Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life by Jonathan Gould, Crown 2017
Is it possible that Otis Redding’s performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival is one of the great moments in the history of western culture? Fifty years ago, in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, long after Hugh Masekela’s endless set put everything behind schedule, a 25 year old from Macon, Georgia came onstage and blew everyone who had played before, and just about everyone who was yet to play, off the stage. Jimi Hendrix felt it necessary to light his guitar on fire. Bob Weir reckoned he’d seen God. Such was the Otis effect.
Bob Weir isn’t far from wrong. Otis’s performance, fortunately captured on film, is transcendent. It’s the best Springsteen show you’ve ever seen mixed up with a sort of soul review version of King Lear. It’s what every band tries to do onstage. It’s emotional but seamless. It’s ragged but never sloppy. Otis makes a personal connection with the audience, row by row, seat by seat. There is a clip of him singing ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ at the end of the review. Make sure you are sitting down.
California was good to Otis. A few months later he wrote Dock of the Bay on a houseboat in Sausalito. He should have stayed. Instead, he went back to his punishing touring schedule and died in a plane crash on December 10th of that same year. All that energy, all that extraordinary talent that was on show at Monterey, disappeared in an instant.
Jonathan Gould’s new biography, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life begins with his appearance at the festival, backtracks to his early life, and finishes with the slow demise of Stax Records in the 1970s. It’s an appropriate ending. Many, including guitarist Steve Cropper, have stated that Stax was never the same after Otis died. This is by no means the first book to link the Memphis record label’s decline back to his death. Otis was instrumental to its rise and embodied its spirit. Gould acknowledges this but suggests that Otis’ story is much more far reaching than the rise and fall of a record label.
Consider this: Otis Redding was born in 1941, making him an almost exact contemporary of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But if The Beatles sprang from a Victorian industrial port city, Otis was born into another 19th century altogether. Georgia, in 1941, remained segregated at all levels of society. Many of the most severe Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Those that weren’t, were still there in spirit. The civil rights movement wasn’t even on the horizon. Just over 25 years later, at the end of his short life, Otis was living in a very different America. His life spanned a period of significant change. In fact, by 1967, the era-defining civil rights movement was giving way to Black Power and more militant figures were replacing the soon to be assassinated Dr King. There is a moment late in the book where Otis is being interviewed by Life Magazine and is interrupted by Rap Brown, a figure that would have been unimaginable ten years earlier, let alone at the time of Otis’ birth. That said, when Otis decided to buy a farm outside of Macon in the mid sixties, he still had to make sure that the mainly white residents of the community would be comfortable with his presence. He told his manager that he didn’t want a cross burning on his lawn.
Gould weaves Redding’s story into the broader narrative of African American life in the mid 20th century. His generation of singers, including his occasional rival James Brown, followed the examples of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke who had both worked hard to maintain control over their careers. The young Otis had to prove himself several times in new neighborhoods when the family moved for work in the 1950s. The man that emerges in this book is no pushover and this is not the story of how a black entertainer was ripped off by unscrupulous white men. From the beginning, Otis chose the people around him carefully and, for the most part, avoided the usual pitfalls musicians encounter when their music begins to make money.
But this was still America in the sixties and Otis was consigned to the R&B market and long tours on the ‘Chitlin Circuit’. In his lifetime, he was far more popular in Europe than in America. The Rolling Stones were early fans and John Lennon named him as his favourite singer in a mid sixties interview. His first number one single in America was ‘(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay’ which reached that position on March 16 1968, almost 4 months after he died.
Gould is very good on the nuts and bolts of Otis’s various business relationships. Almost in the manner of Franco Moretti’s exacting work on the history of the novel, Gould uses detailed examples from contracts and booking arrangements to illuminate the precise nature of these relationships. This in turn puts some meat on the bones of the social context of the story. Redding’s association with his white manager, Phil Walden, is examined closely and functions as something of a metaphor for the changes that were taking place in the wider society. It is well known that Jimi Hendrix came under increasing pressure from African American activists to avoid using white backing musicians and managers. It’s an open question as to whether Otis would have been subjected to similar pressure. He had already shown a distinct lack of interest in politics – but then so did Hendrix.
From my perspective, Gould is better on social history than music. When I read a music biography, I want to finish with a deeper sense of the subject’s body of work. This, I’m afraid, did not happen. His background material on minstrel groups, the blackface phenomenon, and southern gospel is concisely delivered and appropriate to his narrative but it’s all familiar material. I was surprised initially at his dismissal of an early recording by Redding called ‘Shout Bamalama’. Yes, it’s a blatant Little Richard rip off but it is still a glorious piece of music. Gould treats it like embarrassing juvenalia. I wonder if he realizes that it has been covered by Eddie Hinton, Jim Dickinson, and The Detroit Cobras. They liked it!
Astonishingly, he seems unhappy with Otis’s body of work at Stax Records. His underlying point appears to be that Stax was essentially an amateur operation run by a hayseed – Jim Stewart. Over and over, Gould points to instances where he believes Redding’s career was mishandled. Most surprising is his unstated but obvious contention that Otis would have been better off with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic like Wilson Pickett. Pickett recorded at various studios including Fame in Muscle Shoals but his sound was created at Stax. The Fame recordings are magic, of course, but they were an attempt to recreate the Stax sound. I can see the point he is making from a management perspective but I seriously dispute that the vast amount of Otis Redding’s output would have sounded better with the Swampers at Fame or Chips Moman’s crew at American Studios. Different perhaps, but better? Better than ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’ from The Soul Album? Listen to the beginning with Packy Axton’s sax and Wayne Jackson’s trumpet on top of Al Jackson’s drums. Then there is a perfectly timed restrained guitar lick from Steve Cropper just before Otis starts to sing. In 12 seconds, the 3am atmosphere of the song is established. Could Jerry Wexler do better? I doubt he would have thought so. There is a clip below. Listen to it. That is the Stax sound and it’s right up there with Chartres Cathedral and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as far as I’m concerned.
Gould does acknowledge in the afterword that his perspective on Stax Records might be quite different to that of Rob Bowman, Robert Gordon, and Peter Gurlanick, who have all written books on the subject. The difference is that they like the music. He lost me when he dismissed Eddie Floyd as a ‘journeyman’. A few years ago, I saw Floyd, who is no longer a young man, take the roof off a St Kilda venue and send it frisbee-like into Port Phillip Bay. He may not be Gould’s cup of tea but he is no journeyman. I also dispute that Steve Cropper’s guitar work is ‘limpid’ on Redding’s version of ‘A Change is Going To Come’ or any other song. Ever.
If you’ve already read the standard Stax Records books (see my list below), most of which cover Otis at great length, there are still many good reasons to read A Life Unfinished. The research is impeccable and perhaps it is time for a serious biography that goes beyond the music and addresses the wider implications of Otis Redding’s time on earth. Gould works hard to penetrate the somewhat mysterious inner life of the man. This is by no means some kind of iconoclastic Albert Goldman style biography but we are certainly left with a sense that there was a lot more to Otis than the genial image projected by his music.
I like a music biography that sends me charging to my stereo or laptop to hear a particular version of a song or an album that I’ve henceforth ignored. This didn’t happen but perhaps Gould felt that book had already been written – and he’s right. If you’re after an account of Otis Redding’s life that skips the myth and aims to deliver the man himself along with the period he lived in, this might be the one.
Teasers: Otis and James Brown; Otis and Aretha; Otis’ serious brush with the law just as his career was taking off.
The Greatest Moment in Western Culture:
Further Reading on Stax Records, Otis, Southern Soul, etc:
It Came From Memphis by Robert Gordon (2001)
Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick (1999)
Soulsville USA by Rob Bowman (2003)
Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon (2015)
Nowhere To Run by Gerri Hirshey (1994)
Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted By Barney Hoskyns (1998)
Dreams To Remember by Mark Ribowsky (2016)