17 Juillet 2015
A new biography of Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash at 26, sends Mick Brown back to his thrilling music .
Otis Redding died a few weeks before the release of (Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay, which would prove his biggest hit
Mark Ribowsky begins this lively and judicious account of the life of Otis Redding by declaring that with the two key songs of his tragically short career, Respect and (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, Redding found his calling “not as a musician, but as a prophet and a poet”.
The “prophet” part refers to Respect – in Redding’s original 1965 recording a lover’s plea for appreciation and understanding (“What do you want, honey you got it/ What do you need, baby you got it/ All I’m asking for is a little respect when I come home”) but which in Aretha Franklin’s scalding 1967 cover version became firstly a feminist battle-cry and, in the eddying currents of Black Power, an anthem for social change.
Redding could not have anticipated that. It behoves a biographer to talk up his subject, of course, but Ribowsky’s claim that for a short period in the Sixties Redding “practically carried black music on his back” is surely pitching a little too high, and a claim that James Brown – whom Redding himself acknowledged as the “Bossman” – would certainly dispute, were he alive.
Nor does Redding really need the hyperbole; a man who established the template of Southern soul, a vibrantly thrilling stage performer, one of the first soul artists to break through to a wider – which is to say white – audience. His accomplishments were monumental, and who knows what he might have gone on to achieve had his life not been tragically cut short in a plane crash at the age of 26.
The son of a sharecropper turned church deacon, with whom he had a fractious relationship, Redding grew up in Macon, Georgia, during the Jim Crow period of “colored only” drinking fountains and railway waiting rooms. His early hero was the flamboyantly zoot-suited and mascara’d Little Richard, Macon’s most famous son, who sang lascivious songs with a gospel intensity and was to be a powerful influence on Redding’s music.
Industrious, popular and gifted, “a soulful force of nature” as one contemporary put it, by 17 Redding was already building a reputation as a singer in the clubs around Macon. A brief excursion to Los Angeles in 1960 resulted in his first single Gettin’ Hip, recorded in the Gold Star studios where Phil Spector and the Beach Boys would go on to prosper. Redding, however, returned home to work as a clothing and fireworks salesman. It was not until 1962 that he achieved his breakthrough, when he drove another Macon performer, Johnny Jenkins, to a recording date at the Stax studios in Memphis. At the end of the session, Redding was allowed to sing his own composition, These Arms of Mine. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks.
Redding was not a great technical singer; his potency lay in his visceral performance. His early hits These Arms of Mine, Pain in my Heart and his version of OV Wright’s That’s How Strong my Love Is stand as classics in the Southern soul idiom, steeped in hurt and longing, the testament of a strong man made weak by love.
Redding’s own love life was certainly complicated. Tall, strapping and handsome (“that son of a bitch was all man”, said the drummer Al Jackson) Redding was married at the age of 19 to Zelma Atwood, a woman to whom he would be profligately unfaithful but who could call him to heel “like an obedient beagle”, and who would keep his life together. Redding’s “split personality about fidelity and opportunity”, Ribowsky writes, was a driving force in his creativity. On the one hand, he was the Love Man (“Which one of you girls want me to hold you?/ A-which one of you girls want me to kiss you?”); on the other, he was the man in Respect, “showing unapologetic vulnerability in fighting for his pride and his marriage”, afraid that at any moment Zelma would leave.
It was Respect and the 1965 album it came from, Otis Blue, that would effect Redding’s crossover from R&B to the pop charts. A shrewd operator, he took control of his own business (or perhaps Zelma did), personally counting the proceeds of his live shows, and insisting that he owned the publishing on his songs. A country boy to the bone, he had a ranch outside Macon, as well as “200 suits and 400 pairs of shoes”, and a Ford Galaxy convertible fitted with a prototype mobile phone that took 10 minutes to get a dial tone.
Ribowsky sees Redding’s crowning moment as his appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, when, dressed in a turquoise silk suit, he electrified the assembled multitudes of the love generation. Appearing on the same bill was Jimi Hendrix, another erstwhile soul performer (he had played guitar behind the Isley Brothers and James Brown), who would be hugely influential in remaking black music.
Redding, too, was alert to the musical and cultural changes going on around him, and ready to break free from the straitjacket of soul. For his last ever recording session in 1967, he came into the studio with a sheath of new songs inspired by The Beatles’ Revolver (1966). Among them was the folksy, meditative (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay. Just a few days after that session, the small Beechcraft plane in which Redding was flying crashed four miles from its destination. (There is some speculation, never proven, that Redding, who owned but was not licensed to fly the plane, was actually at the controls himself.) “This is my first million seller, right here,” Redding told his manager after recording Dock of the Bay, and he was right. Released a few weeks after his death, it became his biggest-selling hit.
Redding’s life, and the story of Stax Records and the Southern soul milieu have been chronicled before: Ribowsky adds little that is new, although he is commendably thorough in contextualising Redding within the wider tapestry of soul and pop music in the Sixties. The magisterial, yet conflicted, presence that made him such a formidable force in music is vividly evoked.
If you need further convincing, just listen to These Arms of Mine or Pain in my Heart and, in an age when so much of what is called R&B sounds like nothing more than ersatz emotion and vapid stylistic tricks, remember what real soul music sounds like.