Sunset Boulevard is not far from Watts, a few miles, but the two areas of Los Angeles are divided by a cultural chasm. One basks in the glamorous glow of adjacent Hollywood, the other is a black ghetto latterly celebrated in NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and formerly known for the 1965 riots that burned a substantial portion of the neighbourhood to the ground. Racial division in the ‘City Of Angels’ has always been fiercely enforced.
The arrival of Otis Redding to play a weekend of shows at Sunset’s Whisky A Go Go in April 1966 was therefore a statement in itself. Redding was not from Watts – like most of the era’s great soul singers he hailed from the deep South, from Macon Georgia – but a black act bossing the Whisky, a bastion of hip rock bands, was testimony not only to Redding’s soaring popularity but, truly, a sign of the times.
As much was exactly what was intended by Redding and his friend and manager, Phil Walden, a young white impresario who had fallen in love with black music and who would later found Capricorn Records to oversee the career of the Allman Brothers. The pair had decided that ‘crossing over’ – wooing white America – was a game they could win. Motown had already succeeded, so, to a lesser extent, had James Brown, but Otis was coming from a different place to either; Stax Records of Memphis, a label and studio where, as house guitarist Steve Cropper put it, ‘race never entered’.
As audacious as placing a full-blown R’n’B band into the heart of groovy LA was recording the weekend’s six sets, a decision made redundant by Stax’s imperious tour of Europe a year later and the resulting Otis album Live In Europe. The Whisky sessions, in much truncated form, didn’t see light of day until after Redding’s death in late 1967.
Live In Europe and the triumphant performance at the 1967 Monterey festival – a show that sealed Otis’ conquest of the white US audience – are arguably better testimonies to Redding’s live prowess, not least because they have him backed by Stax’s house band the MGs, the co-architects of his studio output. In particular, Cropper’s scything, chattering guitar is a sorely missed presence on the Whisky session. Yet if you want to know how Otis sounded in his ascent through the grind of the so-called chitlin circuit, backed by his regular ten-piece touring band, this is a better guide.
The audience for the Whisky sessions – it was not a large venue, holding a mere 250 or so – was a mix of the curious and the cognoscenti. Minor hits like “These Arms Of Mine”, “Pain In My Heart” (covered by the Stones) and “Mr Pitiful” had put Otis’ name out there beyond his adoring black fans, while Otis Blue, released a few months previously, had opened more ears. Among the crowd were fans like Van Morrison and Dylan, but for others Otis was still news. Robbie Krieger of The Doors (a regular fixture at the Whisky) recalls watching the show slack-jawed at the energy being pumped out onstage by an act of which he had barely heard. Such was the racial divide of the times.
You can hear the gulf at the very start of the record, with Otis introduced by a patter lifted from James Brown’s shows: “It’s star time…” Otis, 24 years old, rips into a furious “Can’t Turn You Loose”, the band’s relentless groove punctuated by the might of its six-piece horn section. The opener brings a smattering of polite applause from an audience uncertain how to react (or simply too stunned), prompting Otis to urge, “Holler as loud as you want, stomp as hard as you want to. Just take your shoes off. Get soulful!”
Otis and band soon had the room cooking, and on later sets you can hear a boisterous audience yelling and singing along, especially to a hyper-ventilated “Satisfaction”, which sits at the heart of every performance. The Stones’ hit was suggested to Otis by Walden, and after being unleashed on Otis Blue quickly became a calling card, transmuted from the droll, loping original into an urgent demand, its guitar riff pumped out by horns. Ry Cooder, who opened the Whisky sets as one of the Rising Sons, remarks that the audience “heard ‘Satisfaction’ done at land-speed-record tempo. I don’t think any white band could play that fast in those days.”
The setlist didn’t vary much across the weekend, and essentially alternated between high tempo, kick-ass numbers like “I’m Depending On You” and plaintive ballads like “Just One More Day” and “Pain In My Heart”. Otis could handle both with equal panache. His voice on slow pieces like “Ole Man Trouble” was strong but mellow and melodic, while “Respect” and “Mr Pitiful” (which mysteriously clocks in around two minutes, rather than the six, seven and eight allotted “Satisfaction”) find him coarse-grained, ebullient. Otis, built like a linebacker, was no great mover – no spins or splits – but exuded a physical force that tumbles out the speakers.
Given the singer’s adulation of Sam Cooke, whom he covered three times over on Otis Blue, it’s a surprise that no Cooke numbers feature here, but Redding was clearly out to showcase his own material like “Chained And Bound”, another tear-jerker. He makes room, nonetheless, for a couple of covers on his last set. “A Hard Day’s Night” becomes a vicious stomp some way removed from the Fabs’ original, and excluding the original’s airy middle eight. “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” is an homage to his fellow Georgian James Brown, something of a throwaway but clearly fun on the night.
Famously, Otis could never sing the same song the same way twice (which made lip-synching a calamity zone) and every number here comes up slightly different, as he punctuates it with assorted stammers, grunts and exhortations. The band, to their credit, rarely miss a cue. The sheer length and repetitions make end-to-end listening of these six sides something for the dedicated, but as a tribute to a still-missed talent, it testifies.
The December 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Pink Floyd, plus a free CD compiled by Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner that includes tracks by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sleaford Mods, Yo La Tengo, Can. Elsewhere in the issue, there’s TheDamned, Julia Holter, Desert Trip, Midlake, C86, David Pajo, Nils Frahm and the New Classical, David Bowie, Tim Buckley, REM, Norah Jones, Morphine, The Pretenders and more plus 140 reviews