Rhino Black History Month: Otis Redding
There are all too many tales of tragedy in the annals of music history about performers that died too soon, but when it comes to unfulfilled possibilities and thoughts of what might’ve been, the death of Otis Redding never fails to elicit a sigh.
Born in Dawson, Georgia, on September 9, 1941, Redding was already a well-seasoned performer by the time he signed to Stax subsidiary label Volt Records in 1962, and it didn’t take long for him to demonstrate his gift for both singing and songwriting to the masses, taking 21 songs into the US R&B charts in only five years. Redding also had a gift for crossing racial barriers, covering the Beatles (“Day Tripper”) and the Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction”), making his west coast live debut at the Whiskey A Go Go, and turning in a performance at the Monterey Pop Festival which – at least in the opinion of author Sarah Hill in the book Performance and Popular Music: History, Place and Time – featured “more audible crowd participation in Redding's set than in any of the others filmed by (director D.A.) Pennebaker.”
In the wake of his success in Monterey, Redding hit the road with the Bar-Kays and started working on new material. That’s where the composition considered his signature song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” first began to come into existence, but three days after it was recorded…well, that’s where tale turns tragic: on December 10, 1967, as Redding and his group were flying to Madison, Wisconsin for their next gig, their plane crashed, killing all but one of the eight passengers aboard. (The only survivor: Bar-Kays member Ben Cauley.) It isn’t as though Redding didn’t leave behind a tremendous musical legacy, but given how much the man accomplished in only 26 years on this planet, the thought of how much else he might’ve managed to produce...well, you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to feel at least a twinge of melancholy.
So let’s shake off some of that sadness and recall Redding’s music in a lighthearted fashion, by revisiting some rather memorable uses of his songs in movies.
• “Hard to Handle” (Myra Breckinridge, 1970)
While unfortunately not the last time the cinematic sex symbol of the ‘30s and ‘40s would make moviegoers sink low in their seats out of sheer embarrassment – remind us to tell you about Sextette sometime – Mae West’s performance of this song from 1968’s posthumously-released The Immortal Otis Redding is a must-hear for fans of jaw-droppingly bad covers.
• “I Can’t Turn You Loose” (C.C. & Company, 1970)
While Wayne Cochran’s biggest claim to rock ‘n’ roll fame comes from having recorded – and from receiving a writing credit on – “Last Kiss,” which Pearl Jam took into the upper reaches of the charts in 1999, he and his band, the C.C. Ryders, turn in a highly credible performance of this song, which was originally relegated to the B-side of Redding’s 1965 single, “Just One More Day.” Why you should watch the clip: because if we tried to explain how well Cochran’s hair, headband, and jumpsuit work together with his moves to make this so incredibly memorable, we’d never do it proper justice. Why you’ve probably never seen it before: because it’s in a film starring Joe Namath as a motorcycle mechanic who falls in love with a fashion journalist played by Ann-Margret. (Sure, that screams “must-see movie” to us, but we’re weird like that.) P.S. Yes, we know, the song is used to pretty memorable effect in The Blues Brothers, too. But we’re trying to expand your horizons, people. Just let us have our fun.
• “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (Gimme Shelter, 1970)
The Rolling Stones are widely credited with having increased the UK’s awareness of Otis Redding by covering this number on their first concert album, 1965’s Got Live if You Want It! – a gesture which Redding famously reciprocated later that year by covering “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for his Otis Blue album– but in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, which documents the Stones’ 1969 US tour, it’s actually the band’s opening act, Ike and Tina Turner, who tackle the track…and, boy howdy, do they make it their own. Mick Jagger’s been known to sexualize a song or two in his time, but the way Tina handles the mike and the incredibly lascivious manner in which she repeatedly delivers the words “oh, baby” will leave you confident that she immediately walked offstage after her performance and had a cigarette.
• “Respect” (Airplane!, 1980)
Aretha might’ve defined it, but Otis wrote it, and while it’s turned up in many movies over the years, we’ve got to give the nod to the short but sweet acoustic performance of the song by the guitar-slinging Sister Angelina in Airplane! Not only does she really sock it to the song, but if you look closely underneath that habit, you’ll realize that the nun is none other than Maureen “The Morning After” McGovern.
• “Try a Little Tenderness” (Pretty in Pink, 1986)
The Stones may have been responsible for introducing Redding to UK teens in the ‘60s, but it was director Howard Deutch who taught American teens in the ‘80s that Redding was about more than just “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” One of those who got schooled: Jon Cryer, who admitted in a 2013 interview with the Onion AV Club that “Dock of the Bay” was the only Redding song he’d known before Deutch introduced him to “Try a Little Tenderness.” Ironically, Cryer’s famous lip-synching routine to the song, which he and choreographer Kenny Ortega worked out together, almost never made it to film.
“We showed it to Howie the next day, in the actual location, and Howie’s face just fell,” Cryer told the AV Club. “And so did Lauren Schuler Donner’s, who was the producer. I’d finished it, and I was huffing and puffing like at the end of Riverdance, my arms outstretched. But they just seemed crestfallen. So I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And Howie said, ‘Oh, no, it’s great,’ but in this very offhand manner. Then he said, ‘The problem is, I have to shoot it.’ I said, ‘That’s a problem?’ He said, ‘Yeah, because we only slated half a day, and that’s gonna take a couple of days.’ So he and Lauren huddled, and I heard much muttering between the two of ’em, and they agreed to change the schedule. This was in the first week of Howie’s first major gig as a director. So he basically agreed to put himself behind schedule the very first week, thus making him behind the eight ball for the whole rest of the shoot, in order to get that scene. At the time, I didn’t realize that was a really gutsy thing to do. But I think it paid off for the movie.”
• “Love Man” (Dirty Dancing, 1987)
There are actually two Otis Redding songs featured in this Patrick Swayze classic, but while “These Arms of Mine” does successfully underscore a very romantic scene between Swayze and co-star Jennifer Grey, it’s the other number that actually shows Grey getting the feel of the titular dancing, so if we have to pick one over the other, we’re going with “Love Man” for the win. But there’s another reason, too…
• “These Arms of Mine” (Road House, 1989)
According to Kelly Lynch, every time Bill Murray “or one of his idiot brothers” are watching TV and discover that Road House is on, as soon as Patrick Swayze’s sex scene with Lynch hits the screen, Mitch Glazer – Lynch’s husband – gets a call and is promptly informed, ““Kelly’s having sex with Patrick Swayze right now… They’re doing it… He’s throwing her against the rocks…” The less-reported bit of this story: every time that call comes, it’s our man Otis who’s providing the soundtrack. It doesn’t get much more memorable than that.
Got any favorite Otis Redding songs from movies that we missed? Of course you do. (We only listed seven of ‘em, after all.) Let us know your picks in the comments!