Feeling Blue: Otis Redding, 1964

The discovery of Otis Redding by the then nascent Stax Records of Memphis Tennessee (see this post for more) remains a testament to the profundity of a series of fortunate events, as well as the contradiction-in-terms that luck is something one earns.

When Stax Records was well on its way to regional prominence nurturing the house band Booker T and the MGs, prominent local musicians scheduled studio time with the budding studio to land a record and, essentially, “audition.”

One local artist with growing prominence in the same performative vein of Little Richard — loud, flamboyant, uninhibited — chose a day to join the house band. He and his driver pulled up to the studio, and for the entirety of the afternoon and well into the evening, the artist joined the band to cut a few tracks.

Meanwhile, the driver spent the day waiting, but mostly speaking to the doorman of the studio. He repeated that he could sing, and just hadn’t been given the chance. He had heard of Stax and knew he himself wanted a chance to be in the studio also. A preacher’s son, the driver had come from a world where music mattered. He understood the gravity of being in front of a place like Stax, something that doorman soon readily came to understand.

Throughout the afternoon, the doorman aimed to ease the driver’s anxiety. You’ll be fine. The studio is busy. The house band spent the whole day working and probably won’t be able. I’ll talk to Jim Stewart, the then producer of the studio leading the sessions that afternoon. The doorman went into the studio several times simply to appease the driver, less to actually be an advocate on his behalf.

By the time the sessions ended, the doorman had become so tired that he simply wanted the driver to get studio time for his own sake; he didn’t want to be bothered anymore. Jim Stewart, too, simply wanted to go home. The house band began packing up their instruments, and one had already begun to leave the building.

When Jim Stewart finally ceded and allowed the driver into the building to sing briefly, a cappella, the driver pounced on the opportunity. He began with the one song that was dear to him, the one he and his wife had composed together.

By the time he reached his third note, Jim Stewart ran out to retrieve the departing studio musician. Come back. You have to hear this and we need to cut the single, now. The band returned, and that very evening they cut what would become a hallmark of the driver’s enduring voice.

To this day, These Arms of Mine (1964) by Otis Redding remains a singular recording capturing much of Otis’ legacy: a yearning for that ineffable thing so potent that we can all feel and empathize with the singer. Unlike the crooning Rat Pack or suave Sam Cooke, and unlike the showmanship of northern Motown artists or stars on the east coast, Otis presented a relaxed atmosphere built only artistry and sincerity. To this day, he remains an icon of a level of musicianship that many today idolize and strive toward.


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