We miss your sweet soul music, Otis Redding

A piece I did a few years ago for Atlanta magazine:

A Rebel flag criss-crosses that first vinyl single of “Shout Bamalama,” released by the Confederate Records label in 1962.

Consequently, African-American disc jockeys chunked it in the trash without even putting the needle in the groove to hear Otis Redding belt out his jump-blues tribute to Bamalama, a one-eyed busker who played a washboard with a thimble. It was another inauspicious break for the Macon vocalist, who was booed off the stage, in tears, the first time he performed away from church.

Redding’s galvanic talent, though, could not be stopped.

With his pained, pleading vibrato, the singer-songwriter set an unassailable standard for soul music at its rawest and most sublime. He could “worry a note,” as he put it, to wring arias from the field hollers of his sharecropping roots; the call-and-response of the choir; the wits and sweat required of black survival in the segregated South; and something transcendently his own. Filtered through Redding’s larynx, lust never sounded so sacred.

Rolling Stone magazine ranks Redding No. 21 in the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” and Billboard named two of his compositions, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and “Respect,” in the top 20 tunes of the 20th century. More musical benchmarks no doubt would have followed if he had not died at 26 in a plane crash 40 years ago, on December 10, 1967.

So the original “Shout Bamalama” 45 rpm (with the song “Fat Gal” on the flipside) adds a distinctly Southern, ebony-and-irony note to “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” a sweeping exhibit of about 200 Redding artifacts that opened last fall at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon and runs until September 8, 2008. Much of the memorabilia – posters, unrecorded song lyrics, candid photos, even receipts for hay to feed his beloved farm animals — has been sealed for decades at the “Big O Ranch,” where Redding’s widow, Zelma, still resides. Visitors also can listen to oral histories, which reveal little-known facts about the singer.

“I wanted to show not just the arc of his career but the kind of complex man he was,” says Ellen Fleurov, curator of the exhibit. “A consummate entertainer, he also was an astute businessman who soaked up every possible lesson from whatever situation he was in. He was a talented A&R guy who, if he’d lived, probably would have started his own record company and gotten more involved in the civil rights movement. I think he would have been the South’s answer to Berry Gordy.”

At the time of his death, Redding, having recently dethroned Elvis as “top male vocalist in the world” in Melody Maker magazine, was mulling over television and movie offers. “Even in his relaxed time, Otis was coming up with something new to try,” says Newton Collier, a horn player who worked with Redding. “I don’t care how long you’d been rehearsing, if Otis walked in the studio, you’d say, ‘Let’s do some mo’! Wherever he was, he inspired everybody. Interesting word, ‘respect.’ He could write about it because he commanded – and got – it.”

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