Black Ensemble

Otis Redding died when he was 26 years old. Until his death, his life was consumed by two passions–music and his family. There was no legendary drug use or drunken rages, no rivalries with other singers, no tempestuous love affairs. There was not even much fame and fortune–Redding’s biggest hit, “Dock of the Bay,” didn’t hit the airwaves until January 1968, a month after his chartered plane plunged into Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin.

So it’s not surprising that the story portion of the Black Ensemble’s The Story of Otis Redding is pretty dull. Several scenes show Otis and his wife Zelma at home, saying things like, “We sure have wonderful kids, don’t we?”

But when Roy Hytower, who plays Otis Redding, begins to sing, the show snaps to life. Backed by drummer Jimmy Tillman and a seven-piece band, Hytower delivers passionate renditions of Redding’s greatest hits–“These Arms of Mine,” “Mr. Pitiful,” “Pain in My Heart,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and of course, “Dock of the Bay.”

Hytower should not be so effective. For one thing, he looks totally wrong for the part: he’s skinny; Redding was a 200-pound bear of a man. Hytower seems more comfortable with the blues, as he demonstrated with his performance as Muddy Waters in the Black Ensemble’s production of The Hoochie Coochie Man. Redding, on the other hand, was known as the King of Soul. And Hytower is considerably older than Redding ever lived to be.

Yet, somehow, Hytower still manages to evoke the spirit of Otis Redding. He’s not a Redding impersonator. He doesn’t strive to make each syllable match Redding’s recordings. But he does conjure the passion and the sincerity that Redding brought to his songs, and that makes Hytower a show in himself. If this were a musical revue, with no dramatic pretensions, featuring Hytower singing his way through Redding’s enormous repertoire, it might just be one of the hottest shows in town. A bit of narration between the songs could provide all the relevant biographical facts:

Redding came from Macon, Georgia, and grew up listening to another Macon native, Little Richard, the flamboyant singer who brought the frenzy of gospel singing to rock-and-roll. While still a teenager, Redding began singing with a local band known as Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. In 1962, Redding drove Jenkins to an audition for the Stax label, in Memphis, and got permission to use an extra 40 minutes of studio time to record his own “These Arms of Mine.” The producers were impressed, and the song became Redding’s first single. After that, Redding wrote and recorded dozens of songs, and performed constantly. Although enormously popular among soul music fans in the United States and Europe (the British voted him the top male singer of 1967), Redding was largely unknown by the general public until his electrifying performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. While in California, he began work on “Dock of the Bay,” which rose to the top of the pop charts.

The script, by Jackie Taylor and Jimmy Tillman, the Black Ensemble’s musical director, resorts to clumsy, lifeless exposition to present these facts. (“Gee, I don’t know how I’d go over with that mostly white pop audience,” Otis says to his manager, Phil Walden, while discussing the invitation to perform at Monterey.)

But the script provides an excuse to re-create Redding concerts that featured other famous black entertainers of the day, such as Sam and Dave (“Hold On I’m Comin'”), and Carla Thomas (“Gee Whiz Look at His Eyes”). These scenes are enjoyable, and make sitting through the “dramatic” portions of the show even more difficult.

Redding’s brief life just doesn’t lend itself to drama. But his songs, dramatically rendered, are enough to reveal the soul of the man.