Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Flashback, June 1967: Redding Wins ‘Respect’ at Monterey Pop Festival

As the first major multi-day rock event, mixing blues, rock, folk, psychedelia, soul, and jazz acts, the Monterey Pop Festival, held 50 years ago this week, defies any attempt to do it justice in a single blog post such as this one. In a way, I’m surprised that no filmmaker has tried to tackle its multiple narrative threads, the way that Robert Altman did with Nashville.

The most newsworthy aspects of the event, which was created by Mamas and the Papas leader John Phillips and producer Lou Adler to demonstrate the legitimacy of rock, were the first major American appearances by The Who and expatriate Jimi Hendrix, along with Janis Joplin’s breakthrough to the pop mainstream. 

But a cinematic master would also want to explore the terror felt by unconventional pioneering female singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, and the growing alienation of David Crosby from his Byrds bandmates because of his between-songs rants on the JFK assassination and the joy of drugs. Several of my other favorite groups as (literally) a child of the Sixties also appeared there during their zenith on the charts, including Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Association and The Mamas and the Papas.

But for me, listening to the festival on a soundtrack decades later—as it was for the 100,000 there at the time—the real eye-opening act was a Memphis soul man who made the most of his chance to win over the predominantly white audience in that small California community: Otis Redding. Writing about him is not only a concise way for me to convey the impact of this festival, but also to pay tribute to an American master gone far too soon.

Before the festival, the 25-year-old Redding had been solidly supported by rhythm-and-blues deejays, but—at least in the U.S.—he hadn’t yet made the crucial crossover to mass acceptance achieved by Motown artists (whose boss, Berry Gordy Jr., kept them off the Monterey schedule that weekend). The notice he did receive was, in a sense, secondhand: as the composer of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” covered and transformed by Aretha Franklin into not just a monster hit but also a proto-feminist anthem.

After manager, Phil Walden determined that the festival planners were on the up and up, he and Redding convinced them not only to add the singer to the schedule, but also to put him in a conspicuous spot: as the headline act for Saturday, right after the rising new group Jefferson Airplane. 

Redding was so aware of the stakes involved that his wife said she had never seen him so nervous. Perhaps, he admitted, but the worry was all necessary, because the move would “put my career up some.  I’m gonna reach an audience I never have before.”

Redding had several advantages as he prepared for the biggest appearance of his career to date:

*Persistence and commitment to innovation. “If you want to be a singer you’ve got to concentrate on it 24 hours a day,” he advised in an interview with Hit Parader. “Always think different from the next person. Don’t ever do a song as you heard somebody else do it.”

*Ability to gauge the temper of a new audience. Like other rhythm-and-blues performers, Redding employed “call-and-response” with African-American fans. Whites, however, preferred to wait and observe first. Traveling in Europe before his Monterey appearance, Redding learned to provide different cues to gain the desired reaction from these new fans.

*Extensive practice with his backup musicians. Booker T and the MG’s, the four-piece house band for Stax Records, had grown to love working with Redding in the studio, but until the European tour had not really had the chance to venture outside its confines. Now, they channeled into the mutual electricity of the performer and audience. At the same time, Redding learned to compensate for one of his few limitations as a performer—lack of dancing skills—by perfecting alternative stage moves. In short order, audiences were enthralled by his hyperkinetic presence: stomping, striding, jumping, building to a climax that hardly seemed possible to sustain.

Afflicted with an attack of nerves on the eve of his performance, Redding took a joint backstage to calm down. Then, after an introduction by comedian Tommy Smothers, he and the MGs came out at 1 and tore into a blistering cover of Sam Cooke’s “Shake.”

The set was relatively short, but the five songs were shrewdly chosen to demonstrate Redding’s gifts as composer (“I've Been Loving You Too Long,” “Respect”) and interpreter, notably The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction”. Even those witnesses not particularly enamored of his style were forced to acknowledge his impact, including The Who’s Pete Townshend: “He was wearing a dark suit, sweating and doing all his street moves, and looked out of place. But the crowd loved him.”
After “Respect” (which, he joked, was the one “that a girl”—i.e., Franklin—“took away from me”), 
Redding made doubly sure that the crowd—few of whom had heard, or even heard of him, before—was with him, taking note of the festival’s blissed-out vibe as a charity event: “This is the love crowd, is it not?...We all love each other don’t we? Am I right? Let me hear you say ‘Yeah’.”

It was a neat segue into “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” a change of pace that highlighted Redding at his pleading, yearning best. Then another switch, to “Satisfaction,” one that replaced the original’s growling, nasty edge with a supercharged energy that made the song his own.

And then, a finale that merged the pleading and dynamo sides of Redding into four minutes that burst all conventional bounds of vinyl and video: “Try a Little Tenderness.” It would have been impossible to guess, from Redding’s interpretation—a slow buildup to an all-stops-out finale—that it was an inside-out reworking of a tune sung by Bing Crosby and Ruth Etting in the 1930s.  It was the climax of Redding’s set (as, indeed, it would be in the 1991 Irish film about a Dublin soul band, The Commitments).

I grew up knowing Redding primarily from the biggest hit of his career, the posthumous “Dock of the Bay.” But that, fine as it was, had not prepared me for the power of the live version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” It must have come with an even greater force of revelation to the listeners at Monterey. 

(In fact, my one regret about that song is the version made for the eventual concert film, found in this YouTube clip, which focuses for the first 2½ minutes on the blissed-out expressions on the listeners—including Mama Cass Elliott—rather than Redding himself.)

“I have to go. I don’t want to go,” Redding told the audience as he reappeared briefly to acknowledge their rapturous response. Redding had lifted to their feet his listeners, who in turn lifted his career, as he had hoped, to new heights.

After the festival, Redding returned to his 300-acre Big O Ranch near Macon, Ga., where he threw an all-night bash for 1,000 partiers, an affair that his widow would call “our own Woodstock.” But he was on top of the world, telling his wife that his short but electrifying set had added five years to his career.

My earlier remarks here might lead some readers to infer that Monterey gave Redding credibility with white audiences. But, in truth, the inclusion of this powerful rhythm-and-blues performer gave the festival credibility as more than a showcase for lily-white musicians.

Phillips would later contend that though Motown head Berry Gordy Jr. at first ardently supported the festival, after a while he stopped taking calls from its organizers. No artists from America’s most commercially successful African-American music operation ended up on the bill. African-Americans were largely unenthusiastic about the San Francisco hippie ethos that dominated the festival, and in a time when racial tension began to overtake racial progress, bad memories—of white lamentations about “race music,” of white musicians making hits with covers of black songs—still rankled. 

Hendrix was an expatriate, not terribly well-known stateside, when he was added to the bill. Lou Rawls was dismissed by critic Robert Christgau as a "nightclub act." Dionne Warwick was signed to appear, but was prevented from going by the San Francisco hotel where she was working. Hugh Masekela was more associated with jazz than rhythm and blues. This left Redding as, de facto, the only representative of soul music at the festival.

As with Buddy Holly, Redding’s death in a place crash only five months later deprived the world of a young, multidimensional artist still evolving in fascinating ways. Producer Jerry Wexler eulogized him this way: “Otis Redding was a natural prince. When you were with him, he communicated love and a tremendous faith in human possibility, a promise that great and happy events were coming.”

1 comment:

Dave Ryan said...

Loved this. Try A Little Tenderness is to me one of the greatest recordings of the late 60s early 70s. That band is amazing. Otis Redding's phrasing is among the most-imitated in my opinion among the acknowledged great vocalists of the period. Many of them are rock n roll Hall of Famers today. Thanks for bringing him back to me for a few moments!