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What Singers Can Learn from Otis Redding

Otis in the studio
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Otis’ energy was uncontrolled, completely spontaneous, or improvised –says Mister Tim.

Otis Redding was an influential soul, rhythm and blues, and pop singer in the 1960s.

Raised very poor in pre-civil rights era United States he worked all over the country with a variety of bands and musical jobs before making it as a solo artist.

His music broke across color lines and is still popular today. He died tragically in a plane crash in 1967 at the age of 26, just three days after recording “The Dock of the Bay.”

His Secret

Redding sang a version of raw soul that focused on energy, intensity, and passion.

Redding sang a version of raw soul that focused on energy, intensity, and passion

Don’t be fooled, however, to think it was uncontrolled, completely spontaneous, or improvised.

These songs were rehearsed, explored, finessed, molded and designed. The release of raw passion while performing is genuine, but the singer has practiced these things.

The core pitch is accurate. The rhythm is tight.

Notice, especially in the live performance videos below, how athletic Redding is. He’s moving all the time. He’s getting a workout.

The singing is still powerful and in tune. He had to be in very, very good shape to pull this off. Never underestimate your own need for fitness.

These Arms of Mine (1961)

Redding won a record contract from Stax Records in Memphis by auditioning with this song at the end of a session for his friend that he had driven to the studio (always have your songs ready to go, kids!). Studio head Jim Stewart said that it was the passion that Redding put into the song that won him the contract. Listen to the yearning he puts in the word “yearning,” and the similar passion he lays on the important words.

Mr. Pitiful (1965)

When a radio labeled Redding “Mr. Pitiful” because of all the sad ballads he released, Redding went and recorded this upbeat song with the title. In this live performance, notice how much his movement affects his vocals. Is it good or bad? The singing is certainly not studio quality, but it is definitely powerful and entertaining.

Satisfaction (1965)

Redding’s cover of The Rolling Stones’ big hit. This is how an artist puts their own stamp on a cover song. Smothered in soul, and I love how wild, almost primal, he gets by the end. Legend says the Keith Richards said this is what he wanted The Rolling Stones’ version to sound like.

Contrast the studio recording with this live version from the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. The song is adapted for the energy of the show and runs like an out of control freight train until he reigns it back in to demonstrate complete control over the song. So cool.

Try a Little Tenderness (1966)

A song from 1932, with previous versions by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, this became Reddings signature song. Pure soul from start to finish, starting slow and soft before building to a big climax. Listen to how he alters the rhythm, being really loose with where he punches the words in, then hitting several words in a row right on the beat (see 2:35-2:55, how powerful “try a little” is at 2:50 when he finally hits those right on the beat?). Listen to the words and sounds he chooses to repeat, “never” and “no” in the first part of the song, then “yeahs” and guttural sounds in the end. He’s painting with words.

Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay (1968)

By 1967 Redding was very successful and very rich. That didn’t prevent him from writing this plaintive song about someone with nothing. It is an incredibly intimate and understated vocal performance. Yet even understated he takes us on an emotional trip. Verse one is very soft, then verse 2 when he leaves home it gets a little bigger and more emotional. The bridge (1:25) is the closest he gets to loud. Then back down, but softer does not mean boring. At 1:44-2:15 listen to the weariness on the word “bones”; listen to him spit out the words “two” and “dock” (that’s an angry man without the energy to sound angry). There is thought put into all the details of his delivery.

This is the first part in our ‘What Singers Can Learn From’ series.
Next: What Singers Can Learn From Doris Day

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Moxy Anne Moxy Anne - Heart Shaped Box

Good performance. Great vocal control, starting light, ending big, it all sounds good. You demonstrate a very mature sound, not just in a great vocal tone but in a very confident delivery of the song. Enjoyable.

You can modulate the vowel on “Advice” (1:19). It is an awkward vowel to sing, and here it sounds a little dull (and only stands out because everything sounds so good). A brighter vowel shape might help. I think you could get away with singing brighter overall. You can also hit those big high notes with a little more air support: the “advice” vowel repeated at the end (2:53) sounds better as you sing it louder.


Mister Tim www.mistertimdotcom.com is a published composer, award-winning recording artist, and in-demand performer, teacher & performance coach. In addition to an active performing and touring schedule with his solo vocal live-looping/beatbox shows, Mister Tim sings with Boulder, CO-based Celtic Rock band Delilah’s Revenge, manages the… Read More

  • Michelle Rocqet

    Otis AND Mister Tim! A swell combination