On December 10, 1967, Otis Redding died in a plane crash in Wisconsin, the day after his TV and club performances in Cleveland. We look back on Otis Redding’s music with Cleveland’s Michael Stanley, KISS’ Paul Stanley and Melissa Etheridge.
By Warren Kurtz
In Memphis, Tennessee the Stax / Volt labels created a strong soul music niche in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with acts crossing over to the pop charts including Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MG’s, the Bar-Kays, the Staple Singers, Eddie Floyd, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and more. Georgia’s Otis Redding debuted in the Top 100 in May of 1963 with “These Arms of Mine” on the Volt imprint. This song, along with “Love Man,” were included in the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing” which looked back at that era.
Two years later, Otis Redding had his Top 40 pop debut with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” from the album “Otis Blue / Otis Redding Sings Soul,” which also included his composition “Respect.” Michael Stanley spoke with Goldmine about that album and Otis Redding’s back-up band on the record, Booker T. & the MG’s. He said, “The album opens with ‘Ole Man Trouble’ and you’re thinking, well, it can’t get much better than that, and then it does! ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ just might be the best R&B cut ever and the combination of Otis with Booker T. & the MG’s set the bar about as high as it goes.” “One Last Dream,” the closing song on the new album from Michael Stanley, “Stolen Time,” contains lyrics rooted in themes heard in Otis Redding’s recordings.
As a songwriter, Otis Redding achieved his first number one single through Aretha Franklin, with her version of “Respect” in June of 1967. In the new book “Cover Me,” author Ray Padgett shares with the readers that this popular recording not only served as a women’s rights anthem but also a civil rights anthem.
Also in 1967, Otis Redding teamed up with fellow Stax/Volt singer Carla Thomas as a duo of Otis & Carla with two Top 40 hits. First there was “Tramp,” entering the Top 40 the same week that Aretha Franklin’s version of respect reached number one and in the early fall, they were back with their cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.” Otis Redding also teamed up with the instrumental group the Bar-Kays, who had a Top 40 gold single that summer with “Soul Finger,” for a tour.
KISS’ Paul Stanley cites being inspired by Otis Redding and shares a love of soul music with his entourage Soul Station, who will be performing multiple nights in Japan next month. He told Goldmine, “I was lucky enough to see Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays in the summer of 1967 in New York. Otis was a mountain of a man, preaching the gospel of soul with an urgency, joy, power and tenderness that put him in rarified air, shared with very few including Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. I was just fifteen but was thrilled and knew I was witnessing undeniable greatness of another level.”
In December of 1967, Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays were in Cleveland for three shows at Leo’s Casino on Euclid Avenue. Down the street was the ABC affiliate, WEWS Channel 5. Each Saturday on the television station was Cleveland’s music show called Upbeat. On December 9, Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays performed “Respect.” Mitch Ryder was also on that week’s show and host Don Webster asked him to sing “Knock on Wood” with Otis Redding, which they did as the closing credits rolled. They closed their engagement at Leo’s Casino that night. Otis Redding and most of the Bar-Kays died on a plane crash the following day in Wisconsin, just three miles from where they were supposed to land in Madison for their next show.
By 1967, four of Otis Redding’s Top 100 singles were written by Booker T. & the MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper. On the original Sam & Dave recording and the Blues Brothers cover of “Soul Man,” there is a shout, “Play it Steve!” before Steve Cropper’s guitar break. On Steve Cropper’s web-site, playitsteve.com, he discusses Otis Redding’s first single to be released after the plane crash. He revealed that Otis Redding had surgery on his vocal cords to remove polyps and that they had fourteen good songs recorded but not finished. For “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” he offered a half dozen ideas to the singer. Otis Redding had been performing at the Fillmore auditorium and he was staying at a boathouse in Sausalito, rather than a hotel. He would watch the ferries going back and forth to Oakland and think about being 2000 miles from his home in Georgia. The songwriting duo had been looking for a crossover hit song for R&B and pop audiences. At the end of the recording, Otis Redding whistled and Steve Cropper said to leave it in the recording. After Otis Redding passed away, the record company was looking for material to release. Steve Cropper added his guitar solo, trying to emulate the sound of seagulls with his high guitar notes. They considered bringing in the Staple Singers for background vocals, but there was no time. The “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” single was released just six weeks after the plane crash in January of 1968. It reached the number one position in mid-March and stayed there until mid-April.
Flip side: Sweet Lorene
A side: (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay
Top 100 debut: January 27, 1968
Peak position: 1
The flip side, “Sweet Lorene,” was up-tempo, with guitar, organ and brass parts comparable to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” This single was the first of five Top 100 singles released posthumously that year.
In the fall, the only single that Otis Redding co-wrote with his wife Zelma was released called “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.” Since this single fell short of the Top 40, many rock listeners may have missed this one until last year when Melissa Etheridge dug deep in finding songs and released her historic “Memphis Rock and Soul” album, a tribute to the Stax/Volt artists. Including bonus tracks, there were fifteen songs of which Otis Redding was represented the most with three tracks including “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” “These Arms of Mine” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now).” In our November 2016 issue, Melissa Etheridge told Goldmine about her time in Memphis to do this recording, “Everything was brewing in Memphis; country, soul, all music. I had never recorded with horns and strings before. We listened to hundreds of Stax songs to make this collection.”
After six posthumous singles reached the Top 100 by late November of 1968, the Christmas single “Merry Christmas, Baby” was released in December and reached the Top 10 on the holiday charts.
The following year, the Doors paid tribute to Otis Redding with the single “Runnin’ Blue.” Jim Morrison sang, “Poor Otis, dead and gone. Left me here to sing his song,” in the opening lines and later, “Got to find the dock of the bay.”
Some cover versions of Otis Redding singles include Three Dog Night, with their first Top 40 single, “Try a Little Tenderness.” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band covered “Merry Christmas Baby” as the flip side of their remake of Edwin Starr’s “War.” Covers of Otis Redding flip sides include “I Can’t Turn You Loose” by the Chambers Brothers. The instrumental introduction to this song is also a popular song segment for the Blues Brothers. The Black Crowes brought “Hard to Handle” to the Top 40 in the ‘90s.
The Otis Redding song covered the most in the Top 100 is “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” In the same year as the number one hit single, it was covered as an instrumental by King Curtis. The following year it was covered twice more by the Dells and Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. A decade later, Sammy Hagar, with members of Boston from their tour together, released a version, just two years after Pagliaro’s version in Canada. Otis Redding’s sons and nephew, known as the Reddings, had their treatment of the song in the early ‘80s. Twenty years after the original hit single, Michael Bolton achieved the most successful cover version, when it reached number 11 in 1988.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, on WVCR radio as part of “Moments to Remember.”