When news that the plane carrying Otis Redding and his band had crashed into Lake Monona reached America, nobody could quite believe what they were hearing. For family, friends, and fans of Redding, he had seemed an indestructible force of nature, bringing new life to everything he touched. And yet, at just 26, he was gone.
Today, he is regarded as one of the most important soul artists of his day; defining the sound of Memphis’ Stax Records with his blend of crooner-era sentimentality and mesmerising Baptist exuberance. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it would also seem that the social consciousness of his output has been regrettably overlooked. For many, the defining anthem of the civil rights era (1954 – 1968) is Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin In The Wind’, but, for me, Redding’s 1966 track ‘Try A little Tenderness’captures the spirit of the movement with a strength of will that Dylan’s offering lacks.
In a way, it seems strange that Bob Dylan is considered an icon of the civil rights movement and Redding is not. While Dylan’s protest songs are celebrated for capturing the sense of disillusionment sweeping America in the post-war era, tracks like ‘Blowin In The Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ are remarkably non-specific. Such songs, seemingly, were adopted because of their universality. They seemed to speak to everyone – from the protesters themselves to the “senators, congressmen” Dylan asks to “heed the call”.
In contrast, Redding used his music not simply to comment on the state of race relations in the US but to actively address that lack of Black representation in the charts. Redding’s intense talent saw him cover some of the biggest hits of the day, from Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ to the Rolling Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. In tackling these songs, Redding set a trend that saw other African American artists such as Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles cover songs by white artists, effectively subverting the process of appropriation that saw the likes of The Rolling Stones profit from the talent of artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf.
But few songs capture the socially-conscious spirit of Otis Redding than ‘Try A little Tenderness’. The 1966 hit is generally regarded as a call for sensitivity within romantic relationships, it can equally be read as calling for societal sensitivity. There’s something distinctly unsentimental about this supposedly romantic song, with Redding’s insistence that the world “t-t-t-t-try a little tenderness” imbued with a sense of frustration and antagonism. So, what if we were to, just for a moment, ignore the gendered aspect of this song and listen to it within the context of the civil rights movement?
When we consider that ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ was written at a time when there was such a lack of empathy running through America’s veins that even peaceful protests were met with police brutality, it isn’t a big leap to suggest that the “tenderness” Redding calls for is aimed at America’s divided people, the “anticipation” a hunger for liberation. Perhaps when Redding sings, “You have to try/ You’ve got to try,” he is actually calling for the American people to reach out and “hold” a gentler, more loving world.