It was the summer of ’67. I was an excitable 17 year old. My friends and I were living in the Boston area. There was a lot of great music coming through Boston at the time and the town was a musical focal point for our generation. We were ready to rock. I had seen the Stones at the Garden, I had seen Lightning Hopkins and Muddy Waters at the Unicorn Coffee House. I was to see Esther Phillips at the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street. I saw Bobby Blue Bland at the Sugar Shack. Within a year or two, I would see both of my brothers James and Livingston playing in town. I would myself be opening a show with Chuck Berry at a large venue at Boston University.
The Boston Arena, now called Matthews Arena, was built in 1910 for hockey and ice shows. It also hosted many great speakers and musical acts, including The Doors and Phish. Sometime in the 50’s it was where you went if you wanted to see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and their Rodeo. The Arena is on the Massachusetts Ave Orange Line at Northeastern University. It is the oldest continuously used facility for sports in the world and was the original home to the NHL Boston Bruins. It is now owned by Northeastern University where the men’s and women’s Huskies hockey teams play and where the University’s commencement ceremonies are held, among other events.
But, this was ’67 and my friends and I were hankering to go into the then Boston Arena to see the one and the only Otis Redding. We got the tickets; $3.00 apiece. We got dolled up in the finest threads we had and off we went to the hottest show in town.
We entered the Arena and the air was electric. The place was completely filled with black Bostonians, extremely excited to be there too, dolled up to the max as well and happy to be together for this show. It was a raging lineup of Rhythm and Blues artists of the day. Otis was the headliner, but the show included the Bar-Kays who backed Otis up, Percy Sledge, Arthur Conley, Bettye Swann, the Manhattans, James Carr, Betty Harris. The air crackled all night long. All the artists on the show that night were major stars with giant hits, and they were great, but the King of the night was Otis and when he hit the stage it felt like lightning struck and the roof was blown off the joint. From the first blasting tones of Otis’s back up band, the Bar-Kays, the place shot into the stratosphere. Then there was the bounding on stage of Otis, the most handsome and dynamic performer I have ever seen. To this day, and in spite of the fact that I had seen the likes of James Brown, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, and would see many other extraordinary bands, singers and performers of great talent and reknown, I have not seen a more powerful performer, ever. Otis turned himself and that huge audience inside out and upside down. He wrung himself till there was not one more drop left, and he did the same thing to us. The depth of his emotions was transcendental. His band! They were at the top of their game. Otis was on fire. He’d been on tour throughout that summer. He’d had, a month prior, been the smash and surprise hit at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California. His star was ascendant.
We had taken, as a culture and a community, several blows to the psyche in recent years: the assassinations of John Kennedy and Malcolm X had happened, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were to be lost to us soon enough. The Viet Nam war was on full tilt and the beautiful boy-men of our generation were being sent there to the mayhem of what appeared to us to be a tragic, bloody and unjust war. And we had heroes like Otis to revive our souls. It was a mere 4 months after we saw Otis Redding expose his gigantic spirit and humanity to us in that hockey rink in Boston that he and several members of the Bar-Kays were tragically lost to this world in a plane crash. This was a punch to the gut from which it is hard to recover. Thank God we have his recordings and some film footage of his live performances to remind us of his greatness and in fact, of the potential for our own greatness as well. Thank you Otis Redding. Thank you for showing how you can give your absolute all and get filled up to give your all again and again. That’s Love alright. That is the power of the human spirit.
(by Kate Taylor)