Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life 
by Jonathan Gould.
Crown, 544 pp., £12.99, May 2018, 978 0 307 45395 2
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Otis Redding​ was born in 1941 on a farm in Terrell County, Georgia, 150 miles south of Atlanta, but raised further north in Macon, a small, bustling city at the geographical centre of the state. Of the cotton fields but not from them, he was a sharecropper’s son who grew up in an early iteration of America’s inner-city projects, forming a gospel quartet with the neighbourhood boys, joining a junior choir at the church where his father was a deacon, banging away on a drum set his mother bought him with money she had earned as an Avon lady in town.

Otis Redding performing in 1967

Otis Redding performing in 1967

Otis was the fourth of six children. The youngest was born in 1955. The projects, which had been new when the Reddings moved in, were already crumbling, and so the family moved, out of the Tindall Heights Homes and into a house they had bought on a dirt road just outside the city limits. They had a vegetable garden, a hog pen, a chicken coop. Redding’s most recent biographer, Jonathan Gould, says that Otis (14 at the time) ‘felt a special disdain for anything that smacked of “country”, flatly refusing to wear the overalls his parents bought for him’. Four years later, the house burned to the ground and the Reddings moved back to Tindall Heights.

The year Redding turned 14 was also the year that Little Richard – a Macon native who had made a small name for himself as a gospel singer before switching over to rhythm and blues – recorded ‘Tutti Frutti’. Redding fell in love with the song, and with Little Richard’s voice, which he found himself capable of imitating. In 1957, when Little Richard returned to the church and left his band, the Upsetters, without a front man, Redding – who had been winning amateur talent shows around Macon – was tapped to fill in for a while. By the summer of 1958, he had dropped out of school, teamed up with a local guitarist named Johnny Jenkins, and joined a group called Pat T. Cake and His Mighty Panthers.

Soul music was coming into its own. Ray Charles was recording for Atlantic Records; Sam Cooke had left the Soul Stirrers; James Brown was touring with his Famous Flames. But Otis Redding wasn’t a soul singer yet. Billed as Otis ‘Rockin’ Redding or ‘Rockhouse Redding’, he sang rock and roll and remained heavily indebted to Little Richard. Bouncing around with Jenkins, who had split off from the Panthers to form the Pinetoppers, Redding played frat parties throughout the South and worked odd jobs, moonlighting as a well-digger, petrol station attendant and hospital orderly. He had his first child, married the child’s mother, Zelma, and made a few forgettable records, one of which came out on Macon’s short-lived, regrettably named Confederate label. But Redding was still very young, and determined to make it. ‘Everything he told me, I just believed him, because he believed in himself to the fullest,’ Zelma told Peter Guralnick.

In the summer of 1962, a month before his 21st birthday, Redding got his big break. On 14 August or thereabouts (accounts vary), he drove Jenkins to Memphis to record at Stax and persuaded the studio’s founder, Jim Stewart, to let him sing a few songs too. ‘The first track they attempted was the latest of Otis’s Little Richard impersonations,’ Gould writes. ‘With Steve Cropper playing rhythm and Johnny Jenkins on lead, the band struck an uneasy balance between rockabilly and blues that only exaggerated the outdated sound of the material.’

If Redding had gone home then – if Stewart had cancelled the session – that might been the whole story. Instead, in Gould’s telling:

Steve Cropper sat down at the piano, an instrument he could barely play. When he asked Otis what key he wanted to sing in, Otis said it didn’t matter. ‘Just play me those church things,’ he told Cropper, who correctly took that to mean a 16-bar gospel progression in 12/8 time. Otis led them into the song with a vocal pickup that began: ‘These … arms … of … mi – ine.’

‘I keep singing them sad, sad songs,’ Redding would sing a few years later. ‘Sad songs is all I know.’ This was a put-on: by then, he had written and recorded ‘Security’, ‘Respect’ and ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’ – songs in which he continued to channel Little Richard’s exuberance – as well as a rollicking cover of ‘Satisfaction’ (which the Rolling Stones had conceived as a homage to Redding and the Stax studio sound; Keith Richards later called the Stones’ version ‘a demo for Otis’). Slow, pleading ballads like ‘These Arms of Mine’, ‘Chained and Bound’, ‘My Lover’s Prayer’, ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ and ‘Pain in My Heart’ may have been his bread and butter, but Redding was also proud, headstrong and, by most accounts, happy. He seems to have taken great pleasure in the things fame brought him. By the time he turned 24 he had his own publishing company, his own production company and his own record label, where he developed his own protégés. He was always on tour or in the studio – ‘“Got to go make that dollar” became his catchphrase around this time,’ Gould writes – but when he came home, it was to a 270-acre ranch, which Redding called ‘the Big O Ranch’, in Jones County, twenty miles outside Macon. Although he had bristled at anything ‘country’, the life of a country squire was the one that he’d settled on.

In 1966, he began to cross over in earnest with white audiences. That spring, Redding played a series of shows at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. On the first night, Bob Dylan turned up with an advance pressing of ‘Just Like a Woman’, which he hoped Redding would cover. (‘I like it but it’s got too many fuckin’ words,’ Redding said, according to another of his biographers. ‘All these pigtails and bobbytails and all that stuff.’) In the fall, Redding played in front of rapt audiences in Paris and London. In December, he played the Fillmore in San Francisco – a three-night stand that set the stage for a triumphant performance, in June 1967, at the Monterey Pop Festival. That August, a one-week stay on a houseboat in Sausalito inspired the writing of ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’, which Redding went into Stax to record two months after his 26th birthday. A few weeks later, on 8 December, a Friday, he popped back into the studio, where Cropper was working on the overdubs. Then he flew to Nashville, to play one of several shows he had booked for the weekend. On Saturday, he played in Cleveland. On Sunday, together with most of the members of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, he flew on his private Beechcraft H18 to the last show, in Madison, Wisconsin. Four miles shy of the airstrip, the airplane stalled and crashed into Lake Monona. Only the Bar-Kays’ trumpet player, Ben Cauley, survived.

Redding’s last recording was supposed to have been a new start: an attempt, born of listening to Dylan, as well as the Beatles, to reach the widest possible audience. Issued posthumously, it became his first number one single: ‘Looks like nothin’s gonna change,’ he sang. ‘Everything seems to stay the same.’ But Redding’s death had transformed the meaning, just as Sam Cooke’s death had transformed the meaning of his last great song, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Now it was Redding who would stay the same while the rest of the world barrelled forward.

Cooke was another of Redding’s heroes, and on Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul, an 11-song album recorded over the course of 24 hours in 1965, he covered ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Gould doesn’t like the recording, which he calls ‘the sole mis-step’ on an otherwise glorious album.

After a ‘brave beginning,’ Gould writes, Redding ‘loses his grip on the lyrics and starts groping for the sense of the song’:

Under normal circumstances, someone – whether Jim Stewart, [recording engineer] Tom Dowd, or Otis himself – would have stopped the take so that Otis could get his bearings, refresh his memory, and re-record the track. But with time of the essence, Otis forges ahead, faking it as he goes, mangling the song’s parable of a man who’s shunned by his biblical ‘brother’ to include his ‘little mother’ as well, and discarding the ethereal ending of the original (a rapturous swell on the line ‘Oh yes it is’) in favour of an unconvincing coda that ends with some bantering wordplay (‘You know and I know, that you know, that I know’) lifted from another song on Cooke’s Live at the Copa LP.

Maybe; but to my mind, it makes no more sense to imagine that Redding forgot the words to this song – already a Civil Rights anthem – than it does to think that Louis Armstrong had ‘forgotten’ the words to ‘Heebie Jeebies’. It may be closer to the truth to say that, outside his music, Redding was a man who had been denied a voice. One of the difficulties a biographer has to contend with is that, while he was alive, very few people thought to interview him, and no one at all interviewed him in depth. There are press releases, written in the first person, but, Gould says, these were ghosted by Redding’s manager, Phil Walden. And even if Redding had been interviewed, there’s good reason to think that he would have stuck to the shallows. (‘For blacks in the South,’ Gould writes, with some understatement, ‘the ability to ingratiate themselves with whites was an essential social skill, especially in the case of whites who were in a position to do them significant harm or good.’) Musicians such as Nina Simone, Oscar Brown Jr and J.B. Lenoir might have been more forthcoming, but they weren’t quite pop stars; for musicians like Redding, and Cooke before him, the market exerted its own set of pressures. And yet, Cooke had managed to say a great deal, and Redding’s version cuts just as deeply.

Take the first ten words of Cooke’s lyric: ‘I was born by the river … in a little tent.’ The ‘I’ is Moses. It’s also Sam Cooke, who was born by the Mississippi. And it is also a personification of black America during the Civil Rights era: ‘I go to the movie and I go downtown/Somebody keep tellin’ me: “Don’t hang around.”’ Cooke’s parable had many layers, meanings that Redding had to transform, not only because Cooke had died, but because events since his death – the marches from Selma; the assassination of Malcolm X – had changed the national mood. This is what gives Redding’s coda such force.

‘There’s been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long,’ are the last lines Cooke sang:

But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh yes it will

‘But there was a time,’ Redding sings, ‘that I thought: “Lord this could last very long.”’

Somehow I thought I was still able to try to carry on
It’s been a long, long, long time coming
But I know, but I know, a change gotta come
It’s been so long, it’s been so long, a little too long
But a change has gotta come
I’m so tired, so tired of standing by myself
And standing up alone –
But a change has gotta come
You know and I know; you know that I know
And I know that you know, honey
That a change is gonna come

The bit that Gould hears as a flub, or an ad lib, sounds to me like an ironclad epistemological argument: ‘You know and I know. You know that I know. And I know that you know.’ It’s desperate, haunted, heartbreaking stuff – and the saddest thing about it might be that (as Leonard Cohen once put it) everybody knows, and it still doesn’t make any difference.

In her otherwise excellent survey of soul music, Nowhere to Run (1984), Gerri Hirshey writes that ‘Otis Redding, with the first proceeds of his success, bought up the land near Macon that his ancestors had been slaves on.’ That isn’t true; the plantation that Redding’s people had been enslaved on was miles away from Redding’s ranch. But it’s a telling mistake because, as it happens, Roland Hayes – one of the first African American concert singers – did end up buying the Georgia plantation that his own mother had been a slave on. Hayes was a remarkable man, and a fine lyric tenor, at a time when America had no use for that sort of thing. ‘Roland W. Hayes, coloured tenor – Can’t see any value in his voice,’ Thomas Edison wrote in 1919, when Hayes tried to record for Edison’s label. When Hayes did record, fronting the money himself, he made a point of recording ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The aria had been recorded several times already by Caruso (Hayes’s favourite singer). But when Hayes sang the words – a clown’s tortured description of ‘laughing at the grief that poisons his heart’ – the layers of meaning seemed to fold back on themselves. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem ‘We Wear the Mask’ was still very famous; minstrelsy was still a going concern. What did it mean for black Americans to sing arias about clowns who cried beneath their made-up faces? And what did it mean that, in order to do so, they had to sing in Italian?

‘The​ Negro in the United States has achieved or been placed in a certain artistic niche,’ James Weldon Johnson wrote, at around the same time, in his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922):

When he is thought of artistically, it is as a happy-go-lucky, singing, shuffling, banjo-picking being or as a more or less pathetic figure. The picture of him is in a log cabin amid fields of cotton or among the levees. Negro dialect is naturally and by long association the exact instrument for voicing this phase of Negro life; and by that very exactness it is an instrument with but two full stops, humour and pathos.

The passage comes to mind whenever I listen to Redding’s music, remember the nickname (‘Mr Pitiful’) given to him by a DJ in Memphis, and think of all the constraints that he had to work with, and against. That is to say, I think about them until the moment when Redding’s voice washes all thoughts away.

‘You know she’s waiting, just anticipating,’ Redding sang in his definitive reworking of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’, which Bing Crosby had recorded at the height of the Great Depression in 1933. Crosby was singing about kindness and romantic love in the midst of economic collapse. Redding was singing about romantic love, sure, but he was also singing about kindness and compassion as it applied to Civil Rights era America. In Redding’s recording, it’s his people – black people – who are waiting, anticipating, hoping for the change that has got to come. In songs like ‘Security’ and ‘Respect’ (which Aretha Franklin transformed just as radically as Redding had transformed ‘Tenderness’) he asked for similar things, which all boiled down to the basic human needs that America had historically denied to Redding’s people.

The idea that black vernacular songs contained multiple meanings, which revealed themselves to different listeners at different times, was already old when Hayes appeared on the scene. In 1855, in My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass described songs, sung by slaves, that sounded like ‘jargon to others, but [were] full of meaning to themselves’:

‘I thought I heard them say,/There were lions in the way, /I don’t expect to stay/Much longer here./Run to Jesus – shun the danger –/I don’t expect to stay/Much longer here,’ was a favourite air, and had a double meaning. In the lips of some, it meant the expectation of a speedy summons to a world of spirits; but in the lips of our company, it simply meant a speedy pilgrimage toward a free state, and a deliverance from all the evils and dangers of slavery.

Under slavery, singing about slavery itself was forbidden. No songs about the ‘specific condition’ were allowed, and the end of slavery changed less than it might have. More than a hundred years later, in Detroit, Smokey Robinson – then the in-house genius at Motown – was mining similar territory. ‘“Tears of a Clown” was a track that Stevie [Wonder] had,’ Robinson said. ‘And he came to me one day – we were having like a Christmas party at Motown … and he said he had this track to hear and he wanted me to write a song to it.’ The bit Wonder had written was the distinctive, calliope-like riff that starts the song. ‘That’s a circus thing,’ Robinson thought:

So I just wanted to write something that would be profound about the circus and touch people’s hearts, I guess. And the only thing I could think of was Pagliacci, who was the clown who made everybody else happy while he was sad because he had no one to love him. So that’s what ‘Tears of a Clown’ was about.

But, as it happens, Robinson had been playing around with the theme for years. In 1964, he’d written a song for Carolyn Crawford – ‘My Smile Is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)’ – which included the lines ‘Just like Pagliacci did/I’ll keep my sadness hid.’ In 1965, he’d written ‘Tracks of My Tears’:

Outside, I’m masquerading
Inside, my hope is fading
Just a clown, since you put me down
My smile is my make-up
I wear since my break-up with you

You didn’t need to know anything about Roland Hayes – who’s to say Robinson knew anything about Hayes; though who’s to say he didn’t? – or even American history to fall in love with these songs. That was the whole point of Motown, which called its music ‘The Sound of Young America’, not ‘The Sound of Black America’, because the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, wanted to conquer America, not just coexist with it. To a remarkable degree, he succeeded. And yet, it was striking: if you kicked hard enough at the floorboards of Robinson’s songs, you found yourself in the middle of the Middle Passage.

For Stax, Redding’s death was a staggering loss. While the studio was still in mourning, Warner Brothers bought Atlantic Records, the New York label that Stax had long-standing agreements with. When Jim Stewart went over the paperwork, he found that Atlantic, and now Warner Brothers, owned all of his master tapes, as well as the contract on Sam and Dave, the studio’s breadwinners now that Redding was gone. Then, in April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated a few miles away at the Lorraine, a motel which had been a safe haven for Stax musicians.

‘That was the turning point,’ Steve Cropper’s musical partner, Booker T. Jones, told Guralnick. ‘The turning point for relations between races in the South. And it happened in Memphis.’ That summer, in Miami, the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers held its annual convention. In 1967, H. Rap Brown had shown up at the convention and made demands. In 1968, the convention fractured completely along racial lines. White men were threatened or attacked: Aretha Franklin’s producer, Jerry Wexler, was hung in effigy; Allen Toussaint’s business partner, Marshall Sehorn, was pistol-whipped in his hotel room; and Redding’s manager, Phil Walden, received death threats. Wexler was exaggerating when he said that this ‘was the end of rhythm and blues in the South’. But, by the start of the 1970s, Jim Stewart had been pushed out of Stax, Steve Cropper had left the label, and Booker T. Jones had moved to Los Angeles. By the middle of 1972, Gordy had moved all of Motown’s operations to LA, too. Meanwhile, Walden had gone on to manage the Allman Brothers, and his brother Alan, who had also worked for Redding, was managing Lynyrd Skynyrd – a white Southern band that performed in front of gigantic Confederate flags. By the time Stax collapsed, in 1975, it was a radically different company from the one it had been a decade earlier, operating in a radically different musical landscape.

What place would Redding have had in that landscape? It’s fun to think about the things he might have done in the wake of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? or Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On. Almost in passing, Gould describes Redding’s plans to start a summer camp for underprivileged children, along with a union for black entertainers. ‘When I go back out,’ he told Zelma a month or so before his death, ‘it’s going to be the new Otis Redding. I’ve got to change my style now. People are tired of hearing me plead and beg. I’ve got to be different. I’m gonna be new.’

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