- by Joe Nolan
During his early years, struggling as a musician in Macon, Redding witnessed first-hand how the right combination of talent, hard work and good luck was falling into place for other players in the local scene.
For all of its seeming ramshackle anarchy, the R&B music scene in Macon was largely under the control of one driven, ambitious black entrepreneur named Clint Brantley. There was nearly no music on a stage, or song on a radio in Macon that Brantley didn’t have a hand in. He owned the Two Spot club, and was in charge of booking all the shows at the City Auditorium. Brantley was well connected with the local radio stations as well, and he worked regularly with a spectrum of bands like the Clovers, the Drifters, Louis Jordan, Otis Williams and the Charms. It was during this period that two of Redding’s heroes, under Brantley’s direction, began to gain the kind of buzz that would launch them into super-stardom.
Brantley arranged for a young singer from Augusta, Ga. to cut a demo record and then managed to have it played by Macon’s local deejays. The young singer was James Brown. The song was the signature hit of his early career - “Please, Please, Please.” The song became a local sensation and lead directly to Brown’s signing with King Records. James Brown and The Famous Flames were still living in a small apartment above the Two Spot, but they were well on their way to national success. Brantley also managed a flamboyant, local performer in his stable of acts. Redding and other Macon music fanatics were awed by the singer’s lavish capes, make-up, swooping pompadour hair-do and hell-fire piano playing. However, as Otis watched Little Richard skyrocket to fame, it only steeled his resolve that the same thing could happen to him.
“…he’d say over and over again: ‘One of these days, I’m going to be like them.’ He was just determined, there was nothing that could have stopped him.” - Rodgers Redding, from Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick
During this time, even with the frustration of not having enough road-work to support himself and his family, Redding’s dedication to his music with absolute, and clearly had more to do with an abiding passion for singing and performing, than the vain pursuit of fame and fortune. From singing in church, to playing drums in the high school band, Redding had developed a dedication to music that was unshakable.
One night he was invited to play at an amateur contest by Gladys Williams, a local musician of note who organized the Sunday night contests at the Hillview Springs Social Club. When Otis’ turn came up, he slid onto the bench of Williams’ piano, and launched into a raucous version of Little Richard’s “Heebie Jeebies.” The room was blown away.
“That song really inspired me to start singing. I won the talent show for fifteen straight nights with that song, and then they wouldn’t let me sing no more, wouldn’t let me win that five dollars no more.” - Otis Redding, from Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick
Otis would always share his winnings with his friends, treating the gang to hot dogs and wine. Even then, between local gigs and the occasional road show with the Upsetters, Redding was developing the entourage of a talented singer. However, he was about to get really noticed on a local radio broadcast from the Douglass Theater - The Teenage Dance Party!
Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, Harper and Row, 1986
James Dickerson’s Goin’ Back to Memphis, Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996
Michael Haralambos’ Right on: From Blues to Soul in Black America, Drake Publishers, 1975
Respect Yourself: The Stax Story, documentary film, produced by Tremolo Productions,
Concord Music Group and Thirteen/WNET New York, for PBS’ Great Performances, 2007
The Otis Redding biography at African Genesis
Otis Redding at Wikipedia
Otis Redding Biography at History of Rock
Otis Redding Biography at the Otis Redding official website
Joe Nolan is a poet, musician and freelance journalist in Nashville, TN. Nolan writes about visual art for the journal, Number, published by the University of Memphis. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.