AUGUST 6, 2015
MARK RIBOWKSY’S new biography of Otis Redding aims to illuminate “Redding’s previously untraced steps, undissected songs, and unexplained tortured soul.” Ribowsky accomplishes the first task better than the other two, painstakingly detailing Redding’s recording dates and major appearances, in addition to his managers’ and producers’ fights over the profits from his music. Dreams to Remember is therefore best read as an ambitious account of the Southern soul industry rather than as an in-depth exploration of the artist who transformed it.
A biographer of several musicians and athletes (Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Phil Spector, Satchel Paige, Tom Landry) and a writer with a penchant for hyperbole (Redding’s rise is “in every sense, the final stage in the maturation of African American music as an idiom and an industry” because he “was soul music in the sixties”), Ribowky credits Redding not only with transforming the Southern soul landscape but also with inverting the racial and economic logic of the transatlantic music industry. In Ribowsky’s account, Redding’s career marks a sea change by which black artists come to dominate an R&B market initially driven by “white cooptation” of black music. By the end of the 1960s, black hit-makers are covering white artists’ songs, from Bing Crosby’s “Try a Little Tenderness” to the Rolling Stones’s “Satisfaction,” while white artists cover black soul hits at their own peril.
The man at the center of this zeitgeist remains somewhat opaque. Kind but not thoughtful, complex but not insightful, ambitious but not visionary, Ribowsky’s Redding is a dynamo but not an artist. This limited view partly reflects a lack of resources: the singer’s widow Zelma Redding recently reclaimed Redding’s personal papers from the Macon, Georgia public library to which she had donated them. But the problem is also that Ribowksy conflates Redding’s inner life with his “tortured soul.” “Why was he so lonely and alienated?” he asks of Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” If one accepts the premise that Redding’s art reflects his life, this is not a bad question to ask. But surely it is not the only one. We might also wonder, for instance, about the origins of what Stax Records executive Al Bell called Redding’s “supreme confidence”; about his love of music and his process of writing the songs that he brought from Macon to Memphis fully arranged for the Stax band: “He had his songs down one hundred percent,” says saxophonist Floyd Newman. “He would hum what he wanted us to play. […] It wasn’t like he was feeling around for something. It was gonna go down only one way.”
Instead, Ribowsky reads Redding’s pathos through his music, advancing a circular logic whereby Redding’s pain shapes his songs, which in turn reflect his pain. If “Respect” “fitted his personal life into a commercially marketable song,” then “hearing him sing ‘Mr. Pitiful’ was to climb inside his heart and count its scars from being broken,” and “when he sang of ‘watching the tide roll away,’ […] he was watching not just the waters of the San Francisco Bay roll away but also his optimism, his achievements, even his own life.”
Like the music itself, Ribowsky’s anecdotal evidence is more interesting than the conclusions he draws from it. His claim that Redding “[lacked] any discernible racial worldview, or much of a sense of what was going on in the news” is undermined by his stories about how Redding found a noose hanging from a tree in Macon; witnessed race riots at his own shows; covered Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”; traveled the segregated South with a .38 pistol and a briefcase of his hard-earned cash; and urged James Brown to help him “form a union of all-black entertainers” that would help other black artists get work and fair treatment: “No more getting messed over by the white promoters and managers and people in the record business.” (Brown declined to support the “separatist” plan.)
This is not to depict Redding, who also supported Republican segregationist Ronnie Thompson, as a nationalist akin to Al Bell, who came to Stax from Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to twice save “a company so good at making music [and] so bad at making money.” Bell emerges as a hero of this story, controlling the damage wrought by Stax’s exploitative contracts with Atlantic by nationalizing the label’s regional market. Whereas Ribowsky sees the great tragedy of Redding’s life as his inability to score a major pop crossover hit and frames “his greatest moment of triumph” as his stellar performance before white hippies at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Bell insists that white fans were not the focus:
We weren’t looking for crossover records or obsessing over finding pop hits for Otis. That didn’t matter for any Stax artist […] We had hits but our validation was our black audience. Then when the white audience discovered us, we didn’t get whiter — they got blacker. And that’s when we went from being in debt to one million dollars ahead, in one year!
Still, as Bell focused on expanding Redding’s black audience, Macon-based managers Phil and Alan Walden expanded his white market, booking and recording shows at historically white rock venues like Los Angeles’s Whisky a Go Go, San Francisco’s Fillmore, and Monterey’s Pop Festival. Redding repeatedly won over these crowds (asking the Monterey audience, “This is the Love Crowd, right?”), but when in 1967 he required throat surgery due to vocal overextension, the powerhouse performance style on which he had built his fortune seemed unsustainable. Shortly thereafter, he recorded “Dock of the Bay,” an introspective song written “for the studio and not the stage.” Three days later, on December 10, 1967, his Beechcraft plane crashed en route to a gig in Wisconsin, drowning him and most of his band in Lake Monona. Redding was only 26.
The high points of Dreams to Remember offer glimpses of the artist as a craftsman whose drive was as fierce as his time was short. We learn about Redding’s ability to revise a song text, a skill manifest as he “basically ignored the lyrics” of the Stones’s “Satisfaction” in favor of ad-libbed exhortations (“I used a lot of words different than the Stones’ version,” Redding later said. “That’s because I made them up.”) Ribowsky relays a debate over whether Redding’s whistled verse in “Dock of the Bay” was a mere “placeholder” for another such ad-lib or an intentional part of the song (as is suggested by the fact that all three takes include the whistle, which Redding improves as he goes). Floyd Newman explains that Redding’s songs “had a lot of sharp keys which raise the notes a little, project more, let him sing in a wider range.” According to Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, Redding incessantly reevaluated his own sound and its currency, even encouraging other R&B singers to innovate rather than “go back ten years and use this old swing shuffle.” Never much of a dancer, during one Stax tour he insisted on following Sam & Dave’s act in order to force himself to work the stage: while he joked about resenting “those two motherfuckers” who were “killin’” him, he finally “started to move.”
He also offered an alternative model of soul masculinity, as Ribowsky insightfully observes. Redding made “fragility and the gnawing need not to be alone something intrinsic to the otherwise obligatory macho soul man façade,” altering the expressive economy of soul music with his image of a black man “that not only screamed but hurt.” This innovation explains Redding’s sex appeal for women fans, which Ribowsky details, but it also shaped his relationships with other men. Twin themes emerge as his male friends consistently comment on Redding’s manliness and the love he inspired. “He was a pure man,” says musician Steve Cropper. “Before Otis I had never loved a man outside of my immediate family,” says Alan Walden. “Everyone loved him,” says everyone. That Redding’s inimitable mixture of power and vulnerability opened a space for male camaraderie is one of his unsung contributions to soul music and culture.
Ironically, one of the book’s most compelling figures is the person who, by withdrawing Redding’s papers from the public, might have prevented it from being better. Zelma Redding married Otis at age 16 and kept his ego in check from day one, often telling him, “You better learn a little humility.” Widowed at 22 by a man who left her three small children and no will, she fought to become executor of his estate and still oversees all permission for his music as well as the Big O Ranch, the 300-acre Georgia farm that Redding built for his family and that is now open to his adoring public. While Zelma refuses to participate in tributes such as those marking the anniversary of Redding’s death — “You don’t celebrate people’s death. That’s so stupid” — she holds his memory sacred. “I’m still married,” she has said. “I just don’t see him here with me. When it seems like a long time, I just put on Otis Redding […] and it seems like yesterday. It’s like he’s talking to me. It’s conversation.” Happily, there is much more to say about Redding’s side of this musical conversation.