Turkey in the straw, turkey in the hay,
Turkey in the straw what do you say.
Funnest thing I ever saw.
Its a little tune called Turkey in the Straw.
Its a traditional American folk song in which the original version was performed in blackface. But in the mid-60s at Harlems Apollo Theater, Otis Redding didnt just talk turkey, he sang it to smoke the headliner.
Redding became one of the most powerful draws at the Apollo in the 1960s, right next to Soul Brother Number One, James Brown, whose stage he often shared. But when Redding first arrived in Harlem, he wasnt the headliner.
During one of the early times, Etta James was the star of the show. And as Redding was learning from Godfather Brown, the name of the game was not letting the star outshine your set.
Ive written about Redding at the Apollo before and my dads experience to the side of the stage, as Reddings wide-eyed white boy co-manager from Macon who was watching legendary, mammoth music being made. They called my dad the Screamer as he shouted and danced like nobody was looking when Redding was on stage.
When Redding opened for Etta James, dad reminded him that even if he hadnt made top bill yet, he could own the audience just as easily. Redding let him know he didnt need to worry. He had a trick up his sleeve.
So, at the end of the set, when it was Reddings time to relinquish the mic and make his exit, he did something no artist had done before on the stage of the legendary Harlem theater. He and his band went country.
It was a trick he learned from Macons Johnny Jenkins. Jenkins, dad said, could play the hell out of it. The band unleashed a hillbilly fury to the folksong Turkey in the Straw.
Otis started singing it with his firecracker soul, cawing out the tune and even square dancing like the country boy the audience up north assumed he was.
Otis went into that and everyone started dancing, recalled dad. I was in awe at a black crowd getting into country music like that. It was so hot, there was no way anyone could beat it. The Apollo had never seen anything like it.
Its my fathers memories such as these that makes me thankful to have him around to share them. As we gather around our own turkey this year, with my family blend of Waldens and Weatherfords, there is no telling what other stories hell regale us with from his days gone by.
Ill soak them up, like a biscuit to gravy. Ill pass them along just as we do the dressing and fixings. And maybe, in years to come, every time we sit before our bird, well share the story of the Screamer, Otis Redding, the Apollo Theater and the Turkey and the Straw.
Happy Thanksgiving, from my family to yours.
Jessica Walden is the director of communications for the College Hill Alliance and owner of Rock Candy Tours. Contact her at email@example.com or 955-5997.