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By The Way, There's This Guy In The Band Who Sings...

You could probably fill the Mid-South Coliseum with the folks who say they saw Jimi Hendrix play the Ellis Auditorium in April, 1969. The spectacle of the left-handed guitarist who played an upside-down right-handed guitar did not disappoint the folks who plunked down their 3, 4, 5, or 6 dollars for a seat in one of the two

shows. Following the concerts, Jimi met with a buddy from his days in the 101st Airborne, Billy Cox, who drove over from Nashville. It was here in Memphis that the seeds were planted which eventually bloomed into the band which would play Woodstock later that year.

Back in 1962, when Hendrix and Cox were playing in a Nashville R&B band called the King Kasuals, another flamboyant left-handed guitarist who played a right-handed guitar came to Memphis to audition for Stax records. From that audition, seeds were planted which turned Memphis into a destination city for soul artists wanting to grab a piece of musical mojo.

That other left-handed guitarist, Johnny Jenkins, fronted the Pinetoppers from Macon, Georgia. His frenetic style and wild antics ensured that Johnny owned the stage any time the band played. Atlantic Records promoter Joe Galkin caught wind of the excitement engendered by the group, and released a instrumental the band made, “Love Twist,” on his own label. At that time, in light of the recent success of The Mar-Keys and Booker T And The MG’s, Stax records in Memphis was gaining a reputation for their ability to turn out a hit instrumental single. Atlantic took out an option for the Pinetoppers next record, and Joe Galkin was able to arrange for Jenkins to record his follow-up tune in Memphis .

Following the long drive up from Macon, Jenkins’ session didn’t go so well. After a couple of hours in the studio, the material recorded wasn’t deemed good enough to be released, at least not immediately. At that point, the studio musicians started packing it in, and Booker T. Jones left for another commitment. But the next forty minutes would make a great deal of difference to everyone in the room. That would be the forty minutes after Joe Galkin said, “By the way, there’s this guy in the band who sings, why don’t you give him a listen.”

The guy in the band was Otis Redding. Growing up in Macon, Otis was educated in the style created by local legends who made it big; Little Richard and James Brown. You can hear that freely flowing energy in an early Redding single, released on, oddly enough, Confederate Records, called “Shout Bamalama.” And that Little Richard romp was evident in the song Otis chose to lead off his Stax audition, “Hey Hey Baby.” With Booker T gone, Steve Cropper shifted over to piano, and the tape rolled. At the conclusion of the song, the general reaction in the room was, “Who needs another Little Richard?” So at Galkin’s suggestion, Otis followed up with a 180 degree shift into a ballad he had written. Released on the Volt label in October of 1962, “These Arms Of Mine” wound up being hit the single from the session.

Well, it wouldn’t be until the following spring before the record could be called a hit, despite constant late-night airplay by an early Redding fan, DJ John R, on 50,000 watt WLAC in Nashville. The single made it to the top 20 on R&B charts, and #85 pop. 

In his career with Stax, Otis Redding would eventually make it all the way to the top of the charts, but that honor was to come posthumously, and at that, all too soon. Songs Otis wrote, or those to which he gave bold, new interpretation, would still be inspiring other musicians decades later, as they shared the Redding legacy with generations who missed out on the original.

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.