Otis Redding’s burst of fame was short but eventful. He shared the stage with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and drew the Beatles and other British pop royalty to his concerts. He wrote one song that immortalized Aretha Franklin and co-wrote another that immortalized himself.
Like Hendrix, Joplin and too many other young stars, Redding didn’t make it past his 20s. He was 26 when his Beechcraft H18 airplane crashed into a Wisconsin lake in 1967, months before “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” rose to the top of the charts. Redding would never know the extent of his influence or the scope of his critical acclaim.
Mark Ribowsky, who has published books on the Supremes, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder, has written a (mostly) flattering biography of Redding. He places Redding not only at the head of that roster but at the heart of 1960s American popular music. “Respect” (which he wrote and recorded in 1965), and “ Dock of the Bay,” (co-written with Steve Cropper in 1967) “might very well reveal everything there is to know about the nature and meaning of that decade,” Ribowsky says. Elsewhere he calls Redding “one of the top artists in music history.”Roll over Beethoven, indeed.
Some may argue that Ribowsky elevates Redding’s importance beyond what is warranted, but He nonetheless tells a fascinating tale of the artist and his musical era.
Redding did not seem destined for fame. Born in Dawson, Ga., on Sept. 9, 1941, he was raised by a no-nonsense mother and a preacher father. He never learned to read or write music. But he could sing well enough to win a local talent show 15 times in a row. Soon enough, he was performing at various joints around Macon, initially earning 25 cents a gig.
His recording ascendancy at the Stax label in Memphis began almost by accident. When a musical associate finished a February 1962 recording session 40 minutes early, Redding, who had driven the musicians to the studio, was asked if he’d like to sing. Two songs later, he had deeply impressed sidemen Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones. “I’d never heard anything like that before,” Cropper told Ribowsky. He signed that day, joining a historic Stax roster that included Booker T and the M.G.’s, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, and Solomon Burke.
There’s plenty of literary love-bombing in the book, which includes interviews with Redding contemporaries and material from biographies, articles and documentaries. But there are also ample reminders that Redding was no angel. The book includes mention of complaints from band members about not being paid, reports of philandering and abuse.It also describes Redding’s participation in a 1964 shootout that parked some non-lethal buckshot in several participants, including Redding himself.
Ribowsky also takes some shots at the record industry — “one of the most venal and soulless entities ever known” — and delves deep into the competition between Stax and Motown Records. Motown’s sound was slicker while Stax’s was “blacker”and more spontaneous. “Motown does a lot of overdubbing,” Redding said, while at Stax “the rule is: whatever you feel, play it.” And so, Ribowsky writes, when Redding recorded “Satisfaction” his first order of business was to throw the lyric sheet to the floor. “I used a lot of words different than the Stones’ version,” he later said. “That’s because I made them up.”
He found a popular singing partner in Carla Thomas and scored another big hit with “Try a Little Tenderness” (covered by Bing Crosby in 1933).Perhaps his most famous performance came on June 17, 1967 at the Monterey Pop festival. Redding stood out from the Summer of Love crowd. No tie-dye for him: He bounded onto the stage in an “incandescent turquoise suit” looking “twelve or fourteen feet tall” as the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir recalled, and stole the show.
Redding’s biggest song, and his demise, were nearly simultaneous. On Dec. 7, 1967, he came to the studio with some song fragments. “It was in no way near complete,”Ribowsky writes, but after work on the melody and lyrics, including Cropper’s suggestion of a bridge taken from the Association’s “Windy” and Redding’s whistled improvisation at the end, they had a take of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” The early reviews weren’t great. “It didn’t impress me,” said Duck Dunn, the bassist who played on the session. “I thought it might even be detrimental.” Bad call, Duck. As Ribowsky notes, The song went on to be the “sixth most played song of the twentieth century.”
Dave Shiflett, a former critic for Bloomberg News, posts his original music and writing at www.daveshiflett.com
By Mark Ribowsky
W.W. Norton. 365 pp. $27.95