Poor Otis Dead And Gone

A Little Respect . . .  “We Miss Otis Redding,” so read the sign outside the Forest Park Church of Christ. It was early 1968. Such a statement on a sign at a conservative Christian church which forbade musical instruments in its worship services was most peculiar. It was especially unusual in Forest Park, Georgia, then a quintessential middle-class suburb, largely white, located just south of Atlanta.

Otis Redding had performed at the Royal Peacock on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, a scant dozen miles away, but there was more than a 20-minute drive separating the legendary club from Forest Park. Transition and adjustment were stops along the distance. Forest Park’s schools had started to integrate in the mid to late ’60s, a process that to the surprise of many, went smoothly enough. Still, the minority in town really was the minority. That was made evident at the town’s Little League parks. The white kids would be on the field, playing the grand old game, while the black kids from their nearby Rosetown community would watch from behind the fences, wishing they could be part of the action too. They wondered why their parents, who worked so hard, couldn’t provide the ten or twenty bucks so they could suit up as well. Some of the white kids surely sympathized. Besides, having a couple of the Hartsfield boys as teammates would’ve meant a few more victories.

Some white kids were also taking note of the music their black friends were listening to. Already, through the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, they gained exposure to the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye and Arthur Alexander. The local Top 40 station, Atlanta’s WQXI (“Quixie in Dixie”), furthered their listeners’ awareness of what the kids in Rosetown knew all about. James Brown. Solomon Burke. Wilson Pickett. And of course, “The Big O,” Otis Redding.

Gary Granger, a disc jockey at WQXI who lived in Forest Park, appreciated the diversity of his station’s playlist. Barely 21, but already holding a full-time gig at the station after a stint in Vietnam, Granger must have sensed the direction the country he had served was heading. And 1968 was going to be a tougher year than any of us anticipated. There were friends who commended Granger on his service in uniform, saying it was essential to preserving our freedom. Others, wary of war, strife and barriers to liberty in the land of the free, wondered when the tough times would end, or at least ease up. Quite often, the music we were discovering got us through those tough times. To dee-jays like Gary Granger and many of us listening in, freedom and better days sounded a lot like Otis Redding.

Runnin’ Blue . . . “The Dock of the Bay” filled the airwaves in the early months of ’68, as did other Redding songs. Poor Otis was dead and gone but just months before that fateful night in Wisconsin, he left a treasure trove of new material. “Hard to Handle,” “Love Man,” “Demonstration” and more. The hits kept coming. Redding seemed a stronger presence than ever before, which compelled the obvious question: What direction would Redding have taken had he lived on? Scott Freeman, author of Otis!, spoke recently with us about the what-if questions.

Freeman says, “Like everyone else, Otis was being influenced by the Beatles and the quality of their songwriting. ‘Dock of the Bay’ may have signaled a new direction for Otis, but it’s impossible to know.” Still Freeman acknowledges Redding’s popularity would climb, without compromising his integrity. “He definitely could have continued to widen his fan base, and I don’t think he would’ve had to compromise his sound. James Brown didn’t. Stevie Wonder didn’t. Marvin Gaye didn’t. Al Green didn’t. That was an era of extraordinary creativity and experimentation. Otis would have thrived in that atmosphere.”

And Wash Me In The Water . . .  In the fall of ’75, the Memphis Horns, featuring Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, were in Atlanta for a concert with the Doobie Brothers. Jackson, on trumpet, and Love, on tenor sax, were part of the brilliant ensemble that made Otis Redding’s “Respect” soar. A little more than ten years after “Respect” was recorded, Jackson and Love spoke of Redding as if he were still alive. The vibrance Redding created was that strong.

In an interview with The Great Speckled Bird, Jackson and Love also spoke highly of another singer they had often recorded with, Al Green. While lamenting that rhythm and blues music had lost  much of the drive so often heard in Redding’s material, Jackson said Green was bringing a similar intensity to the music. The critics felt the same way. Vince Aletti, in a Rolling Stone review of Green’s I’m Still in Love with You album, wrote that Green was “certainly the only black singer since Redding to approach and, in some ways, go beyond Redding’s popularity and appeal while developing a style at least as idiosyncratic and exciting.”

Al Green continued to excite his audiences, from the studio, the stage and the pulpit. Forced to examine his life and spiritual needs in the mid ’70s, Al Green found Jesus and was soon preaching the Gospel. On The Belle Album, released in late ’77, Green brought Jesus to the studio with him. The Belle Album, with Green producing and playing guitar, was an exuberant work. Filled with the spirit, Green was standing on the rock and rocking as never before.

Less than two months after the release of The Belle Album, Green made a little-publicized appearance at the Atlanta Peaches Records and Tapes. The visit was low-key but jubilant, with Green the most excited person there. He had a new album to promote and did so like it was a plum assignment. As The Belle Album played over the store’s sound system, Green would sing along, clap joyfully and play a little air-guitar. Al Green was the proud papa, thrilled with his latest production. It was an innovative and bold work, one in which Green had taken total charge. The musical legend, displaying a generous spirit to all who had come to meet him, was throwing a party of sorts, celebrating the music he created. One can easily assume Otis Redding, a truly independent spirit, would have shared Al Green’s joy. Redding also would have worked at matching Green, perhaps raising the bar another notch higher.

A Change Is Gonna Come . . .  So who was responsible for putting the statement about Otis Redding on the sign at the Forest Park Church of Christ? Did someone driving by see letters on the sign that could be used for a Redding tribute? Or was it a Deacon with a secret collection of Stax/Volt 45s at home? Mulling over this small mystery is quite enjoyable while considering all the changes that came about – in Forest Park and around the world – since early ’68. Then Forest Park was a sleepy town. In the decades ahead, Atlanta’s airport, now known as Hartsfield-Jackson, kept expanding. More runways. More jet airplanes, all bigger and louder. Roaring above rooftops were jets taking off and jets landing. In some parts of town, having a conversation with a neighbor became impossible. Think of  Elwood Blues’s apartment by the “L.” People in Forest Park who could afford to get out did. The sleepy town became a dormant town.

When people in Forest Park could be heard over the noise above, the conversation would often focus on a pair of local boys who had done good. Their circumstances and achievements highlight how much had changed in Forest Park, and America as a whole, since the late ’60s.

The most famous of the two, Hines Ward, born to an African-American man and a Korean woman in Seoul, South Korea, became the star quarterback for the Forest Park High School football team in the early ’90s. From there Ward continued to accomplish great things on the gridiron, first as a receiver with the University of Georgia Bulldogs and then in the pros with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  In a fourteen-year career in the NFL, Ward had 1,000 receptions. In the all-time NFL records, only 13 players have caught more passes.

Philip Breedlove, who attended Forest Park Senior High in the early ’70s, also gained national attention. A four-star general,  Breedlove in 2010 was appointed by President Obama as Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force.

It shows you what can be accomplished when given a chance. In high school, Breedlove was a quiet but friendly guy who studied hard and had a great interest in aviation. His honor roll achievements aside, we would have dismissed the notion of Philip assisting in the organizing, training and equipping of 680,000 active duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian forces serving in the United States and overseas. The idea of a black man as Philip’s Commander-in-chief would’ve also been met with great skepticism.

But Otis Redding sang of how different the days would become. Filling Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” with dynamism and grace, he made it clear that despite being down so long, he’d be able to carry on, knowing things would change. Yet one thing sure hasn’t changed: We still miss Otis Redding.

Photo of Otis Redding album cover by themillersofliverpool via Flickr photostream, used with Creative Commons 2.0 License. Photo of Al Green by Dwight McCann / Chumash Casino Resort / www.DwightMcCann.com via Wikimedia Commons, used with Creative Commons 2.5 License.