remastered 2-CD set is now available in its entirety for the first time, and the set and includes extensive liner notes from Ashley Kahn, the author of “A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album,” and “Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.”

Lou Adler had produced Johnny Rivers’ hit live album at the Whisky a Go Go in 1964 in West Hollywood, Calif., putting the club on the national entertainment map and establishing the now-heralded facility as a choice venue for a concert recording.

For Otis Redding, a live album in 1966 was a very logical career move. His manager and record label (respectively, Phil Walden and Volt, a Stax subsidiary) were seeking to further Redding’s crossover potential and expand his audience.

Engineer Wally Heider, the West Coast’s leading recorder of live performances, was hired to tape three nights of Redding’s run at the Whisky—two sets on Friday, April 8, three the next night and two on Sunday.

Located at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Clark Street, The Whisky was owned and operated by Elmer Valentine and Mario Maglieri, two former cops from Chicago. The club had already initiated an integrated patron and live music booking policy that welcomed Otis and company with open arms

In ’66, the club booked the Otis Redding Revue and entourage, which included an emcee and a full 10-piece band (led by saxophonist Robert Holloway) coupled with three up-and-coming singers who were allowed one tune apiece before Redding entered the famed Whisky stage in Hollywood.

Redding’s band for that long weekend was Holloway; Robert Pittman and Donald Henry on tenor saxophone; Sammy Coleman and John Farris on trumpet; Clarence Johnson, Jr. on trombone; James Young on guitar; Ralph Stewart on bass; and Elbert Woodson on drums.

In the tradition of the R&B tours and whistle stops of the era, Redding also hand-picked some singing protégés including the keyboardist in his group, Katie Webster, Carl Sims and Kitty Lane for the club date.

As Kahn points out in his package notes, “In 1966, Redding was 24 and defined not only the sound but the style and look of a true soul man. Tall and lanky, he was ready to drop to his knees and tear off the thin-lapelled jacket of his sharply pressed suit when it was time to deliver the goods. His 10-piece band was his personal, traveling amen-corner, urging him to testify night after night … His out-of-breath stage patter was warm and down home. ‘Ladies and gentlemens,’ he addressed his fans, ‘holler as loud as you wanna — you ain’t home!’”

At the time, few realized Otis Redding had a previous regional and recording history in Hollywood, Calif.

In 1960, songwriter, music business activist and room-worker Kim Fowley was first West Coast Motown Records employee, and he was producing for the Hollywood-based Transworld/Lute Records label.

“Otis Redding was the first black artist on Transworld,” Fowley recalled. “‘Alley Oop,’ which I co-produced and co-published for The Hollywood Argyles, was on Lute, and Otis showed up and knocked on the door of the building I was responsible for buying because of all the royalties the record company made. So, Otis walked in and got on Transworld with an early version of ‘Shout Bamalama’ as ‘Gamma Lamma.’ He was like Little Richard performing as ‘Rockhouse’ Redding.

“Otis recorded ‘Shout Bamalama’ in Muscle Shoals,” Fowley added. “Like the Allman Brothers, Otis Redding came to L.A. and Hollywood to get a record deal. And then went back home. He brought the tape out, and Transworld put it out, and nothing happened. While he was waiting around for the verdict, he allegedly worked at a gas stations or a car wash. That’s what the rumor was.”

Redding also cut a handful of singles in town, including one number as Otis And the Shooters while staying regionally with one of his sisters. Redding split back to his home in Macon, Ga., in 1961 and that summer married his wife, Zelma.

Zelma Redding once remarked that a lot of the records Otis made were made up on the spot. And most of the songs were just done off the top of his head.

On the 1993 “OTIS! Definitive Otis Redding” Rhino/Atlantic Records 4-CD box set, producer Steve Cropper writes in the liner notes that when he heard Otis sing for the first time in a Memphis recording studio, he sure didn’t know that Redding “had gone earlier to California and cut three sides where the Hollywood Argyles cut.”

On Oct. 17, 1965, KHJ “Boss 30” Record play list “Respect” was number 14, and the town was already deep into the Redding vinyl repertoire. The city’s R&B soul radio stations played Redding regularly as well touting and anticipating his visit to Sunset Boulevard.

Two Redding numbers — “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” and “Respect” — had cracked the Pop Top 40, and a number of his recordings inspired covers by rock ’n’ roll bands, especially The Rolling Stones, and his version of the group’s best-known song, “Satisfaction,” was soaring up the singles charts in April 1966.

“I think Otis’ arrangement of ‘Satisfaction’ is more urgent than The Stones,” says Dr. James Cushing of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo English and Literature department, and a longtime DJ on the schools KCPR-FM radio station. “I think Otis sings it more as a song of triumph than a song of frustration. What Otis does with it is that the person might not be satisfied, but at least he has survived enough, whereas Jagger just sounds kinds of petulant and pissed off. Petulance and being pissed off is not bad, either,” he adds, “but it’s not a noble emotion, and Otis was more noble.”

The Rolling Stones have never shied away from their love and appreciation of Otis Redding. The band has recorded and played “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” “Pain In My Heart,” I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and, on its most recent U.S. tour, “Mr. Pitiful,” at a number of shows.

Just before his ’66 Whisky stint, Redding performed at the Hollywood Bowl on April 2 as part of a KHJ-produced “Appreciation Concert” (as part of a KHJ-AM listener appreciation concert to benefit The Braille Institute of America.) The Hollywood Bowl show included Donovan, Sonny & Cher, Bob Lind, The Knickerbockers, The Turtles, Jan & Dean, The Modern Folk Quintet and the Mamas & the Papas) and then his four-nighter at the Whisky A Go Go on the Sunset Strip.

Los Angeles music lovers and television children had already seen Redding in December 1965 when “Pain In My Heart” was broadcast in a TV performance on Dick Clark’s “Where The Action Is.” In addition, we caught “Just One More Day” from another Redding TV appearance the same day on “Hollywood A Go-Go.”

In 1966, musicologist, drummer and former Watts resident, Paul Body, lingered outside the Whisky hoping to catch a glimpse of Redding with other Soul music devotees. To some, Redding’s arrival was akin to Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, soon to be landing in Jamaica on April 21, 1966, to a tumultuous crowd of 100,000 people.

“Otis at the Whisky,” Body beams. “I remember that it was a Friday night, and we went cruising down Sunset on the prowl for foxes. We ended up at the Whisky, standing outside. At that time we couldn’t get in because we were under age and didn’t have any fake ID on us. Anyway, we just hung around outside, and we could hear Otis Redding do his thing. It sounded great.”

“Through the Whiskey walls I could hear, ‘Respect,’ and it was stomping. The doorman said that Dylan was inside. I like to think that that was the night that Dylan tried to turn the Big O on to ‘Just Like A Woman,’ which always sounded like a soul song to me, anyway. It felt great that soul was coming to the Sunset Strip. Didn’t get to see Otis until next year at the Monterey International Pop Festival, and the rest is history.”
Music business veteran Robert Marchese (who won a Grammy for producing the first live Richard Pryor comedy album), once managed Body’s band, The Sheiks of Shake, and was former manager of The Troubadour 1970 to 1983.

“I saw Otis in Baltimore, Md., at the Howard Theater,” begins Robert, “on a Saturday night when he had ‘Pain In My Heart.” End of 1963. I was in the military stationed in Ft. Mead, Md. I also saw him at the Royal Theater on Friday night. He was dynamic. One of the great shows I ever saw. He did not disappoint. It was a package of the Top 10 R&B acts on the soul charts, and they would bring them in for the weekend and do a song each.”

Marchese then provides the run up to his next physical encounter with Otis Redding.

“In 1965, I was helping out arranger Don Randi as a stage hand, who was working for Phil Spector as his musical director on ‘The Big TNT Show’ on Sunset at the Moulin Rouge that had Donovan, Joan Baez, The Byrds, Lovin’ Spoonful, Roger Miller, Petula Clark and Ray Charles. Don Randi got me the gig. I was setting up the stage and working with the orchestra in the pit. I had earlier had gone to the Rolling Stones’ 1964 Long Beach concert with Phil Spector, where The Byrds were on the bill.

“I was observing a conversation at the Moulin Rouge where Phil and Don were sitting around bulls**ting, discussing Ike and Tina Turner. I said, ‘F**k Sam Cooke. F**k Wilson Pickett. The greatest soul singer of our time right now is Otis Redding!’ As I’m saying it, (Atlantic Records) Arif Mardin runs up and says, ‘Phil, you a**hole. Listen to this kid!’ He handed me a promo copy of either ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’ or ‘The Soul Album’ instead of to Phil.”

“When the Otis ’66 Whisky show was announced, I was parking cars across the street at the 9000 Building,” shrugs Marchese, “and I told my boss I was going to the Whisky to see Otis. ‘Well you can’t.’ ‘I quit!’

“I had my uniform on and walked into the Whisky. I sat with Dylan and his entourage, which I think included Robbie Robertson. I knew Elmer Valentine, who owned the club. Otis was as good as the album. The album is proof of the pudding. At the Whisky he was more sure of himself from ’63. He kicked everyone’s arse in,” Marchese confirms.

In the spring of 1966, Otis Redding’s touring act was achieving historical notices and press cuttings.

“At that time, Otis was it,” remembers Taj Mahal, whose Rising Sons opened the Redding shows. “Great band, great songs, great show. A lot of singers gave you a great lyric or was a great song stylist, but this guy delivered all the goods on every level that was possible. His was one of the most amazing performances I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen some great performances. I’m talking about being in the same room, not watching a film or being at some big festival. This cat just had the rafters falling down.”

“It wasn’t that it was a certain style—it was just great music, you know. Otis was just one of the most fantastic, natural-sounding singers, you know. He wasn’t trying to articulate like anybody else; he was himself. After performing our act, we couldn’t wait to get off stage to watch all the things the musicians did, you know—like the bass player would stay down off the stage, behind the drummer and watch the foot pedal on the drums, and those guys would lock in.”

“I remember we realized that Ry [Cooder]’s guitar was in the same tuning that Otis wrote most of his songs in, which was open-D tuning. Anyway, he asked to borrow it, and, of course Ry ran right over with his great big, blonde-top. I’ll never forget Otis picking it up, and that was the first time I knew he played guitar!”

Denny Bruce also caught Redding and his team blast at the Whisky. Bruce, a drummer-turned-record-producer and manager, was an avid R&B fan who played with the pre-“Freak Out” Mothers, and then guided the careers of Leo Kottke, John Fahey, John Hiatt and The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

“I was amazed to see how big Otis was in person,” exclaims Denny. “I went as a paying customer and stood on the dance floor for this epic stand. It was a relief to see the real thing in person after The Enemies and The Leaves in that room.”

Redding was an instant phenomenon, and his local ’66 shows did not go unnoticed by reviewer Pete Johnson of The Los Angeles Times. In his headline review, “Otis Redding’s Southern-Style Blues Band Lets Off Steam,” Johnson wrote: “Drawn by his growing popularity, a fervid audience shoehorned into the club, chorused in on some of his songs, and, at one point, interrupted his introduction of a ballad by clamoring for more of his fast-paced tunes. Redding was assured of an In Group [sic] following Thursday night when, from among his spectators, emerged Bob Dylan, trailed by an entourage of camp followers.” (Legend holds that Dylan offered him “Just Like a Woman” as a possible cover that night, though Redding thought the song was a little wordy.)

In May 2010, pianist Pete Johnson contacted me about witnessing the cosmic Redding performance.

“I loved Otis Redding very much, both as a recording artist and as a performer. I saw him twice: at the Whisky and at the Monterey International Pop Festival. They were both magnificent performances. Like Ray Charles, he could slow down and elaborate a blues piece, morphing it from a song to a dramatic performance — ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,’ for instance, with its stately horn figures and his vocal agony stretched thin. Similar to, but quite different from, Ray Charles’ slow-motion live versions of ‘Drown in my Own Tears’ and ‘A Fool for You,’ where time stands still as Ray duets with his piano, building toward the horns and the Raelettes. And then Otis could stomp on the accelerator and rip through ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose,’ a rock ’n’ roll locomotive. At this point I can’t remember how they crammed his band onto the Whisky stage.

The Whisky hosted lots of great performances. This was up near the top.”

Otis and his group departed Los Angeles, and in the months that followed, the buzz and legend around Redding grew. The gigs at the Whisky became part of the momentum of ’66, including two more radio hits, “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” and “Try a Little Tenderness,” and the top slot on an all-star soul tour of the U.S., and his first tour of Europe and England. During Christmas week, a three-night stand at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium propelled Redding into his final year.

For the Aug. 21, 1976, issue of Melody Maker, I interviewed music promoter and entrepreneur Bill Graham at his Mill Valley home, along with Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia.

I asked Graham about his favorite concert performer, and without hesitation he ranked Otis as “The single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen.”

But first, Graham remarked that he had to first fly from San Francisco to Macon, Ga., to personally convince Redding to play his fabled rock palace with the 18-piece Robert Holloway band.

How could Graham describe Redding on his stage? “A six-foot-three black Adonis in a green suit, a black shirt and a yellow tie who moved like a serpent. Or a panther stalking his prey.”

There was another triumph for Redding on the Stax/Volt tour of Europe and England the following March. Then the spot at the legendary Monterey International Pop Festival. Aretha Franklin re-worked and covered his tune “Respect” that dominated the R&B and Pop radio airwaves all summer and fall.

And tragically, on Dec. 10, 1967, came Redding’s death, with four members of his backing band The Bar-Kays, when Redding’s private airplane crashed in a Madison, Wis. Lake. It was a day that constantly steers us to his frozen legacy that now houses these fully unearthed Otis’ Whisky A Go Go frenzied recitals from April 1966.

“We are reminded of Buddy Holly, and this extends to Stevie Ray Vaughn and his helicopter crash,” Cushing suggests. “Death by air travel. That is the most honorable and respectable way for someone in show business to die — on the road. You can’t not be on the road and be in show business. Right? You don’t have to shoot heroin for s**t’s sake. But you have to tour. And if you are touring, that means you are on wheels or in the air and stuff can go wrong that is not your fault. So, that’s the real tragedy of those people, is that their flight was cut down in the literal and metaphoric iconic sense.”

“What I think happens in these cases is a re-kindling of the great myth of Greek god Dionysus, who is the young man who dies young. Or Orpheus. The dying youth is one of the great classic and romantic figures,” Cushing says.

“Otis Redding & His Orchestra Live On The Sunset Strip” should now be considered the true official, historical and spiritual audio document of Redding’s three consecutive sets that have now been sequenced as the powerful event occurred.

“I’m still real clear about those shows,” recalls Taj Mahal about the shows he encountered that memorable weekend at The Whisky A Go Go. “It was raw and unscripted. It was just the joy of music, you know. The joy of rhythm, the joy of energy …”

Ashley Kahn, who teaches history and journalism at New York University, was blown away by the music when listening to the unedited recordings. “Otis backed by a well-honed R&B road band at their best in 1966. But it was the details of the show that had not made it onto LP or CD in the past that hit hardest —like hearing the opening acts, emcee announcements — and Otis himself: his out-of-breath banter with his band, the audience, and his upbeat, down-home good-time humor,” Kahn said. “I remember discussing this with Bill Belmont, who produced the reissue, and asking him to keep as much as he could to help capture what a concert felt like in spring of ’66.”

Various Redding-driven vinyl, tapes and CDs have been available on the market since Redding’s death, and a certain amount of respect and sensitivity has been employed by Stax and the label’s distributors and owners in restricting the posthumous products.

Earlier came the LP “In Person at the Whisky A Go Go” in 1968 with 10 selected titles that contained Pete Johnson liner notes.

Another Redding CD, “Good to Me: Recorded Live at the Whisky, Vol. 2” was released in 1992 in expanded format from a hard-to-find 1982 LP, which integrated some tracks and emcee introduction.

The original supervision on these discs and the new 2010 Redding Stax/Concord Music model lists Neshui Ertegun in the credits. He was either in the recording truck with engineer Wally Heider at the Whisky,or assembled the tapes later in New York at the Atlantic Studios.
This rarely acknowledged Ertegun was no stranger to Los Angeles, either.

In 1951 to 1954, Nesuhi Ertegun worked in Los Angeles for Lester Koenig’s Contemporary Records and penned liner notes on a couple of Barney Kessel albums for the Contemporary label. He taught the first history of jazz course at UCLA that garnered academic credit at a major United States university. He co-owned — or owned outright — the Jazz Man Record Store originally owned by David Stuart in Hollywood, on the Sunset Strip. Ertegun then bought the store and moved it to La Cienega Boulveard. with his wife, Marli Morden, who was once hitched to Dave Stuart. The new duo operated the record store on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood before moving the business to Pico Boulevard in West L.A.

Ertegun was about to work for L.A.-based Imperial records before his brother, Ahmet, and Jerry Wexler persuaded him to join Atlantic Records. He was vice president of the jazz and LP department and actively involved in their R&B recordings, hence his music supervision credit on all configurations of this Redding catalogue item.

“I will say Ahmet’s brother, Nesuhi Ertegun, who gets way underplayed, the way they don’t talk about my Uncle Phil and just my father Leonard,” iconic record man Marshall Chess says. “Both of them were keys. Nesuhi was key to Atlantic, and they would not have been as good or near as good without Nesuhi, and nor would have Chess without my Uncle Phil. They always underplay these guys. Nesuhi ran WEA, the international side of that, and that was the first total synergy network,” explains Chess, who helmed Rolling Stones Records 1971-1978.

The fact that this new Otis release is coming through the Stax/Concord label is something of note to Cushing. “It also continues the legacy and contributions of Neshui Ertegun. It’s very logical that a record company in Beverly Hills would put out an album cut in West Hollywood. Why leave the neighborhood if it is such a great place?”

“Otis Redding & His Orchestra Live On The Sunset Strip” should now be considered the true, official, historical and spiritual audio document of Otis’ three consecutive sets that have now been fully unearthed and sequenced as this seminal Hollywood event occurred. “Honor the incarnation,” as spiritual teacher Ram Dass requests when investigating this epochal journey.

The cover and poster artwork for the 2010 Stax/Concord Redding CD was created by San Francisco-based designer Dennis Loren. He had been contacted by Abbey Anna, vice president of catalog and corporate art services for Concord Music Group.

“She had seen some of the poster work that I had done for The Whisky over the years – online. Abbey ‘Googled’ my name, found my Web site and then got in touch with me,” Loren said. “Abbey then asked if I would design a promotional poster for their new Otis Redding CD project, that looked like the ‘commemorative’ poster series that I did for The Whisky A Go Go’s 35th Anniversary in 1999. She especially liked my Albert King poster design. I had a 1966 Stax publicity photo of Otis Redding in my collection and went to work on the poster.

“Abbey liked what I came up with so much that she asked me to adapt it for the CD cover design. In fact,” reveals Dennis, “I did two variations for the cover and the poster designs, just in case The Whisky owners didn’t grant permission to use The Whisky name on the cover. I made a blue duotone of the photo of Otis and boosted the contrast a bit. After I did the lettering and art elements, the color scheme evolved based on my use of contrasting colors. I also used complimentary spit-fountain colors in the lettering and background stripes to add some additional punch.”

“I felt honored to be able to do this CD cover and promotional poster design. I’m only sorry that the folks at The Whisky didn’t choose to cooperate with the Concord Music Group on this project.”

Cushing played the initial LP pressing on his radio show. “If you spin it on good equipment, you can tell different songs were taken from different shows, so there are obvious differences in sound quality,” Cushing said. “Some songs with almost no bass, others with a fair amount of bass. I’m sure they were working out the logistics on the recording end as Otis’ Whisky shows happened.”
The recording got better as the gigs progressed, Cushing said.

“Otis’ voice sounds really good on all the tracks, front and center. What a wonderful rhythmic improviser he is in terms of his voice, in terms of way of his delivery. It is his best live album but the instruments are a little inconsistent,” he said. “I loved hearing brass at The Whisky. It’s Otis at The Whisky! The club then and now had great sight lines and great acoustics. There were seats on the dance floor level, too. And you could see everything well, even from the balcony on top. The sound system, then and now, always state of the art. The idea of somebody there like Otis Redding who had that stadium size charisma, with a full band and horn section…”

“I’m so happy about the new remastered album,” he enthuses. “There is more emphasis on the drum sound. On the original it was equalized little far down. The addition of added tracks and material is fine. The extra minutes now added do not dilute the initial configuration. I don’t feel the intention has been violated, because the original intention had to do with finding the retail market and with finding a balance between the music as music and the music as LP, the restrictions of what it could hold on each side of the vinyl. But now with the expanded playing time of CDs and the whole computer MP3 thing, I feel that with this 2010 Redding at the Whisky A Go Go model we are getting a much more accurate picture of our own cultural past, with all its richness, liveliness, humor and all of the human touches now inserted.”

“It is what we need from the culture now is a larger picture of what we had so we can start getting some of it back. ‘Cause we need to get some of it back. To get back to that spirit like Otis Redding can emerge.”

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