Friday, December 28, 2018

Certain Songs #1410: Otis Redding – “Stay in School” | Medialoper

Album: Remember Me
Year: 1967

In 1967, Stax records put out a promotional radio-only album called Stay in School. Featuring many of their top artists — Sam & Dave, Willam Bell, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd and Otis Redding, of course — it mixed original songs with “announcements” from the artists about the importance of getting an education. Oh, and it had liner notes from then Vice President Hubert M. Humphrey, because who was more cool to the DJs this was aimed at than Hubert M. Humphrey.

Now, while there were no new official songs from Otis Redding, he did to the opening announcement, and while he could have just — quite literally, perhaps — phoned it in, instead he did a quick one minute song that is a bit of a precursor for “Dock of the Bay.” And while it’s called “Announcement” on the album, when it was collected in 1992 for an bottom-of-the-barrel scraping album called Remember Me and the subsequent 1993 box The Otis Redding Story, it was retitled “Stay in School.”

At first, it starts off with what you would assume: Otis speechifying at you.

“Hi, this is the Big O, Otis Redding. I was just standing here thinking about you. Thought I’d write a song about you and dedicate it to you.
Take a listen.”

Of course, I love the double maybe even triple entendre of “The Big O, Otis Redding,” in a glorified PSA, but then Otis gets to the song, and you realizes why he earns the right to call himself that.

At first it’s just Otis and an acoustic guitar. No bass, no drums, no keyboards, no horns. And in my head, it’s Otis strumming that acoustic guitar, even if it was really Steve Cropper.

If you didn’t go back to school this year
You’re really not groovy
Maybe you feel that school is a drag
It’s just don’t move ya
But did you ever think about
How square you look standing
In an employment line
Because school didn’t interest you
You really ought to think about it

This first verse is pretty low-key, though the way he sings “You really haught to think about it” is utterly sublime. But at that point, a couple of horns join in, playing a simple riff, and Otis kicks into a higher gear, referencing not just his latest single “Tramp,” but also the difference between the stoop kids and the corner kids.

Without an education you could
Only be a tramp
Brogan shoes, no haircut
Just plain ole country
Don’t worry ’bout the fellas on the corner
Calling you green
Because you’re getting your future condition
You really ought to think about it

And then finally, the kicker: Otis not just explaining why you should ignore those who make fun of you for staying in school, but also giving his personal imprimatur for your good decision-making. Who could possibly resist that!?!

And furthermore tell them that Otis Redding
Said you’re very wise
Because you’ll be at the top
When they get there and if they make it
When they get there if they make it
When they get there if they make it

You really ought to think about it
Think about it
Really ought to think about it

The bit where he chants “when they get there if they make it” while the horns are counterpointing him is one of most favorite moments in all of Otis Redding’s career. Almost for sure an improvisation he was somehow able to squeeze in the midst of a PSA, it just utterly slays me each and every single time.

Of course, I’ll admit that I doubt that any of this worked. I know that people absolutely make life decisions because they worship celebrities, but I’m of the opinion that they use the celebrities as an excuse to make poor life decisions, like shooting heroin because Charlie Parker or Keith Richards did it. as opposed to staying in school because dropouts like James Brown (whose 1966 “Don’t Be a Dropout” hit #4 on the R&B charts) and Otis Redding are urging you to do so. Just as I doubt any Who fans stopped smoking cigarettes after they heard “Little Billy.”

In any event, “Stay in School” is hardly a major Otis Redding song, but it’s absolutely one of my very favorites, and at 1:11, one of the shortest of all of the songs I’m writing about.

Stay in School

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