At some point when I was in middle school, in the incipient days of my obsessive interest in music, I arrived at the conclusion that Otis Redding had, in fact, been the author of pretty much every song I’d ever heard. Sure, my tendency to proselytize this claim was, more than anything, an early example of what would become an enduring love for rhetorical hyperbole, but like about half of the outlandish claims I’ve been known to make, this one had a definite ring of truth to it.
The Aretha Franklin hit “Respect” appeared on a 12” collection that I bought, and I found that none other than Otis had the writing credits. Shortly after making this discovery, I found that “Hard to Handle”, a track that, at the time was on constant radio rotation in an incarnation lacquered lily-white by The Black Crowes, was an Otis original. Not even the fetid sheen of early-‘90s suburban hippie-dom could hide that song’s soulful substratum. Such was the songwriting prowess of Otis. I was absolutely floored to find out that Otis wrote The Stones’ “Satisfaction”. I was even more floored to find out that he didn’t. Mick and Keith did write it, but Otis took Jagger’s coy, seethingly restrained pleas for release and delivered them at a full on devotional frenzy. He made it sound like something he should have written.
I wasn’t the only person in history to assume that the song was originally by Otis. A few decades before I stumbled upon it, a writer for Melody Maker in the UK made the same mistake. No doubt railing against another bunch of white British art students making a mint at the expense of a real-deal Memphis blues player. This is, of course, an important and often true critique of rock and roll, but in this particular case misplaced. That story, retold by Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs, (who served as the Stax house band), is one of many interesting nuggets expounded upon in Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding.
The layout of Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding makes for a disc that’s as much a heartfelt tribute as it is a documentary. Rather than delving a great deal into analysis of Otis’ place in the pop landscape, Otis’ career, starting with the Stax Records story is told through interviews with those close to him. Otis’ wife Zelma and his daughter are interviewed, as well as Steve Cropper of Booker T. and the MGs, horn player Wayne Jackson, and rarely filmed Stax Records founder Jim Stewart, in between footage of Otis’ classic live performances.
The interviewees discuss their experiences with Otis and the personal idiosyncrasies that drove his career. His preternaturally prolific songwriting skills, his ability to feel out a song and think through a horn line and his striking inability to dance worth a damn, (as seen in a few of the videos of his performances), are all addressed with striking personal attachment, as are the legendarily spooky and disturbing circumstances of his premature passing.
Otis’ story surely ranks among the top most spoken of tragedies in the history of pop music. An incredibly talented singer, he hopped on the microphone at someone else’s band practice and proceeded to blow everybody in the room away with a voice that could make going to the store to buy eggs sound soulful. He toured England, wowing UK audiences thirsty for US soul, before returning to the States and performing at The Monterey Pop Festival. There, exposed to the burgeoning hippie mainstream, he was set on his path to pop stardom. Shortly thereafter, he made a notable stylistic shift in his recording of “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay”, and three days later was snuffed out his prime, alongside all but one of his band mates in a freak plane crash notoriously shrouded in eerie premonition.
That these stories are so well known may be a little problematic; a lot of what’s said about Otis Redding in Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding is already canonical. That said, this documentary adds a personal, heartwarming touch to what is now oft’ told musical lore. It’s almost ironic that Otis, having posthumously become such a ubiquitous figure in the mainstream eye, can sometimes end up getting taken for granted.
He’s the kind of icon who can be acknowledged by obsessive music lovers for his contributions, but at the same time be glossed over in the search for more obscure relics. The live footage on Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding though not all are necessarily “never before seen”, makes you remember why so many of those love songs he wrote have remained classics.
There is certainly more ground that Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding could cover. Otis’ impact on music, culture and race then and now could have been fleshed out with some other interviews. For a documentary not necessarily aimed at cultural historians, though, it’s a deeply personal walkthrough of his career.
When we think of another mainstream musical legend and visionary who died in his prime, Jimi Hendrix, we think about how he would have changed music had he lived. We delight in imagining him emerging from the restrictions of guitar rock; working with Miles Davis or maybe even John Cage, and taking his unprecedented talent with his instrument to the fringes of conceptual artistry and the avant-garde.
On watching Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding, and hearing Steve Cropper’s comments on Otis as a songwriter, we can see him as the other side of the same coin. Rather than pushing technical and conceptual boundaries like Hendrix, the boundaries he pushed were ones of feeling, the way he attacked simple love songs with furious soulful sincerity. It’s interesting to think, had Otis Redding lived, how he would have deepened and widened the intangible elements of popular music, its spirit and its soul.