When Otis Redding tragically died in a plane crash December 10, 1967, several legacy issues were impacted. The world, of course, was deprived of future musical creations from a soul genius who conceivably could have taken the genre further than anyone not named Sam Cooke.
Secondly, aspects of the output of this prodigiously gifted 26-year-old became overshadowed, a consequence of his untimely end coming to dominate his story, and the posthumous hit “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” That song became an end-all-be-all for Redding’s story and actual output. If you heard him on the radio, it was “Dock of the Bay.” His colleagues at Stax had dissuaded him in recording it, as had his wife. The latter thought the melody unwieldy; his label mates believed it signified a fruitless new direction, as if the piece were an adversary, rather than an ally, to true soul music.
Schubert’s friends had reacted similarly when he started playing the grim song cycle Winterreise for them in 1827. But that’s the thing about genius — ultimately, it knows best to whom to listen, and for both Schubert and Redding, that meant listening to, and trusting, themselves. “Dock of the Bay” was huge enough in the charts and the pop culture consciousness that it became easy to overlook how Redding was an inspired album artist, crafting full-length records like Otis Blue that were akin to soul concept albums, a mini-rhythm and blues Sgt. Pepper, only with the pageantry taking the form of late night emotions expressed truly. Call it a celebration of the soul — and soul — self that would do both James Brown and Walt Whitman proud.
But at Christmas, which is, alas, the season of Redding’s death, I like to think of him in a warming mode by visiting with his two contributions to the holiday canon. To me, he’s a perfect Christmas artist, despite not having a raft of Christmas-based material. Louis Armstrong was also this way, with only a handful of Yule-related airs, but they are soulful, greasy — but good greasy — and stomping works, a canon within a canon tucked away in the corner of a rhythm and blues manger.
Redding had some Armstrong in him. A dash of Sinatra, too, as evidenced by the aforementioned Otis Blue, which draws on Old Blue Eyes’s In the Wee Small Hours, another concept record of the dark night of the human soul. For many, Redding is the go-to example of soul music, a genre incarnated in this artist from Georgia, which makes it such a pleasing paradox that Redding traversed as he did. He was an artistic wanderer, Charles Maturin’s Melmouth without the need to sell his soul. A part of Redding’s genius was his ability to slow down an idiom that most of its artists handled at top speeds, believing that rapidity of pace accounted for maximum output of emotion. Redding worked within the tradition of Billie Holiday and Little Willie John when the latter decided it was ballad time, and I think this accounts for his intense connectivity with a listener. Redding sings like a narrator with an intense raison d’être to reach us. To both speak to the audience, and sit with that same audience.
I find that this is the key to Christmas art. It’s less about presents and seasonal trimmings and decorated trees than it is a human style of instructive fellowship. Built within that same instructive fellowship is the idea that the person doing the presenting, if you will, is also an acute listener. Can be presented to. A person of wisdom speaks — or sings — in such a manner that it sounds as if they’re listening as well. I think that’s why Redding is ideal at the holiday, because the finest Christmas art also says, “hey, wait, don’t just leave me here, in December, you can take me out into the world in the rest of your life across all the months. Wisdom and fellowship is perpetual, not annual.” What’s more Christmas-y than that?
Redding’s Christmas offerings are not well known, having been tucked away on a compilation from 1968 called Soul Christmas, from Atlantic. We might call it the communal soul analogue to the more famous A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, from 1963, which featured various acts getting the Wall of Sound treatment. On the LP of Spector productions, Christmas achieves bonhomie via volume. Not Metallica volume, not Wagner volume, but the volume of the full-throated shout of “Good to see you again, man,” that comes after a long time of being parted and is followed by handshakes and back-clapping carried out in a room full of people. Reunions are witnessed.
This isn’t how Redding warms. His is a more intimate art, with a one-on-one feel. You think he is communicating solely to you, as you know that many others have the same sensation. That’s the alchemy, the paradox. The early Beatles achieved this effect with pronouns. Look at their first few sides, and you’ll see they’re littered with words like “you,” “us.” You were not a part of the band, but a part of what the band was putting over and ere impelled — driven — to get across.
Redding is always warming in the sense that to hear his music, even the slowest ballads, is to be energized. That was a trick of his: ballads were never ballads in the traditional manner, but works that always felt up-tempo, even when, musically, they were not. This is what I think of as their spiritual pace. I don’t mean in terms of God or whatever you might believe in there, but rather in that way of something outside of you that feels like something that belongs in you, which then becomes a part of you in the process of experiencing it. Like I said, warming.
Black Christmas albums felt progressive, radical in the 1960s, largely because for decades, Christmas albums were white affairs. No, when Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” he wasn’t dreaming of Caucasians, but there was little Blackness in the holiday as presented and rendered in the popular culture. Holiday music, steeped in the classical music tradition, was as white as could be. Soul music helped that, as did Ella Fitzgerald and jazz records from the likes of Hammond organ master Jimmy Smith, but Soul Christmas helped clear out years of familiar white bread patterns with a single, strutting, clout-y demonstration of musical brio.
You have to admire a Christmas album that starts with a great show of cheek — pun sort of intended — as this one does with Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa.” We have fuzz guitar, declarations of “making all the little girls happy,” and the line “I ain’t like the old Saint Nick/He don’t come but once a year” — you spell that verb as you see fit.
Redding’s backing band, Booker T. and the MGs, really pump away on “Jingle Bells,” like reindeers in soul-tastic flight, and King Curtis makes the air a crystalline shimmer with “The Christmas Song,” but it is Redding’s contributions that I think of as post-seasonal as well as full-on Yule. That is, they swaddle you in the musical fineries of this time of year, but to call them mere Christmas recordings is to saddle them with the same misanalysis that still dogs “The Dock of the Bay.”
The first offering in this soul-infused manger is Redding’s take on “White Christmas.” Almost everyone sings this song straight through, with crisp diction. So much so that you think of it as integral to performing the piece. But Redding adds delays, creates space in the vocal line by sounding some syllables twice, repeating words, not out of hesitancy, but rather as though he were controlling time, freeze-framing its flow to better capture a moment.
This is the soul version of what we believe, as children, that Santa does, when he fits in every last house on a journey taking place across a single evening. As the song progresses, Redding repeats more words, improvising lines — “little bitty, little bitty, little bitty children,” he sings, feeling as close to us and ours as does Dickens’ narrator of A Christmas Carol, when we discover that he is holed up in the space at our respective elbows.
This is a very Redding-esque form of Winterreise, a journey not out into the cold dark night of Schubert’s haunted singer, but towards warming fires that feel extra-musical, as though they actually impact our core temperature. Within the word “snow” he manages to add three extra beats, making the word mirror the stuff that falls from the sky, each syllable a descending flake. Handel was a master text painter, and at Christmas we likely listen to his Messiah. But each time I do listen to the famous oratorio, I take a moment or two and imagine how much Handel probably would have loved to write for Otis Redding.
We should talk more about Redding’s genius as a singer. He didn’t have the vocal chops of a Sam Cooke, but he could phrase with the creativity of a Dylan or Lennon or Holiday. Phrasing is utterly unteachable; it originates from a special portion of the soul, if you are fortunate enough to possess that portion. As Redding progresses in the song, the horns of Booker T. and his guys start to surge behind him. The man needs no sleigh—we are already flying. Redding’s voice provides the vehicle, and an energy within that voice that feels as big as weather itself.
If Redding’s “White Christmas” is a soul prayer of joy, gusto, and paradoxically heat-stoking gusts of snow, then “Merry Christmas Baby” is his banquet of blues befit for the prodigious appetites of the beefy Ghost of Christmas Present. Standard operating procedure with this song is to handle it like a torch-y blues, a pining for the lover who is not there. Depending upon the version, the couple may appear to be on the outs. For instance, Elvis’ take on the number, from 1971, presents the singer as in his cups; not sloshed, but getting there, praying for and needing what we intuit as reconciliation. Redding’s girl isn’t away with her family — a necessary holiday parting that isn’t ideal, but such is life and such are parents and their expectations — as is the gentler narrative implication that’s often present with this song. No — she’s done and gone. Left our dude. Further, she’s from another time in his life. That is, she’s the one who got away. He may be with someone now for all we know. One doesn’t volunteer that truth necessarily to the present lady of the house, but the one that got away — as we all know — is forevermore the one that got away. They’re always a part of your consciousness, especially so, it can seem, at Christmas if you had Christmases together.
Charles Brown’s 1956 version is a jump blues with the jump flattened out of it. The horns simmer, like they do not wish to knock the lid off the pot. The piano comps a sardonic “Jingle Bells” on the bridge that is jagged, angular, but not entirely parted from seasonal affability. This singer is not going to bid a favorite holiday farewell. But he’s going to remember what went down in his past.
Redding ups the pace from the first bar, skipping his way through the blues as though dark moods cannot hold him. When he sings, “I feel mighty fine, girl, I got music on my radio,” you think, well, if he’s listening to himself, that makes a damn lot of sense. Redding has done something quite novel: he is singing about two women at once. There is, as with Brown’s version, the girl who got away, and there is also the woman who sparks ebullience like this, whom he now loves, and, presumably, will love for many Christmases. I hate to say it, but the singer of this song might a person who thinks that a runner-up has their fine qualities, too. That’s not polite company talk, is it? But that is how life usually goes. There’s a lot of making do — and making do can be fine in and of itself — rather than top choices and first-choice dreams reaching fruition. The kid at Christmas who gets some awfully cool presents but not maybe that horse they most wanted, understands that all-or-nothing and adaptability are two very different things indeed. If you don’t get what you like, you better like what you get, is a maxim that might as well have Christmas tree roots.
Redding is also singing about his listeners, I think. You really hear that on the coda, when there are fewer pronouns, with well wishes dispensing notions of his and hers and becoming freeform, but resolutely human-based. They are general, in one sense, but also directed at each of us as individuals. An artist has to care much about an audience, I believe, to excel at their art. You are not doing what you do for you, but rather the person who comes to your work, and I hold this to be true regardless of if one is creating on a desert island, with no hope of rescue. I don’t know of a musician who was more wired this way than Redding. His glad tidings are given freely, fulsomely, for your enrichment, entertainment, and, I daresay, growth. He’s the Christmas Ghost of Need who could have been written into the encore portion of A Christmas Carol, if Dickens had thought to turn it into a rock and soul opera and took it touring.
The singer of this version of “Merry Christmas Baby” has come through a previously darkened tunnel, where we can still locate the echo of Charles Brown’s voice. But now it has been flooded with light and is a tunnel no more, but rather what I think of one of those Christmas snow globes you shake. Shake your globe, shake your hips, shake up your season, shake up your relationship, shake up your self, shake up the past, present, and future. Shake it Otis Christmas style, which is what I think he’d want for us, because we deserve it. •