Music, Pop Culture

Kanye Ain’t Got Shit On Otis: The Epic Lives and Deaths of Soul Singers

I wasn’t able to write a new post for today, but I wanted to revisit a post I wrote last year about the deaths of famous soul singers. I’ve been thinking a lot about Otis Redding lately after I discovered that Kayne West and Jay-Z sampled the singer on his new album, Watch the Throne. Buzz is circulating around the to-be-released-this-evening music video of the song “Otis“. Which as I’m reading right now actually as no mention of Otis Redding in the lyrics, but rather talks about cigars, champagne, private jets, and supermodels.

Yesterday, I got all up in Kanye’s junk after declaring that Otis is an untouchable and upstarts like Kanye should not mess with his shit. This statement was mostly met with agreement, but a few people defended Kanye. They suggested that sampling is an art form and should be respected. Though I’m an appreciator of all arts- and I will include sampling as an art form, albeit one that I have mixed feelings on- I still think Otis Redding is the sort of musician you simply do not touch. It would be as if Kanye sampled The Beatles.

When I listen to Otis, my heart aches. When I listen to Kanye, my heart dies a little inside.


It was a Sam Cooke Pandora station kind of day.
Where silky-voiced soul singers played roulette on my computer.
Sam Cooke. Otis Redding. Marvin Gaye. Tammy Terrell. Curtis Mayfield. Jackie Wilson.
All unparalleled talent that died way too young.

Then I realized, “Wait a minute- they all died in some really f’d up ways too.”

Plane crashes, shootings, falling stage equipment, brain tumors, hot grits (nobody actually died from having hot grits thrown on them, but Al Green did become a born again afterwards). There was no shortage of colorful murders and deaths in the soul world.

Let’s start with the most insane first:

Sam Cooke– Cooke was one of the most prolific R&B singers of his time. With 19 albums and 29 Top 40 singles under his belt by the age of 33, it looked like nothing was going to stop this young man from taking over the world. Except for maybe a seedy motel manager in South Central with a gun and a broom. Cooke loved his ladies and his booze and unfortunately the two did not mix well the night of December 11th, 1964. The official story is that Cooke brought a lady against her will back to the Hacienda Hotel in South Los Angeles with the intention of raping her. The woman fled and in a rage, Cooke busted into the hotel manager’s office half-naked and all like, “Where the f did my lady friend go?”. The pant-less Cooke tussled with the hotel manager and out of fear for her life, she shot him in the gut and then beat him with a broom. Shortly thereafter, the validity of the lady friend’s account came into question since she was a prostitute and many feel she had stolen Cooke’s money. Regardless, the talented singer, who brought so much music to the world, died in terrible vain. Luckily for him, his contribution to the music world has mostly overshadowed the fact that his last minutes on earth were looking at broom bristles smacking his naked body.

Marvin Gaye Jr.– Unlike Cooke, Gaye’s murder has stuck more in the mind’s of music lovers for decades. Another gentleman who liked his ladies and recreational drugs, Gaye found his life spiraling out of control by the late 70’s. He battled depression and suicidal thoughts (there is suggestion that the death of his good friend/singing partner Tammi Terrell ignited this). Wanting to make a change, Gaye decided to turn his life around by the early 80’s and moved in with his parents to watch porn. Yeah, bad move. Gaye often fought with his father, Marvin Sr., and during a particularly heated argument, Jr. started smacking Sr. around and then Sr., gettin’ all pissy, up and shoots Jr. in the chest. The bullet made an epic journey through his lung then heart then diaphragm then liver then stomach then kidney then taking a rest stop in his torso. Gaye was 44 years-old when he died and on his way to making a comeback. Lesson here? Moving back in with your folks can cost you your life.

Otis Redding–  Outside of Tammi Terrell, Redding was the youngest of the soul singers to pass away. It’s amazing to think all that Mr. Sitter on the Dock of the Bayer offered in the 26 years of his life. Redding got his start by joining the R&B group, The Pinetoppers, in 1960. Soon enough, he was recording his own solo work. Back then, Redding impressed the shit out of his peers with his melancholic voice and knack for writing his own songs. In 1967, Redding and his band were in a puddle jumper en route to Wisconsin when it crashed in Lake Monona. Redding’s manager and band (all except one) were on the plane. Everyone on the plane died except for trumpeter Ben Cauley. You know what happens when you’re a kick ass soul singer who dies in a plane crash? You get a stamp and a creepy bronze statue made of you.

Curtis Mayfield– Unlike the others, Mayfield’s death didn’t happen immediately, but over many painful years. Mayfield had lived a pretty solid life up until August 13th, 1990 when lighting equipment fell on him onstage and paralyzed him from the neck down. I know, right? If that weren’t bad enough, the poor dude had his leg amputated eight years later. That didn’t keep ol’ Superfly from recording though. According to his Wikipedia page, that motherf’er would record vocals on his back line-by-line. Mayfield died in 1999 due to complications from his paralysis and I firmly believe he should win a posthumous superhero award.

Tammi Terrell– Brain tumor at the age of 24
Jackie Wilson– Heart attack while appearing onstage at the age of 49
Dave Prater (Sam & Dave)- Single-car accident at the age of 50
Michael Jackson– Imploded into oblivion at the age of 50
Rick James– Heart attack in my old apartment building at the Oakwoods in Burbank, CA at the age of 56
Barry White– Stroke at the age of 58
Ike Turner– Crack overdose at the age of 76 (and bff with my friend Chris)

Who is your favorite soul singer?

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  • Reply Sailor Legs August 11, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I can't STAND Kanye as a rapper, but I'm a fan of Jay Z. So I knew I'd be torn on this album, even with Ye on the production tip [he produces pretty dope tunes]. But when I heard this song, I was not a fan. I wasn't as offended as you are about ruining Otis, whom I love.

    I can see the argument about the art of sampling. But a] They basically just played the track at the beginning and then looped a scream sample to make the beat. To me, it was amateur. The ART of it comes when you turn it into something else, to where people don't really know it's a sample until the 3rd or 4th listen.

    So that sampling argument just lost.


  • Reply Jenn - There's Your Karma August 11, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    This is fascinating.

    I'm also going to add Donny Hathaway, who committed suicide at 33. He was a paranoid schizophrenic who was convinced white people were trying to kill him and had connected his brain to a machine. But if "A Song for You" doesn't tug on your heart strings, I don't wanna know you.

  • Reply Ack August 11, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Baby Huey, 26 – Heart attack. Check out the song Hard Times if you haven't heard any of his music.

  • Reply Trina August 11, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    I would understand if Kanye was insulting Otis Redding, like, "Oh that guy sucks. I'm better!". If anything, I think this is just how rap and hip-hop artists show their respect for the greats. Probably not the best way, but it's their way. I only like the album b/c of Jay-Z. Kanye just sounds whiny. :-/

  • Reply That Chelsea Girl™ August 11, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I would like to note that I don't actually listen to Kanye West, unless I have to (e.g. work). But music fascinates me, and I can be a bit of a devil's advocate. Which, coupled with others' arguments for music sampling, led you to reposting this, and I am glad that you did because, if someone read this today not knowing who these artists were, they do now. Hopefully, they'll give them a listen, and find out what music was like before Auto-Tune and sampling.

  • Reply William Trinity August 11, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    I personally wouldn't say sampling is an art form. I would say sampling is a tool/technique used in the art form of hip hop music. One that is an essential piece of the art form.

    Hip hop was birthed in the 70s Bronx when DJs (the type that spun actual vinyl records on turntables) would loop parts of funk and soul records. It lead to people dancing to these looped beats (eventually called breakdancing), and then to people rhyming over the beats (eventually called MCing). Hip hop music was born out of sampling, and has implemented that to varying degrees in the 40 years of its existence.

    To criticize hip hop for sampling would be like criticizing rock for using guitars, or criticizing television because the pictures move.

    And in 40 years NO ONE has been untouchable. Everything from Otis Redding, to the Beetles, to Bowie, to the compositions of Beethoven have been sampled.

    …sorry, i rant.

  • Reply Anonymous August 15, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Upstart like Kanye? This is his fifth album. He's been producing since 1996.

    Why aren't you upset that the Beastie Boys sampled five Beatles songs back in '89?

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