The discovery of Otis Redding by the then nascent Stax Records of Memphis Tennessee (named by combining the “St” of Jim Stewart and the “Ax” of Estelle Axton, the siblings and cofounders of the then neighborhood recording studio and what would be later known as Soulsville USA countering Motown’s Hitsville USA) 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 in Booker T and the MGs, prominent local musicians scheduled studio time with the budding studio to land a record and essentially, “audition.”
One 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 produce a few samples.
In that time, the driver spent the day waiting, but mostly speaking to the doorman of the studio. He would plead that he could sing, and just hadn’t been given the chance. He had heard of Stax and, even as the driver he had been supporting had been spending the day with the band, he knew he wanted a chance 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 and probably won’t be able. I’ll talk to Jim Stewart, the then producer of the studio leading the sessions that afternoon. Many times he went to the studio 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 most 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 without hesitation. He began with the one song that he knew felt 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 musician.Come back, because you have to hear this and we need to cut the single, now. The band returned, and the very evening when he was introduced to the recording studio as a driver to a different musician, Otis would cut what would become a hallmark of his inimitable voice.
To this day, These Arms of Mine (1964) by Otis Redding remains a singular recording the captures so much of Otis’ legacy: an earnestness filled with that yearning for something ineffable yet so potent that we can all feel and empathize with. Unlike the crooning of the Rat Pack or Sam Cooke, and unlike the showmanship of northern Motown artists or the east coast stars, Otis represented an artistry built on only that: artistry. Otis remains an icon of a specific kind of musicianship that many today continue to strive toward: authentic, grounded, and beloved for his candor.