In 1967, the good folks at Stax Records sent out the future collector’s-item, Stay In School: Don’t Be A Drop Out, to DJs and libraries across America. An early example of the social responsibility Stax felt toward to their audience (which culminated in the mighty Wattstax festival of 1972), the album was a mix of rare songs and public service announcements from the label’s biggest stars explaining just why dropping out is not at all groovy (complete with liner notes by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who lets the kids know that education is “where the action is!!”). Hell, soul-man Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) pretty much crystal-balls the perils of the 21st-century job market when he warns that dropping out of school would leave you with “less education than most machines.”
But Otis Redding’s PSA, of course, took things a step further: Big-O picked up a guitar and cooked up a song on the spot that didn’t just offer his thoughts on the value of education, but gave us an off-the-cuff glimpse of where he was taking his music during the creative frenzy that led up to his tragic death just a few months later.
Otis invests this impromptu bit of career counseling with the same passion, worry, and groove that he brought to every song he touched
Redding’s “announcement” may seem like a goofy throwaway on the surface, but listen closely: There are hints of the greatness to come. Check the acoustic folk-soul groove that turned out to be the first hint at the quiet revolution of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” Then there’s a little taste of the song “Think About It,” the emotional whiplash of a tune Otis was working on at the time (and would go on to open side 2 of his greatest album, The Immortal Otis Redding). Otis also makes a hip reference to his most recent hit, “Tramp,” where he flips the insults Carla Thomas hurled at him to scare wayward kids straight. And, of course, he invests this impromptu bit of career counseling with the same passion, worry, and groove that he brought to every song he touched (another example of his no-off-switch artistry is his utterly heartbreaking jingle for Coca-Cola).
It’s these little peeks in to the sketchbooks of the legends we worship that can sometimes become the most fascinating insights to their art. Otis Redding may have just been messing around, trying to reach out to his fans and do a little good with the fame he’d amassed, but even this spontaneous minute from his most creative, productive period gave us a little bit of everything we loved and still miss about him, and makes us wonder that much more where he would have taken us from there.