When it came to bragging rights at school as a kid growing up in the 1960s David Spero’s stories were hard to beat. His father was Herman Spero, producer of the syndicated music show “Upbeat,” which was produced out of the News 5 studios at 30th & Euclid.
“I started working on Upbeat when I was 13, I was holding up the cue cards for Don Webster,” Spero recalled of his early contributions to the show. “By the time I was 15 I kind of knew the music a little better than my Dad did because I was really into it so I started writing the questions for Don as to what he would ask the artists when he would interview them.”
Spero didn’t just get to meet the artists during the Saturday afternoon tapings of the show but very often they’d drop by the house on Friday night when they got into town.
“So it wasn’t unusual to have you know Marvin Gaye and Tommy James and whoever happened to be on the show the next day hanging around and it just seemed kind of normal to me you know all of a sudden, these musicians were not just the guys I was seeing on TV and hearing on the radio they were actually our friends,” he said.
David Spero remembers 50 years ago this weekend in particular, for the musician stopping by was a familiar one to Upbeat viewers, fast-rising star Otis Redding.
“Otis Redding was a pretty familiar guest to the Upbeat fans, he had done the show many times because he had played at Leo’s Casino many times,” Spero said of the popular Euclid Avenue Club that was a hot spot for the entertainers of the day and where Redding would be performing that weekend.
“So when he had a new single or a new album or just coming through town he always managed to do the show.”
After his show that Friday night at Leo’s Casino, Redding swung by the Spero home for a game of cards.
“Unfortunately on this evening Otis lost his paycheck,” Spero remembered of the singer’s unlucky streak that night. “He kind of did Upbeat for nothing. and so as a result of that he signed his check over to my Dad as soon as it was handed to him at the TV show.”
Spero still has the check baring Redding’s signature which totaled $208.
This Upbeat visit though was special because Redding was accompanied by his band the Bar-Kays.
“He was playing live on the show when most people tended to lip sync so it was kind of cool to have him there doing that performance.”
One of the songs Spero requested the singer do was one he had heard Redding perform earlier in 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival, “Try a little Tenderness,” which turned out to be one of the singer’s most soulful performances.
The shows were shot pretty much live to tape to air that night in Cleveland and then around the rest of the country in the following weeks. “There was some time left so Mitch Ryder happened to have been on the same show and he was a huge Otis fan and he and Otis were just kind of talking on the side and he said you know if you need an extra song we could do “Knock on Wood” together.
“So of course the end of the show was Knock on Wood and Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays, they played Leo’s Casino that night, Otis did and then the next day got on the fateful flight.”
Redding left Sunday afternoon from Cleveland for Wisconsin but the plane carrying him and his band crashed into lake killing all but one person on board. Spero remembers watching the Browns game with his family when his father got a call with word of the crash.
“It was kind of devastating. It was the first death that I had ever had to deal with with, somebody that I really knew,” Spero remembered. “I had known Otis for years at that point and the fact that, hey yesterday everybody was laughing and singing and having a great time and now he’s gone.”
Redding had just recorded a few days earlier what would posthumously go on to be his biggest hit, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” Spero shared a piece of music backstory with that related to the whistling at the end of the song.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with Steve Cropper, Otis’ producer and co-writer,” Spero said. Cropper told him that whistling was because Otis had intended to return to the studio with additional lyrics. “It was just there because he was going to write another verse when he got back from this little tour that he was doing and he never got an opportunity to write the verse.
“So the whistling that Otis had done wasn’t really well done so Steve went back into the studio and he’s actually the whistle on that song.
“It was an amazing record and there’s just no saying how far he would have gone after having such success with that. It was the first time anybody ever had a number one record after their death.”
Otis Redding was just 26 at the time of his death, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.