Otis Redding had soul. No, he was soul.
His voice—powerful, and yet gentle; velvety at times, but rugged through and through—had the ability to tell a story. His feverish passion brought on an expressive way of singing as he threw nothing but emotion at every song. Redding could communicate joy one moment and pain the next. With the turn of a phrase, he could make you make believe his undying devotion and then feel his utter heartbreak.
Redding’s musical interpretation ignored the boundaries of traditional R&B and soul as he came to define a genre all his own. A flavor of southern soul, his music was a fiery, gospel-tinged gritty funk, a climactic sound that made a statement and induced the vapors.
This translated on-stage with Redding’s commanding presence and magnetic performances. In honor of what would have been the singer’s 81st birthday, here are five electrifying live moments from the King of Soul.
1. Stax Volt Tour – 1967
Otis Redding stunned with the opening performance of the dramatic “Shake” while on tour with greats like Booker T. & The MGs and Sam & Dave. Doubling over in the beginning, as if being gut-punched with every bass drum hit, the song takes over and the singer leaves it all on stage.
2. L’Olympia, Paris, France – 1966
The L’Olympia show in Paris saw Redding on fire. The dozen-piece backing band just feet from him on stage seemed nonexistent. No doubt, every eye was on the singer.
Halfway through his set, he addresses the audience. He says he’s going to slow things down, and give himself a little break, with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” With the removal of his jacket, he delivers the most powerful, soulful display.
3. Ready, Steady, Go!, Kingsway Studio, London, UK – 1966
“Don’t ever do a song as you heard somebody else do it,” Redding used to say.
At Kingsway Studio in London, the singer heeded his own advice, delivering an earth-shattering performance of two mega hits back-to-back. His rendition of The Temptations’ “My Girl” was thunderous while he approached Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” with even more intensity than the original.
4. Monterey Pop Festival, Monterey, CA – 1967
Redding approaches each song so different every time, adding flourishes here, stripping the excess there, reinventing his songs right in front of your eyes. In his performance of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” at the Monterey Pop Festival, the singer gets lost in the song, navigating the words and inflections behind closed eyes, as he explodes into a flurry of I love you, honeys!
The singer seems to reimagine, so perfectly, the songs you swore you knew.
5. Upbeat, Cleveland, OH – December 9, 1967
Redding appeared on Cleveland’s WEWS-TV music variety show, Upbeat, for a magnetic performance of “Try A Little Tenderness.” It would be his last. The next day the singer’s plane crashed into Wisconsin’s Lake Monona, killing him and four members of his touring band, the Bar-Kays.
Otis Redding sang each song like it was his last. When it actually came down to his final performance, the King of Soul gave nothing less than his absolute all.
Photo: Stax Records