These Arms of Mine by Otis Redding
In a period where the face of Rock n roll was changing and blues had mostly left the face of mainstream music, a different sound was developing in Memphis in the Motown and Stax recording studios and although they didn’t know what to call it at the time, it was what we now call Soul. This sound provided the emotion and authenticity that African Americans drew on to replace the Blues which was previously at the centre of their emotional expression. Examining the song ‘These arms of mine’ by Otis Redding we can see how it foreshadows his potential and a signature sound that would someday become famous.
While Berry Gordy’s Motown studio created a sound that was strategically manufactured, a look that was carefully rehearsed with straightened and permed hair, choreographed moves, and physical restraint, Stax Studios was almost the opposite. It was started by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, a brother and sister who saw a niche in the business (p.115). Estelle and Jim managed to create their own music company against all odds and developed their own sound, with artists like ‘Chips’ Moman finding others like the band The Mar-Keys with their one hit wonder ‘Last Night’, which went to No. 2 on the pop charts (p.127). With the talent of unofficial scout Chips, they found local acts and created an interracial house band of sorts, yet their knowledge of the music industry and business sense was not sound. They accidently signed a deal that allowed Atlantic to take the cream of the crop and distribute records through their label, while Berry Gordy on the other hand retained distribution rights and had a carefully cultivated image.
The Stax Recording studio consisted of regulars like Rufus and Carla Thomas and Booker T and the MGs, and The Markeys. It was a creative environment with the famous Stax Horn sound that was used because they couldn’t get any back-up singers. While Booker T and the MGs had been working together before Stax, and the Markeys were a teenage high school band, Otis Redding was a horse of another colour. Unlike Motown, which focused on gendered vocal groups with the likes of The Supremes, Stax had less of a strategic direction and sought any raw talent they could find. The song ‘These arms of mine’ by Otis Redding was not a hit, but Estelle and Jim persevered because there was something in his voice. He had a signature voice that fitted with their ‘soulful sound’ that came to define Stax records.
Although his voice didn’t flourish in ‘These Arms of Mine’, it hinted at the untapped potential that was discovered later in ‘Pain in my heart’, a song he wrote himself (p 133). While Motown had a distinct vocal group atmosphere, Stax records were defined by the more jazz based soul. Yet both were classified as soul. Soul developed in Motown through meticulous arrangements with interchangeable artists with a focus on Uplift, largely ignoring the blues, with songs aimed at the cross-over market. Stax on the other hand had no distinct visual image, was not aimed at the cross-over market and it had a mixed local talent pool with unique artists. The Stax houseband’s strength was that it was stylistically unique and that is evident in Redding’s later performances like ‘Tenderness’ which have the heat and physical performance that distinguished it.