Prince was the latest in a long line of black artists - from Sam Cooke and Otis Redding to Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye - to push the envelope, both musically and culturally...
Sometimes we don’t know what the fuck drives us. What I remember is that I scrawled Down In The Valley on one of my school copybooks. And I did it again and again, habitually, over a period of about a year or more. There was, in it, the elements of an obsession.
I couldn’t help myself. In fact I didn’t even know that I was doing it until it was done. Down In The Valley. In black. In blue. In red. In green. It nagged and bubbled inside me and came out of my sub-conscious whenever there was time for dreaming. I think Otis Redding must have been one of the first true loves of my life.
Of course I was aware of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and The Drifters. Otis wasn’t the first great black artist I listened to. We had records by Harry Belafonte and Paul Robeson in the house, that I played and sang along to. But Otis was the one that truly converted me.
Sam Cooke had released ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ in 1962. I heard the track and loved it, but in an inchoate way. A small bunch of 78s aside, music was just a noise coming from the radio at the time. In 1964, Sam released ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, which was an even bigger deal. But in between, Otis had arrived. His debut LP, Pain In My Heart, hit the stores on New Year’s Day, 1964. It contained versions of the Little Richard hit ‘Lucille’, of The Drifters’ ‘Stand By Me’ and a superb ballad ‘These Arms of Mine’. From the outset, that urgent, pleading voice, made a huge impression.
That was just the start of it. Never one to hide his light under a bushel, or indeed anything else, in March 1965, Otis released The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads. It began with the monumental ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ and ended with the funky ‘Mr. Pitiful’: co-written with ace guitarist Steve Cropper, it was a feisty riposte, aimed at a DJ who had slagged Otis off for his unashamedly abject love songs. It was like nothing I had ever heard before.
Just six months later, came the coup-de-grace. The eleven tracks on Otis Blue required just 35 minutes playing time. The record opens with slashing guitars from Steve Cropper and full-on horns, before a deeply anguished Otis pleads with ‘Old Man Trouble’ to please, please, please stay away from him. And then we are into the album proper. ‘Respect’ – it resonated like a slice of aural dynamite going off in a three bedroom suburban house on the edge of the city in Rathfarnham – is followed by a cathartic version of Sam Cooke’s ‘Change Gonna Come’.
And then there is ‘Down In The Valley’ – in which Otis asks the immortal question “Have you ever been lonely, lonely, ha/ Have you ever been sad?...” Listening to the track again, now, it retains all of is original, sulphurous power. You can hear in the repetitions, in the stabbed non-sequiturs and the moments when he seems almost to be speaking in tongues, that this is where Van Morrison got some of his most characteristic moves.
You had to flip the album over then – but there was no loss of momentum. On the contrary.
Side two began with another Sam Cooke classic, a funky, brass-heavy take on ‘Shake’. That was followed by the definitive version of the incomparable ‘My Girl’, a song written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White. Next, an upful ‘Wonderful World’ (you know the song). And then a fiercely brooding version of B.B. King’s seminal ‘Rock Me Baby’, which put the guitar maestro on notice: you may be good, Sonny Jim, but no one can do the blues like Otis. The penultimate track was one of the greatest crossover classics in the entire canon of contemporary music: a version of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ that bristled with just-barely contained libidinous power.
THE DEATH OF OTIS
It was in the autumn of 1965 that I started to scrawl Down In The Valley on copybooks. It could have been ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ or ‘Respect’. But in some obscure way, the die was cast: the phrase that had wormed its way into my fledgling consciousness was the one that came out unbidden. But behind that again were the intimations of a new romance that would last a life-time.
Otis Blue still ranks as one of the greatest albums ever.‘My Girl’ was a hit in the UK and Ireland, peaking at No.11 in the singles charts. The album reached No.1 in the Billboard R&B charts in the USA and No.6 in the British pop charts. Otis Redding was a phenomenon.
He didn’t get to stick around long enough to reap the harvest. Sam Cooke had been shot dead in an incident in the Hacienda Motel, in Los Angeles, in December 1964, cutting short a career that might otherwise have proven revolutionary. Otis had picked up the mantle and was in the process of taking black music right into the heart of the rock mainstream. In 1967, he played the Monterey Pop Festival and went down a storm in a performance that was superbly captured for the concert film by D. A. Pennebaker, who also shot Don’t Look Back, the acclaimed documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain.
Monterey was potentially a game-changing moment. But in December that year, on the way from a series of gigs in Cleveland to Madison, Wisconsin, Redding’s private plane crashed, killing the singer and six other people who were onboard, including four members of Otis’ band The Bar-Kays. He was 36 at the time.
To a kid in a stupidly monocultural place, as Ireland was at the time, his death was a big deal. I had known from the first time I heard that glorious, rich, emotionally powerful, soulful voice that black music offered an avenue into a whole different way of looking at the world and of experiencing it. And so it has proven. The feeling was copper fastened by James Brown’s ’Get On Up (I’m A Sex Machine)’, Wilson Pickett’s ‘Funky Broadway’, The Four Tops’ ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, The Temptations’ ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’, Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep Mountain High’, Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’, Lorraine Ellison’s ’Stay With Me Baby’, and by The Supremes ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, ‘Baby Love’ and the astonishing ’Stop! In The Name of Love’ (these latter three all from as early as 1964).
After Otis died, Sly and the Family Stone took charge with Dance To The Music. Marvin Gaye steeped out front in ’71 with What’s Going On. Then there was a grown-up Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, The Isley Brothers, Isaac Hayes, Funkadelic, the incomparable Millie Jackson, Chic, Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy – and so on right up to Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar.
Towards the end of the 1970s, with Hot Press already up and running, word had filtered through of an artist who was worth keeping an eye on. Little did we know that his ultimate global seismic impact could be compared to the way in which Otis Redding had blown my tiny mind over a decade earlier.
He was a musical virtuoso, who wrote his own songs, sang like a dream and was capable of playing every instrument during the recording of his debut album – and of producing it too – at the ludicrous age of just 20. His second album, the eponymous Prince, included ‘Wanna Be Your Lover’, a gorgeously explicit disco track that hit No.11 in the US Billboard Charts. That LP was followed by the acclaimed Dirty Mind, which contained deliciously filthy classics ‘Head’ and ‘Do It All Night’, in addition to the title track.
It was the start of an extraordinary career that would take him to the very top of the pantheon, in the process taking the tradition of Little Richard, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Sly Stone and even Miles Davis into another dimension. He incorporated influences from rock music and from the white pop tradition too, looking to The Beatles and David Bowie, among others. But that he took his cues from the lineage of the great African American artists who had blazed a trail over the previous twenty-odd years was never in any doubt.
Prince’s musical genius was unparalleled. But what distinguished him too was his revolutionary emphasis on sex and sexuality, that was far less macho than had been the norm not just in black music but to a very large extent in rock’n’roll.
He was a horny little goat, for sure, but he also knew that it wasn’t just about his second coming. He embraced women’s sexuality: the female targets of his lust had to be genuinely in on the action and enjoying it too.
Listen to ‘Head’, ‘Darling Nikki’, ’Soft And Wet’, ‘Uptown’, ‘Love U In Me’, ‘Jack U Off’ and even ‘Little Red Corvette’, among dozens of tracks, and you’ll get the picture. In ‘Sign O’ The Times’ he coined the phrase that defined AIDS, nut-shelling it as the ‘big disease with a little name’. He wasn’t just a self-proclaimed, prodigious sexual athlete. He was smarter about the potential consequences than the average bear...
By now, I was a bit too grown up myself for all of this to have quite the Vesuvian impact that Otis Redding had wielded on me when I was 12, but I loved it, and I loved him, no less. Sex was dirty, lascivious, filthy, steamy, obsessive, messy and fun. If you didn’t know that already, well, Prince would leave you in no doubt as to what you were missing. All the good stuff, that is...
As we fought the good fight in relation to sex and sexuality in Hot Press, through the ‘80s and the ‘90s, it helped to know that such a genius musician was also a genuine, radical, pioneering sexual exhibitionist. What we were saying in one way, he was saying even more eloquently, insinuating into the popular consciousness the truth of what we were campaigning for: that sex may indeed be dirty but it’s good, good, good, good, good. He sang it and people felt it. That was what counted most of all.
It is not, of course, his only legacy, not by a long shot. He was a musician, songwriter and producer of unique brilliance, who is right up there alongside Otis and Marvin and Jimi. But to have contributed to a profound shift in the way people all over the world understand sex and sexuality is one, key measure of his greatness. For that and a whole lot more, we owe Prince Rogers Nelson a huge debt of thanks – which is why this edition of Hot Press is dedicated to him.
We will be listening to you until the hearse swings by for us, buddy.
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