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Otis Sleep On - Arthur Conley

Many of the residents of the Royal Earlswood Hospital were aged men who'd been there for forty years or longer, and as they got older they were moved from the main buildings' larger wards to the quieter, more placid environment of the smaller villas. The institution had a hospital ward for those who were ill, but when people got old and frail, they were generally cared for in the comfort of their home turf at the Villas. One such, a quiet man called Wilfred, began slipping away while I was on night shifts at his villa. We worked 7 nights over a two week cycle: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday on, Thursday, Friday off, Saturday, Sunday on, Monday Tuesday, Wednesday off, Thursday Friday on, and so on. Obviously it was not considered a pleasant experience to be on duty when someone died, but the staff had aa further reason to try to ensure no-one passed away on their shift: they had to write an extensive detailed report, fill in various official forms and finally attend a brief coroner's session to ascertain that the diseased had not died as a result of any professional shortcomings or misconduct on the part of the hospital staff. This was not a particularly rigorous process - generally no-one wound up being cross examined in the Coroner's Court - but it was extremely time consuming and irksome and could be stressful.

So when staff at Farm Villa came on shift, and found that Wilfred was still alive, they cursed under their breaths, rolled up their sleeves and ministered to him, brow-mopping, temperature-taking, medicine-administering, busy as nurse bees cosseting the queen, sparing only the barest necessary attention to the other residents. Wilfred hung on to life for nearly two weeks, finally shuffling off his mortal coil during a night when I was off, due, presumably from exhaustion from so much attention. When his funeral took place, no-one attended except for the Farm Villa staff not on duty that day, no relations, no friends, no residents - most of those who might have been there were long since dead themselves or had stopped visiting years ago. There was a perfunctory reading of the Church of England funeral service and we all went on our way. It was a bit like my induction session for new employees at Islington Council, a short, boring address about the hereafter in a small vestibule-like chapel, and off we went to carry on with our lives.

Arthur Conley's tribute to his mentor and friend Otis Redding begins badly:-

"Oh, there's a place we call heaven

it is known as our second home

and Otis Redding now belongs...."

but this cloying sentimentalism is soon offset by the soulful intensity and genuine sorrow of Conley's vocal. The song was released in 1968, the year Redding died, as the B-side to Conley's hideous cover of the Beatles' "Ob La Di, Ob La Da", in itself my least favourite track by the Fab Four. I have heard it suggested that Atco wanted to release "Otis Sleep On" as an A-side but Conley put his foot down and stopped them, not wanting to be seen to be cashing in on Redding's death, but this is unsubstantiated. Either way, it's a fine personal tribute to Otis from the Stax musicians and Conley himself, who wrote it. The song doesn't mention what a great singer Otis was, but instead talks about him as a dear friend. Booker T and the Fame Studio musicians and backing singers are tight but subdued, nothing flashy, just sad and respectful, and the power of Conley's phrasing as he sings

"I wanna thank you for bringing me through"

has never been greater, or more moving.

After Redding's death, Arthur Conley never repeated the success of "Sweet Soul Music" (see last post), and sank into obscurity. Later Conley said that the music industry had treated him badly, not giving him bookings or good publicity, limiting his opportunities, because he was gay. As a result, he moved to the Netherlands, changed his name, and became a record producer. He died in 2003, aged 57.


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