Friday, 16 September 2016

Number 4
October 1962
Otis Redding records "These Arms of Mine"

Johnny Jenkins was a sparsely recorded blues musician who played left handed and was said to be an early influence on Jimi Hendrix. Jenkins had a group called the Pinetoppers, which sometime included the extraordinary Wayne Cochran playing bass guitar. 
 
Wayne Cochran, yesterday.
Coming out of Macon, Georgia, the Pinetoppers had a moderate hit with an instrumental called "Love Twist" and had acquired a new manager, Phil Walden, who suggested that the group record a follow up at the Stax studios in Memphis accompanied by the session musicians that comprised Booker T and the MGs. As Jenkins could not drive, he used a chauffeur to drive him to the session.

Steve Cropper, the guitarist with the MGs, later recalled how he noticed the big guy who was driving Jenkins, get out from behind the wheel and go to the back of the truck and start unloading equipment. The Pinetoppers' session proceded in an unremarkable fashion and finished some forty minutes early. At this point, the big guy driving the truck asked if he could sing a song. The keyboard player for the MGs had already left the session, so Cropper sat down at the piano, which he normally only played for purposes of composition. He asked what should he play and the truck driver said "Just those church things". Cropper then established that he meant triplets. "What key?" said Cropper. "It don't matter" came the response. The truck driver then took a breath, opened his mouth and began.

According to Cropper "man, my hair stood on end. Jim [Stewart, co-owner of Stax] came running out and said, 'That's it! That's it! Where is everybody? We gotta get this on tape!' So I grabbed all the musicians who hadn't left already for their night gigs, and we recorded it right there. When you hear something that's better than anything you ever heard, you know it, and it was unanimous. We almost wore out the tape playing it afterwards."

The truck driver was Otis Ray Redding and those first few notes sung unaccompanied are the birth of modern soul music. The sound of the Georgia pines let loose and untrammelled. Years later, in the duet "Tramp", Carla Thomas would tell Redding that "you straight from the Georgia woods", to which he would answer "that's good". Although Ray Charles and Solomon Burke had a strong early influence on singing that was affected and emotional, that made use of call and response, repetition and exultations to generate an impact, Redding's singing here was a new style of intimacy, of fragility that teetered on the brink of emotional instability, that could shatter into a breakdown, yet was also controlled. Far from the "sock it to me" shouter he later became, Redding's style here is nearer to the close-miked intimacy of Bing Crosby. However, Redding was not a smooth technician in the style of Sam Cooke. The feeling is conveyed almost entirely through the sound of the vocal rather than the meaning of the words.

The image of the burly truck driver stepping forward to deliver a seminal recording finds its modern counterpart in the You Got Talent showcase of a shambolic looking imbecile delivering a blistering vocal performance while Simon Cowell stares open mouthed. With accompanying You Tube video strapline of the "They thought he was an idiot but you will not believe it when he starts to sing" variety. These modern myrmidons of mellifuousness are sometimes desribed as giving a soulful performance but their belting over-vocalisations lack the balance, subtlety and control of Redding's performance.

Typically, of course, the story of Redding's recording here is only partially true. Redding had already made records in the belting Little Richard style such as "Shout Bamalama" and was, in fact, the featured vocalist with the Pinetoppers. although they were primarily an instrumental group. He had won talent contests (another parallel with the world of You Got Talent) and even replaced Little Richard for a period when that latter singer got one of his periodic doses of religion.
 
Jenkins, Redding and the Pinetoppers
 
"These Arms of Mine" was not even the first song recorded at that session. They had already recorded "Hey Hey Baby", a more typical Little Richard impersonation with Redding stretching a rasping vocal to emulate that earlier stylist. Nevertheless, it is impressive that Redding was able to transition into the more sympatico style of the ballad. In fact, his exertions on the previous song add to the slightly breathless, almost rubbing quality of his vocal sound.

Further, "These Arms of Mine", has an arrangement, albeit simple in structure. They cannot have launched straight into the song. Probably, Redding ran through the song and a head arrangement was sketched out before they began recording. Additionally, although Cropper claims he played piano other accounts state that Jenkins played piano. After the first verse, a guitar appears that sounds very much like Cropper's style of playing. It is possible he overdubbed this, of course, but why bother if Jenkins could play piano.

The song itself is a near perfect example of a soul ballad in that it is built around those classic soul elements of tension and release. The acapella intro walks the notes from fifth to first typical of country music songs (as exemplified by Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line") only slowing it way down to make the listener wait for that resolution which one knows is coming in the commencement of the instruments at the word "mine". After this rising melody, Redding makes the melody descend on the word "yearning" before it rises again. Yearning is the key theme of the song and the musical structure reflects this. The way Redding lets the note fall away at the end of words, his choice of phrasing is impeccable and unique in how he selects which words to emphasise and which to elongate. It is both natural and highly contrived - the model of the soul style. The introduction of the staccato guitar lines emphasise the tension as does the frequent repetition of key phrases and words, chiefly the title of the song. Tension and release, rise and fall, these would become the very building blocks of the soul ballad.

Phil Walden ditched the Pinetoppers and took over managing Redding who would record many other classic ballads, accompanied by Booker T and the MGs. Some 18 months after recording "These Arms of Mine", he recorded "Come to Me" during which he sings the phrase "Days are getting so lonely, nights are getting so blue" and he elongates the second "so" to make the greatest rising note in the history of sound. Seriously. Now that's soul.

Hear Otis yearning here.

video