An Ovation for Otis, A Statue for SZA, A Safer World for Women
This week—the afterlife of Otis Redding—with Jonathan Gould, Lawrence Watson, Janice Pendarvis, Michael Lydon, Emily Lordi, and Ed Pavlic. Listeen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
Zach Goldhammer: Otis Redding’s brilliantly brief career reveals much more about the musical tradition he was embedded in—and the social world surrounding him—than it does about the man himself.
This was the main takeaway I had while helping to produce this week’s show on those five magnificent years of Otis’s career. His greatest songs— “These Arms of Mine,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Respect,” “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”—still serve as conduits to the living history of soul music.
As Larry Watson tells us, Otis’s magic—and the magic of soul music more broadly—is not about the virtuosity of the individual singer. It’s about the integrity of historical memory and spirit carried through the songs:
[Otis] represents royalty, African centered, unapologetic musical Blackness without ever uttering one political slogan. His very presence and sound represent our collective ancestral memory. It is the rumblings of God’s unhappiness with the way we continue to treat one another. His sound is Blind Tom, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner. He is also the sound of that vulnerable Black Mother and the Motherless Child. His sound captures what Dubois and Malcolm and King eloquently wrote about. He was one of our main vessels allowing us to mourn and rejoice that we would see another day of life.
You can hear the full force of Otis’s historical influences in this playlist of songs from the show that producer Conor Gillies put together:
Still, Otis Redding himself remains something of an enigma, due in part to the plane crash which cut his life short 50 years ago. But despite the brevity of his career, many fans still felt as if they knew the man personally.
On our website, listener Vanessa McClinchy left us this very moving note about what Redding’s short life meant for her:
The daughter of a gospel -singing father, church pianist mother, and granddaughter to two former ‘Chitlin’ circuit’ Blues musicians, I grew up with the souls of Otis Redding (and Sam Cooke) as the soundtrack of my young life and, like so many whose lives he’d touched, took his sudden death as a personal loss.
To sit back with closed eyes and allow the memories -and tears- to flow with each hard-won and heart-felt note was a restorative that I hadn’t been previously aware of needing, as I was returned to my younger, curious, and equally hopeful -self, basking in the same sensual and utterly innocent ‘sensory indulgence’ that can transport a young and open heart, from the first note of a song that resonates on the cellular level of Soul, and great classical music.
Another note of appreciation for Otis this week came from a rather high profile fan: David Lynch. In an interview with Pitchfork, the Twin Peaks creator explained his decision to use the 1967 live recording of Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” in the reboot of his cult TV show:
It’s the version from the Monterey Pop Festival. There was Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company doing “Ball and Chain,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Wild Thing,” and there was Otis Redding. When I hear those three things, it just drives me crazy how great they are. With Otis Redding, we reach this place in him, and I just couldn’t believe that version. It was so, so, so beautiful. So much feeling comes through that thing; it’s one of my all-time favorites. I just go nuts. I start crying like a baby when I hear that thing.
As the poet Ed Pavlic reminds us, much does remain the same in soul music today five decades after Otis sang those words. The music is still centered on community and communal experience, but its sound also continues to evolve. For Pavlic, the ever expanding community of soul singers is now being transformed, in part, by two young female performers. One is Ravyn Lenae, a 17 year old from the South Side Chicago. The other is New Jersey-based singer Solána Imani Rowe—better known as SZA.
Read producer Becca DeGregorio’s review of SZA’s debut album below.
Becca DeGregorio: As the year ends, it’s a tradition for me to ruminate long and hard on my “album of the year.” The contest almost always comes down to something I played on repeat by an artist I know and love (in this case, two artists with Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile) and something I played sparingly due to it knocking my wind out with each listen (Ctrl by SZA). The latter album usually wins, and this year is no exception.
Ctrl is 50 minutes of reflection on exactly what the title suggests– control: how it defines our interpersonal relationships, our relationships to language, and obviously our relationships to our selves. Ed Pavlic put it perfectly on the show this week when he said that SZA, “in a way like Aretha, says we not only have to feel our togetherness, we have to think through this stuff. Are you good for me or not?” In Ctrl, SZA asks this question of everything from past short-term lovers (“Love Galore”) to her 20s (“20 Something”) to a world where female anatomy is still taboo in discussion (“Doves In The Wind”). How much control does she have over any of this? How much do we have?
She considers all this in the context of a phone call with her mother, whose voice bookends the album. She closes by suggesting that we value control by imagining life without it: “If it’s an illusion, I don’t want to wake up. I’m gonna hang onto it because the alternative is just an abyss, a hole of darkness and nothingness. Who wants that?” SZA’s expressive voice and songwriting guide the listener to this point convincingly. Who knows how much control we have over our rotating lot of relationships? We at least have enough to be together in it all.
Frank Horton: On Friday to cap off Otis Week at Open Source, Chris spoke with the legendary musician and producer Steve Cropper who described the night in 1962 in Memphis when he heard Otis Redding first sing “These Arms of Mine.” From that night through to the final recording session of “Dock of the Bay”, in late 1967, Cropper and Otis were musically inseparable, with Cropper producing and/or co-writing the majority of Otis’s recorded songs at Stax records.
In his conversation with Chris, Cropper shared many wonderful memories: the quirky genesis of Otis’s “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”, what life on tour with Otis was like, how the “Dictionary of Soul” album got its title, and Otis’s peculiar one-finger guitar picking technique.
Beyond the music though, Cropper revealed to Chris how truly special Otis was as a person. Otis, Cropper said, was the least judgmental person he’s ever known, someone who was utterly devoid of any form of prejudice. Almost saintly, in a way. A pure man.
The same could be said for Cropper, himself. In fact, Keith Richards once did, calling Cropper, “the perfect man.”
To say Cropper’s career in the music industry has been a success would be a gross understatement. While at Stax, Cropper co-wrote “Greens Onions” and “Hip Hug-Her” for Booker T. and The M.G.s, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” and “635–5789″ and the famous opening guitar riff to Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man”. Over the course of his music career, Cropper has plied his trade with a who’s who of R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll legends: John Lennon, Eddie Floyd, Rod Stewart, Art Garfunkel, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and so many more. And yet, for all his success, Cropper remains resolutely down-to-earth and easy going, shucking ego for warmth and humility.
Be on the look out for our special Patreon conversation with Steve Cropper in the weeks ahead. To access it and other great bonus content, become an Open Source Patron. To do so, just click this link:
In the meantime, here’s a video of Steve Cropper playing “Dock of the Bay” to vocal accompaniment from Justin Timberlake and President Obama (who’s other favorite OR song is “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”). The video comes from In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul, the last in a series of music events President and Mrs. Obama hosted at the White House. In his opening remarks, President Obama had this to say about Steve Cropper:
In the heart of the segregated city, Stax Records was integrated from the studio musicians all the way to upper management. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, who are both here tonight, helped form one of the city’s first integrated bands. They weren’t allowed to go to school together, they weren’t always allowed to travel or eat together, but no one could stop them from playing music together. And that was the spirit of their music — the sound of Soulsville, USA — a music that at its core is about the pain of being alone, the power of human connection and the importance of treating each other right. After all this is the music that asked us to try a little tenderness.
Read: Danielle L. McGuire—At The Dark End of the Street
ZG: This week—which I spent alternately reading about Civil Rights-era soul music and modern day reports of sexual harassment, rape, and abuse—seemed like the right time to pick up Danielle Mcguire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street.
McGuire’s work takes its title from a song sung by another Memphis soul star and Otis contemporary, James Carr. But like Aretha’s cover of “Respect”, McGuire adds a whole new layer of meaning to the words here. Her 2011 book traces the history of the Civil Rights Movement back to the black women who began organizing against sexual assault in 1940s Alabama. One of the most militant figures in this movement was Rosa Parks, whose fight for black women’s self-defense began more than a decade prior to the Montgomery bus boycott.
Ed Pavlic alluded to this history in a section of our Otis interview which didn’t make it into the radio hour. Chris had asked him how newer soul music could connect back to older social movements:
If we look in history at a thing like the Montgomery bus boycott, we all know about the Montgomery Improvement Association, we all know about Rosa Parks on the bus, and Martin Luther King as the leader, and those 381 days when nobody rode the bus. But few of us know about the, you know, decade and more of active organizing that was already going on before anyone even had an in mind to boycott buses. And Rosa Parks was in the middle of that in the center of that movement.
What that movement was the organizational base that was put in place by black women seeking to control and resist control of their bodies, and resist sexual abuse at the hands of white men. And so when King shows up to Montgomery, that structure is already in place, and that structure was all about black women’s day to day mobilizing of a guard for themselves and each other, not necessarily in that order. It’s exactly the kind of consciousness that a singer like SZA [or] Ravyn Lenae is promoting. That grows from the ground up, not from the top down.
If you’re interested in this story, pick up McGuire’s book. And for more recent history of black women organizing against sexual assault, read Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new edited collection, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.
Mary McGrath: We started the week at Open Source with our first live event. Chris interviewed artist and singer Amanda Palmer at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, not far from where Chris first encountered her, as a painted-white statue. The rest is history, and it all unfolded on stage, beginning with “the song” and ending with another that touched every person there. There was wonderful chemistry and lots of lively talk about art, life, the internet and this political moment. It was a special night, and we did record it for those who weren’t there.
With this event at year end, we’re re-launching our patreon platform and learning as much as we can from the way Amanda cultivates hers. We’ll have regular exclusive content for our patrons, beginning with the Amanda Palmer podcast followed by Chris’ interview with Steve Cropper interview in a few weeks. We have new t shirts and our amazing talented illustrator Susan Coyne will be offering signed prints and postcards of her artwork. This the best, easiest way for you to connect with us and support our work. Patreon is an online donation network for independent artists. We have a goal of quadrupling our donor base, and we know we can do it with your help.
Thanks again to our incredible staff who each and all worked incredibly hard on this week’s Amanda event and the Otis Redding show. We’ve very lucky to have such talented producers and artists. Show them some R-E-S-P-E-C-T if you will and sign up to be an Open Source patron.
Thanks again and we’ll see you next week.
The OS Soulmates