Out of the sonic ether, Otis Redding lofts a request: “Just holler as loud as you want. Stomp as hard you want or just take your shoes on off. Get soulful.” The suggestion slides into the murk of a Saturday evening crowd at the Whisky a Go Go. It hovers a moment and then seems to just drift -- spin -- out along the surface.
This evening is but an echo now: April, 9 1966, the second night of a three-night stand on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. He too would be a memory, a ghost by age 26, a little more than a year later. But from this vantage, fifty years in the future, one can’t help but to wonder about the strange waters he must have felt he was swimming.
You can hear both the sun and the struggle in his voice -- a geniality that feels both utterly genuine and yet much-practiced and perfected. Patter. Mood-gauging engaging. He’s trying to get a rise out of -- or perhaps -- a handle on who is pressed into this space -- in order to not only reach, but astound them.
That would come.
The Otis Redding ready to work the stage that evening wasn't an unknown quantity. By Spring 1966 he’s already celebrated several charting hits; he’s fresh from a cameo at the Hollywood Bowl; he’s a playlist staple across the country and also locally, here in this moment across Los Angeles -- both on the soul airwaves and on the pop spots on the AM band. Those in attendance would remember marquee names among the curious ushered in to catch a glimpse. And while this moment on the recording may not fully reveal the mood or nuances of the room, it most certainly frames the challenges pitted against Redding’s persuasive power as a performer -- strong, confident, ready.
For Redding, that line between star and superstar seemed elusive but permeable. A major splash in Los Angeles could provide the sort of crossover heat that would carry him across that threshold.
Musically, his plaintiveness and one-on-one directness transmitted into bona fide hits that had brought him soul-chart fame and financial stability -- a fine ranch and a comfortable family life. But to his mind pop acknowledgment would mint and secure it. Maybe it was insurance that all that he had built wouldn’t slip away.
If early soul music had been about testifying -- an amalgam of sweat-drenched rhythm and blues with deep roots fanning back to the call and response oratory of the southern black church, by Redding’s time it was also an expression of worldly concerns -- love, regret, longing.
In Redding, one palpably heard that transition, from one era to the next. His big worldly voice trailed the grit and dust of a past life into a metaphorical “new house” -- those new digs and experiences black people now occupied as they shed country for city. His “soul” music still directly reflected the blues and gospel that had carried those same people through the most spirit-trying times. Tension bloomed within the space of those countervailing emotions -- longing and regret; the very delivery itself reflected a generation’s dilemma of wanting more but the pain of letting go.
The heart of soul was no longer rooted in the shuffle-beat of not-so-distant past, and for Redding, it wasn’t the streamlined propulsion of early Motown; it was a dynamic urgency -- that stomp beat -- a compelling palpable emotion, a forward-pressing locomotion of never giving up.
Born in Macon, Georgia, the son of a preacher, Redding would count Clyde McPhatter and Little Richard among his earliest influences. Later he would be deep under the sway of Sam Cooke, often including tunes written or recorded by the singer into his own performance set lists and on album playlists, until Cooke’s own untimely death at 33 in 1964.
Serendipity would launch Redding’s career as a headliner. As a vocalist in an ensemble, Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, he toured the southern circuits. In 1962, Jenkins landed a recording contract and was planning a trip to Memphis. Though Redding wasn’t to be included on these sessions, he agreed to ferry Jenkins to Tennessee by car. Jenkins finished his session with time left to spare; Redding took advantage of the space -- a mere 20 minutes if that -- and recorded one tune “These Arms of Mine.” That first release launched him as a solo artist and Memphis became his good luck charm and recording-base.
His voice was an unequaled amalgam of regret, pain and potency. In it was a rasp and grain but there was also something in the air and bend of a note, or the particular twist of a sentiment that he could fully own. His hat-in-hand subject matter -- songs that explored the themes of heartsickness, the landscape of forgiveness and calls for mercy -- branded him “Mr. Pitiful,” but his delivery -- truth-telling suffused with a rawness and candor -- marked him anything but weak.
To anyone even vaguely familiar with the elaborate history of the Sunset Strip, the Whisky a Go Go might seem an unlikely landing pad for Redding. Named after a club in Paris, the 250-seat venue, owned by Elmer Valentine, had become the place where acts like Johnny Rivers, the Byrds and the Turtles gained traction. With its head shaking go-go girls dancing in suspended cages and its now leaning-toward hippie clientele, the Whisky had no history of hosting rhythm and blues or soul acts. The Strip, like much of 1960s Los Angeles, had invisible but tough to permeate dividing lines -- where and when one could enter were restrictions sometimes often difficult to read.
“By the end of the fifties, Sunset between Highland and Doheny was a Mecca for L.A. youth of the clean-living, crewcut-and-varsity-sweater variety,” wrote Barney Hoskyns in his 1996 book Waiting for the Sun: A Rock & Roll History of Los Angeles.
While it wasn’t Otis Redding’s first visit to Los Angeles, Redding and his Revue would be the first major soul act to play its stage; the bonus of a live recording gave the run a special imprimatur.
This wasn’t any old rhythm and blues act. Redding was distinctive: “This wasn’t ‘race music’ -- it was soul music,” says music journalist and author Harvey Kubernik. “He wasn’t viewed strictly as R&B and wasn’t going to be exclusively chitlin’ circuit. To do a live album before the guy was huge? To run tape very early? That was huge.”
Change was coming, but it was incremental, especially on the west coast, which always operated by its own set of rules. However, post President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Watts uprisings of 1965, the West Hollywood Otis Redding walked into was just shaking away that crew-cut/malt shop image. In that moment, says Kubernik, the latest incarnation of the Sunset Strip was just beginning to bloom: “People across Los Angeles didn’t know a lot about the Whisky then. It was a Hollywood venue. And the Strip in those years was still old world -- Ciro’s and the Crescendo. Not until after ’66 would that change. But Otis walks into a good climate here.”
A “good climate,” yes, but this would not be the place that Redding would find a black audience, one that might immediately connect with what he was putting across, that would be across town -- say at the 5-4 Ballroom, which at the time hosted many marquee black acts: James Brown, Muddy Waters, Dinah Washington, who would roll through town. This was some other territory and atmosphere and in certain respects it might have been the Moon.
Nonetheless, on the strength of his magnetism and charting momentum, Redding’s manager Phil Walden secured the Whisky without a hitch. Redding began to see this three-night run as just the right spark to help him jump over all those many lines -- from star to superstar, from R&B/soul to pop, from all-black rooms to arenas… Fresh off of his successful LP Otis Blue, Redding wanted to bank on that momentum. Already, the Rolling Stones had covered his 1964 single “Pain in My Heart” -- and reciprocally, Redding had shrewdly reworked “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” His aching testimonial “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” and plea “Respect” (which later, reinterpreted by Aretha Franklin, would serve as black pride anthem) were circulating on the radio. He was positioned for not simply the next rung, but for greatness -- a live album would both cement and enshrine it. “This was the magic of his label. It wasn’t even a white or black thing,” says Kubernik.
The show sold well and the curious lingered on the sidewalks, but as Mark Ribowsky wrote in his biography of Redding and Stax, Dreams to Remember, “His éclat was more known to the Sunset crowd than any of his work.” Curiosity prompted and led them.
The musicians had rehearsed their song list inside out, and by the time Redding hit the stage, introduced by emcee Al “Brisco” Clark, he dove into the deep end. In his black tux, squeezed between those go-go girl cages, he found his sweet spot; Redding was there to win.
For Paul Body, a musician and young fan who drove the twenty miles from Montrose, not gaining entry was a big blow. “We couldn’t get in. At that time it was 21 years old and over. But me and my friend, we just stood outside. Listened. I watched Van Morrison go in. The doorman told me that Dylan was inside, too.” But it was the blast of Otis and his review -- the peaks and valleys drifting out onto the sidewalk -- that held him there. Those italicized horns, that slow-burn voice. “I just wanted to be there. Any way I could. Otis. He was something.”
The opening act those three nights was the blues/folk act Rising Sons, featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. That perch gave the young musicians an unhindered view at history: What lingers with Cooder was the bracing freshness of what unfolded: “There was no way Otis was a reconstructed pop act. That show he did at the Whisky was his regular R&B show revue and the kind of staging you only saw at black clubs in the south.”
That floating exhortation one can hear Redding pose at the outset of his sets -- was a way to take the temperature. You sense it in the polite applause, the unsettled air: Hollywood seems unsure at first what to do.
“What you hear on the record,” says Kubernik, “is sort of this tepid response, Otis trying to get them going. The audience first didn’t seem to be knocked out -- the applause is polite.”
“Who knows what the rock audience thought?” Cooder recalls, “Attendance was not up there with a Johnny Rivers show, but how could it be? But one thing for sure, they heard ‘Satisfaction’ done at a land-speed-record tempo. I don’t think any white pop band could ever play that fast in those days.”
Los Angeles Times music critic Pete Johnson was sent out to take it all in and deemed the show, “The most exciting thing the rock-worn room had ever harbored.” However, because of recording inconsistencies -- an overall unevenness -- the record would be shelved and Redding would not live to hear the formal, final product in his lifetime.
Despite the reversal, the magic that Redding hoped would alight was set in motion. That broader success he hoped to achieve was now in play: He would more than ably command the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967; and the album that would slide into the next slot of his discography, The Soul Album recorded in Memphis and featuring ten songs, peaked at 54 on the Pop charts (his highest there) and No. 3 in Soul. 1967’s Complete & Unbelievable: The Dictionary of Soul featured Redding’s searingly raw and vulnerable master stroke “Try a Little Tenderness,” which set the singer apart from both his influences and contemporaries -- he was moving deeper and deeper into an emotional well that seemed bottomless.
There were no concessions or bargaining here. Redding brought fully-constituted probing soul music to a broader world. His declarative, conversational style -- with its open heart and grit -- wasn’t sacrificed. He not only held on to it, but pulled closer those rural roots that made him.
What these nights document and underscore was Redding was set on making it without pandering. Precision is important here, especially in histories that tend toward either anecdotal or fully apocryphal: “He didn’t do a rock show; he was playing a rock venue. The Otis thing didn’t fit into any category,” says Kubernik. “….and they didn’t know what to do with him. But he was thinking big picture.”
Where that would have taken him is still poignant to ponder. He would die on an icy December day in an airplane crash in December 1967.
There wouldn’t be another chance to make history, but there is another chance to assess it, to hear vigorous proof of what Redding brought to a changing world, and to fully understand what he meant when he extended his arms into a crowd and implored, “Clap with me. –Lynell George.
Lynell George is an arts and culture writer for Los Angeles' KCET-TV’s Artbound. She was a staff writer at L.A. Weekly and Los Angeles Times, and is the author of NO CRYSTAL STAIR: AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN THE CITY OF ANGELS.