Commentary

Saunders: Remembering the power and pain in Otis Redding’s voice

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 7, 2013 

Jan. 8 isn’t a national holiday, but just wait.

Today is the 45th anniversary of the 1968 date that Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released. He’d died a month earlier, when the plane he was flying in to a performance in Madison, Wis., crashed into a frozen lake.

Months earlier, in the summer of 1967, Otis had wowed ’em at the Monterey Pop Festival, which exposed his undiluted soul sound to a new audience. A British music magazine whose readers had voted Elvis the No. 1 male vocalist in the world for the previous 10 years bestowed that title upon Otis that year.

As they say in the parlance, Otis was fixing to blow up — to reach an unprecedented level of popularity — when he died.

Or was he? Unless your ear is in your foot — or another part of your anatomy — you can hear the unmistakable genius of Otis.

Before he died, though, Otis’s income hadn’t caught up with his popularity, according to his saxophonist and master of ceremonies for his live shows.

Richard Spencer, a Grammy-Award-winning songwriter from Wadesboro, said that despite the acclaim, “We were playing in little bitty clubs ... clubs that you wouldn’t think somebody like Otis Redding would be playing.”

‘An innocent guy’

Spencer described Redding, who wrote the anthem “Respect,” as “an innocent guy. He was a country boy and I thought people were trying to take advantage of him” financially.

Being only 22 or 23 at the time, Spencer said, he didn’t feel it was his place to tell Otis what he thought. He left Otis’s group a few months before the plane crash that killed Otis and all but one member of his group.

One night after one Jack Daniels too many, Spencer said, he — as emcee — didn’t provide a VIP introduction when Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox and his entourage swept into the Cheshire Cat Club in Atlanta to hear Otis. In the dressing room after the show, Spencer said, Otis pushed him into a locker and he pushed back. The fight — if you can call what the 6’2”, 220-pound Otis did to the 5’9” Spencer a fight — lasted but a few seconds. But that was long enough to let Spencer know it was time to split, he said.

Spencer, now a retired teacher and author of two books, said Otis apologized days later..

When Otis’s plane crashed, Spencer said, people in Anson County descended upon his mother’s home to express their condolences. They were unaware that he was no longer performing with the soul man extraordinaire.

“My mama and those thought I was on the plane,” he recalled. “In those days, everybody didn’t have a telephone ... and I guess I hadn’t done a good job of staying in touch” with the homefolk.

Something painful

Spencer, who later won a Grammy for the song he wrote and sang with The Winstons called “Color Him Father,” said he loved “Dock of the Bay” the first time he heard it.

He was also troubled by it.

“It sounded like there was something very painful on Otis’s heart,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘That’s a strange thing for a guy who should be on top of the world to be singing.’”

Sittin’ here resting my bones/ This loneliness won’t leave me alone. Two thousand miles I roamed/ just to make this dock my home.

Oh Lordy. That’s some Hank Williams Sr., “I’m-so-lonesome-I-could-cry” wordsmithing right there. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that Otis, whose nickname was Big Country, and Hank are sitting somewhere in music heaven singing celestial songs that would almost make dying worthwhile to hear.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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