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Otis Redding and the Soul of Art

Mid-August 2017

The ultimate of soul singers for me, Otis Redding idolized Sam Cooke, whose voice was more supple; and Little Richard, whose frenetic vocal drive propelled him into such an entirely new category of music that no one could imitate him without looking farcical. Redding, however, quickly surpassed his musical idols and long before his tragic death at the age of twenty-six, he possessed his own mastery of voice. That vocal talent of precision and passion is now heard only on recordings.

His voice contained beauty, power, and an almost intangible yet sensual quality of anguish, intermixed with and tempered by melancholy and reverie. His voice resulted, in part, from his impeccable musical taste and instinctive sense of sound; and partly from having lived a life that created a man of heart and soul. The voice was the natural tone of who he was and who he wished to become.

He was a commanding singer, utilizing the tools of restraint, understatement, anticipation and timing unlike many “soul” singers. The essence of singing from the soul is the essence of Otis Redding: the emotion pours from him without much adornment or embellishment or, ironically, too much emotion. The voice is an instrument on which he played the heartstrings of his own heart.

Just as in writing, when the words edited out are the most powerful ones that the reader will infuse into the reading of the text, singing, at its most touching and moving, involves silence and pauses and hesitation, even those pregnant moments of taking that breath (the inhalations that are not supposed to be audible), much more than it involves outright expression. The mastery of silence is innate, however. Try to obviously use silence and pauses (“phrasing”) for effect while singing and you impugn them as well as your voice.

Frank Sinatra was famous for his “phrasing,” a style that he learned from mimicking the phrasing of the trombonist Tommy Dorsey while singing with his band. (His breath control was the result of a lot of underwater swimming!) His phrasing, however, was a means of dealing with an essentially small voice. The phrasing overlaid the voice; it did not originate from within it as a pure utterance, even declaration of self.

The voice of Sinatra was immediately recognizable but it also became fodder for mimicry because the Voice was not uniquely the expression of his true self. I perhaps speak blasphemy here as a girl from New Jersey, but I’ve always been a Dean Martin fan. Just watch Joe Piscopo’s comic rendition of Frank singing and you’ll know what I mean about mimicry not equating to flattery.

In strong contrast, there is the “death tempo” of silence that Ray Charles used, much to the frustration and consternation of his musicians and back-up singers. The drummer in particular had it the worst of all. Ray went through a lot of drummers! But the tempo, the style, and the soul were real Ray — and momentous indeed!

The emotion or sentiment of the line about to be sung must be felt BEFORE it is voiced, not during it. This staging of the song or processing of the feeling makes the difference between a professional singer and an amateur vocalist or “song stylist.” The song must wait for the singer; the singer does not wait for the song. The notes are part of his being, his psyche, his heart and soul, and they emerge only at the psychological moment; which is to say, when they have the fullest and deepest impact.

This dynamic of singing is the fundamental reason why any vocal performer on tour, expected to sing the same song over and over and over and over again for the audience — becomes diminished in his artistry. The somewhat relentless repetition of the song, for money, slowly but surely destroys or eats away or extinguishes the sensation, the substance, and the spark of the exquisite passion that initially compelled the individual to SING of his discovery of that musical sensibility. “It” no longer “is”; “it” passes into the state of “was” —

And for any true singer, there is always the sense of loss about the ebbing and waning of that dynamic force within him. He senses the gradual slipping away of the solitary, sacred “devoir” — urgency, demand, duty — that inspired him to open his mouth and surrender to that burning yearning to express through his voice the desire of this dream, the most natural of human needs — to be heard: to sing, to consummate that dream with the reality of music. That sense of security and certainty that all is in readiness to permit the rapture of singing: that sense becomes eroded, steadily but inexorably, by the demands of performing for money.

It is a double-edged sword, selling art. Sometimes the artist needs to grow; more often the artist needs money. This reality is how the shibboleth of the “struggling artist” or the “starving artist” began and how it continues. In a greater reality, the artist must learn how to pace and balance the feeding of the soul, the feeding of the stomach, and the giving of the self to an audience. It means being in control of the vehicle of your artistic life; in effect, being in command of your life.

Balance and art go hand in hand. The repercussions of life and death — grief, sorrow, anguish — must be handled personally and privately, and not exclusively through the creation of art. The spark that initially set off the creative fire within any individual most likely began early in life with the potent emotions born of the repercussions of life and death. To use artistic expression as a way to sublime any sensation is often necessary, sometimes even noble. To excessively devote one’s time and energies and emotions to create art as a means of hiding from “the interior self,” to basically use art to live, that activity is an escape. It is, at base, base. It demeans the artistic gift and cheats it, robs it of its most essential essence, soul.

Art, just like a convent or college or kinship with anyone or anything, is not meant to be used as a hiding place or as an escape mechanism, temporary or otherwise. It happens at times, but it cannot be permitted for long. Creating art can save you from a long dark night; it cannot save you from a long dark life.

The personal self must grow from living life as humbly and as honestly as a human being can summon the courage to do, often with divine assistance. That pure intrepid surrender to life is the essence of art, and of life itself, because life, if lived with truth and honor, is an art. The artist, as much as anyone or perhaps even more than anyone, needs to grow and develop as a person; her work in life will subsequently benefit from it.

There is, in my opinion, an almost moral imperative for an artist to not waste or squander talents given from Above. I also firmly believe that a person must develop first as an individual before success can be possible in any métier, vocation, or endeavour, and I include mothering among the roster of achievements.

If the artist does not grow as a person, she will not grow as an artist. Life, and the gift of artistic talents, are cheated, often simultaneously. If any artist thinks he can cheat life or that gift, and make up for it later, he’d better think again. Those powerful emotions will throw off that finely-tuned balance within his art like wet towels clunking around in the spin cycle of the washer. Something will be “off,” and it won’t be the art; it’ll be the artist. Getting back on track might take him a while, a long while, perhaps longer than he’ll have time on this earth.

Many artists do not realize this basic requirement of honoring their talents. Their art, like their lives, pays a horrible price for their refusal to confront the very emotions that create their art. They use their “work” as an avenue of escape and become trapped, in some form of creative-cul-de-sac, and then they end up bitter after squandering talent and time. Of course, some people have very little talent to begin with, so there is less loss, at least artistically. The waste of any human potential is nonetheless always mournful, sometimes even tragic.

There is also the other extreme of flight from feeling: immersing oneself in the whirlpool of emotion. Some artists crow so much about “going with the flow,” they scarcely realize that flow is a riptide of raw emotions carrying them very far offshore from their true selves, and from reality. They move deeper, deeper, ever deeper into the deep-end: horrors of depression and malaises too many to count or even sagely contemplate.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire was forever writing about “le naufrage” because he was forever going there, poetically and personally. He represented the artistic “type” that believes that “something” will be lost if he, the Artist, does not process wholesale in the “bohemian” way the sensations that fill his days with busy-ness and empty his nights of sound sleep. The body’s processing of alcohol and narcotics tended, however. to impede the mind’s processing of raw emotions, as well as tamed thought.

The only thing absent from that mind, after repeated amounts of absinthe, was sanity. The myth of the addicted artist is one of the more baneful myths both in and out of the art world. The reality is that the talented, gifted, prolific but addicted artist creates in spite of his self-destructive behavior, not because of it.

Immersing oneself in those overwhelming sensations wholesale — bohemian or otherwise — can tip the balance between art and angst to the point where the truth of art becomes ever-more elusive. Clasping your arms around emotions that overpower your entire being is not the point of art, or even life. Catching a glimpse of the sensibility that daunts you and dares you: there is the first step toward the truth of that emotion that will eventually create the truth of art.

Accepting into your awareness those chunks and bits, glimmers and glints of passions — that process requires the ultimate openness of heart and soul and the courage to surrender to that openness. It’s a process akin to composing a chiaroscuro of your life, not with overt melodrama as much as with an innate intensity of light that overlaps luminous shadow and imbues darkness with brilliance. To gradually but steadily wait for those moments of life-turning-into dreams and dreams-coming-to-life, that state of readiness is the gift within the gift.

The artist then submits sublimely to the daily task of patience, a strength that tames profound sensation. She surrenders to the tears of lamentation that transform sorrow into triumph. She more than confronts fears; she transforms them into allies, perhaps even friends. All the world around her becomes a blank canvas awaiting the colours of every season of emotion, known and unknown to the artist within her, and to the world awaiting the vision, the voice, the verse emerging from within her soul. This abundant harvest of hope and love yields true art.

The compression and distillation and exaltation of emotion are ultimately the forces that drive that vehicle called art. Natural talent is honed through the passion, patience and time-tested techniques of the gifted individual. The transformation of sensation into something transcendent is the magical wonderment called art. That transformation demands much of the artist: faith, first of all; then diligence, persistence, disciplined passion, a form of love that is a higher sensibility, granted by divine inspiration.

During that period of waiting to perform talent in the service of one’s art, an artist must grow and mature emotionally if he is to soar to ever more lofty heights; or he will become stuck, personally, artistically, perhaps even morally and spiritually.

It is indeed a precarious balance, living and creating; but it is one that the artist must achieve to find the joy in his art, and for the art to provide the joy of life to the artist. That circle must be unbroken or the artist will burn out, quickly, or slowly, depending on the resourcefulness and resolve of the individual. Only from a soul that has been nurtured can the artist offer the nurturing gift of art to the world, and, just as crucially, to himself. The artist, like any individual, must accept love as well as give it in the service of creating art, in the joy of creating life.

Creation is fundamentally love that seeks to give far more than to receive. And, most fundamentally, life itself is a creation. The art of living, if done well, is glorious and ecstatic.

Otis Redding loved to sing, loved to perform, loved to compose music, and he loved life. He did not have much time to think about living. He was too busy living it. Life happened very quickly to him as an adolescent, when he had to take over the family duties. He thereby become a man, long before he was able to fully understand any of the frailties and the fortitude within the boy that had been named Otis Redding.

This “young” man understood the craft of music and he composed magnificent songs. His catalog is relatively small, but Redding lived more than a lifetime in little over two decades before dying at the age of twenty-six. We are most fortunate to have the record, or records, of this legend who knew life better than most “singers” today can even begin to comprehend.

A songwriter who also sang, a singer who also wrote songs, Redding was the thrilling voice that disciplined the thrill and the voice into the glorious intensity of feeling that is singing done right, singing done well, singing done forever. With amazement, perhaps disbelief about a song he wrote, he said of Aretha Franklin, “That little girl stole my song.” Respect is what we all owe Otis Redding. Aretha would respectfully agree.


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