Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called him “the single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen.” Impresario Bill Graham felt his concert at the San Francisco Fillmore was “the best gig I ever put on in my entire life.” His performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival made the Rolling Stones’s Brian Jones cry. Janis Joplin was characteristically blunt: “Otis is God.”
One of America’s greatest performers, Otis Redding enjoyed less than a decade of fame before dying in a plane crash in 1967 at age 26. Just days earlier he recorded the song that would become his biggest hit: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the sixth most-played song in the 20th century.
Redding’s death was tragic, but his life was not. This is the central challenge for biographer Mark Ribowsky in “Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul.” Redding was a gifted, hard working songwriter and singer — he was a pro. At age 15 he won his hometown of Macon, Ga.’s citywide talent show 15 weeks straight. From then on, the force of his talent provided a fairly unimpeded path to stardom.
Compared to the lives of some of his peers, such as Etta James, Wilson Pickett, and Marvin Gaye, Redding’s life was uneventful. He wasn’t a drug addict or alcoholic, nor was he emotionally tortured, although Ribowsky does wring some drama out of his relationship with his father, a man of strict religious beliefs who initially discouraged his son from a life of show business but eventually became his champion. Every few chapters we get a glimpse of Redding’s early idol, fellow Macon native Little Richard, who scandalized the public with his bisexuality, drug use, and freaky charisma, and think: Wow, remind me to pick up his biography next time.
Ribowsky thus makes the wise choice to broaden his scope to the Southern Soul scene itself, particularly the unlikely triumph of Memphis’s small but influential Stax Records (Redding’s label) and the music industry as a whole. Ribowsky is pleasingly candid: “The record game, to be polite, is one of the most venal and soulless entities ever known, and a bane to creatively inclined people easily manipulated by power brokers with a fast line and legal levers to rip them off.” As Ribowsky shows, Stax itself fell victim to the same “insidious but legal backstabbing” when Atlantic Records virtually stole Stax’s world-famous back catalog (including recordings by Redding, Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and many others) and all the royalties associated with it.
But before all that ugliness, the tiny, family-run Stax, with its racially integrated staff and seat-of-the-pants production, managed to create a unique and influential sound that rivaled Motown, gained the admiration of fans around the world, and “converted one of the whitest bastions of the post-Confederate South into the vital core of black music.”
It’s a great story but one that is often interrupted by Ribowsky’s awkward phrasing. A recording studio has “glutinous echoes”; he describes Little Richard as “bold and daring yet conventionally spiritual enough to wear the label derived from a centuries-old religious conceptualization of the immortal essence of the human spirit and its undying connection to a higher power,” whatever that means.
One gets the sense that Ribowsky is turning up the volume a little too high to try and make his point. It’s a shame, because the subject practically speaks for itself. Notwithstanding the soul-baring theatricality of Redding’s performances on songs such as “Try a Little Tenderness,” the power of soul music has always been, paradoxically, its sense of restraint. The greatest soul singers are masters of dynamics, starting out softly with a slow build to the climax. “It wasn’t the size of his voice,” said keyboardist Booker T. Jones of Redding, “we knew lots of people with vocal powers like that. It was the intent with which he sang.” “Dreams to Remember” provides some fascinating historical context, but most of what you need to know about the emotional biography of Otis Redding can be found in the still-vital and moving recordings he left behind.
Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul
By Mark Ribowsky
Liveright, 400 pp., illustrated, $27.95
This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on June 13, 2015.