King of Soul (Atlantic, 2014)

Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul

Dreams to Remember recounts the triumphs and tragedy of '60s soul icon Otis Redding

Otis Redding was not only a powerfully emotive singer and thrilling, go-for-broke performer. He also “was soul music in the ’60s” according to biographer Mark Ribowsky, and his rise to fame represented “the final stage in the maturation of African American music as an idiom and an industry.” But that’s not all. Redding, argues Ribowsky, was a revolutionary who upended the racist practices of the recording business.

Before Redding, inferior white cover versions of hits made by black artists — think Pat Boone murdering Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” — got all the glory and made all the money. But when Otis Redding covered the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, he affected a sea change in pop music. He, and then other black singers and groups, remade hits by the Stones, the Beatles and other white artists, and according to Ribowsky, improved them, thereby flipping the script on the white-dominated music industry.

This is an awful lot to hang on Redding, who died at 26, just as he was maturing as a creative artist. Although he was a talented songwriter, much of his repertoire consisted of covers of hits by other singers, black (Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke) and white (the Beatles and the Stones, and Bing Crosby, who first recorded “Try a Little Tenderness”, one of Redding’s signature numbers.) His biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay”, came out in 1968, several months after his 10 December 1967 death in what was an eminently avoidable crash of his private plane in a Wisconsin lake. “Dock of the Bay” represented a move away from the no-holds-barred, gospel-rooted approach that had been his stock in trade toward a more folk-based black pop.

In his last months, Redding was obsessed with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and wanted to change his style. His desire to remain relevant in a changing pop landscape was an important factor. Moreover, his old style had seriously damaged his voice, necessitating surgery on his vocal cords. Prizing emotional expression at the expense of technique, he had never learned to sing from his diaphragm (Ribowsky calls it his “gut”) instead of his throat.

Dreams to Remember is the fourth Redding biography to date, and certainly the best. (Its predecessors include Scott Freeman’s Otis! The Otis Redding Story, whose unsubstantiated, and according to Ribowsky,”absurd” claims about Redding’s sex life and business affairs got him sued for $15 million by the singer’s widow Zelma and manager Phil Walden.) Ribowsky sets out to elucidate “Redding’s previously untraced steps, undissected songs, and unexplained tortured soul.”

He does well with the first two, thoroughly detailing Redding’s recording sessions, concerts, and US and European tours. He’s less successful at explaining why Redding was “tortured”, and too often makes facile equations between the raw emotion that burns through ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Pain in My Heart” and his inner life. There was pathos in Redding’s life and art, but Ribowsky’s perspective too often is reductive: Redding sang because he was in pain, and his songs reflect that inner torment. But there also was joy, sex, and pleasure in Redding’s life, and in his music. Despite Ribowsky’s best efforts, the man at the center of Dreams to Remember remains elusive.

That’s partly due to circumstances beyond Ribowsky’s control: the tight grip Redding’s widow Zelma keeps on his legacy. After donating her husband’s personal papers to the Macon, Georgia public library, she reclaimed them, and she has not made them available to writers. As Ribowsky notes, previous biographers have responded “to the challenges posed by his family’s idea of proprietorship” with “reflexive hagiography of a saintly man who never claimed to be one or acted like one” or, as with Scott Freeman’s bio, “a reliance on sources with questionable claims.” Dreams to Remember would have benefited from access to Redding’s papers. Lacking them, Ribowsky has drawn mainly on his interviews with former Redding associates and on previously published books, and newspaper and magazine articles.

His best source turns out to be Al Bell, the black former radio DJ, record label owner, and concert promoter whom Jim Stewart, the white owner of Stax Records, hired in 1965 as the Memphis-based company’s head of promotions. Bell, who deftly straddled the worlds of the corporate recording industry and black activist politics, comes alive on the page in ways that Redding does not.

A brilliant, hard-driving administrator, Bell rose to become executive vice president at Stax, and after Redding’s shocking death and the departure of other Stax hit makers like the soul duo Sam and Dave, he revitalized the company in the early ’70s. Whereas Redding had been the label’s star attraction in the mid- to late ’60s, under Bell’s leadership its new breadwinner was the shaven-headed Isaac Hayes, a Stax songwriter who became an international superstar with genre-expanding albums like Hot Buttered Soul and the Shaft movie soundtrack.

Bell, as Ribowsky observes, “knew Otis like few in a white-controlled industry they both were greatly suspicious of, with cause.” Race and racism are central motifs in Ribowsky’s narrative, as of course they should be. Redding was born in 1941 in Macon, Georgia (his two major musical heroes, Little Richard and James Brown, also hailed from there) and, according to Ribowsky, he was “inured” to Jim Crow. Until the mid-’60s, Redding “never saw a day in Macon when segregation wasn’t common law.”

His emergence represented the confluence of two related developments: the birth of soul music, a Southern-based genre, and the civil rights movement. Ribowsky notes the relationship between the music and the movement, but he doesn’t quite grasp how changed social circumstances inspired the new sound. Although soul has roots in gospel and the blues, it was a form more responsive to the new political and cultural consciousness among black Americans. The blues was about individual suffering (and pleasure), and gospel promised salvation in the hereafter.

The civil rights movement, however, was optimistic, and focused on the here and now. Soul meet the need for a cultural form that likewise was optimistic, that emphasized cultural pride and freedom instead of hope for release from a world of woe.

As a black man from the South, Redding had “difficulty assimilating into a white-dominated industry” that was, and remains “one of the most venal and soulless entities ever known.” Ribowsky thoroughly details the ruthless and even shameless exploitation of Stax and its artists by its national distributor, New York-based Atlantic Records, as personified by two legendary figures, the label’s co-founder Ahmet Ertegun and its vice president and top producer, Jerry Wexler.

If Ribowsky capably explicates the societal and music industry racism that Otis Redding and his contemporaries confronted, he is less adept when it comes to relationships between black and white musicians. In his simplistic account, blacks originate and make the best popular music; whites imitate, but never equal them. If you compare Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” to Pat Boone’s, or Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” to Elvis Presley’s, the argument seems convincing. But Ribowsky seems oblivious to the ways black and white musicians learn from and influence each other, and he too often makes stylistic differences the basis for tendentious arguments about black superiority and white inferiority.

Take “Satisfaction”, for example. Ribowsky praises Redding’s cover, in which the singer throws out all but the first verse of Mick Jagger’s lyrics. What does he replace them with? Extemporaneous huffing and puffing, and the “gotta gottas” that, by 1965, had become shtick. Ribowsky faults Robert Christgau for having called Redding’s take on the song “anarchic,” but Christgau was right. I would go further and say Redding butchered “Satisfaction”, turning Jagger’s brilliant expression of youthful alienation from an oppressive and omnipresent consumer culture into a routine complaint about not getting laid.

Bob Dylan was eager for Redding to record “Just Like a Woman”, but Dylan’s lyrics flummoxed the soul singer. Ribowsky writes that during a recording session Redding said “‘I don’t know how to sing the bridge,’ referring to oblique lines in that portion of the song that deal with conjoined bits and pieces such as fog, amphetamines, and pearls.” Those “bits and pieces”, however, come from one of the song’s verses, not its bridge, which begins with the lines “It was raining from the first / and I was dying there of thirst”. The factual error aside, Ribowsky fails to draw two fairly obvious conclusions: Redding’s soul style, which valued sound and its emotional valences more than lyrics, was in a different musical universe from Dylan’s word-drunk folk-rock; and perhaps Redding had his limitations as an interpretive singer.

In the last months of his life, Redding was listening to the Beatles and absorbing their sonic and lyrical breakthroughs. Stax guitarist and songwriter Steve Cropper says that Redding was becoming “more aware of the importance of lyrics”. Bell encouraged Redding to make a singer-songwriter album to be called Soul Folks. Truth be told, Redding and Stax always had crossover dreams, and they were on the verge of realizing them before the singer’s death. In 1967, he delivered a hyperkinetic half-hour set at the Monterey Pop Festival that stunned the mainly white audience and today remains the best evidence of his extraordinary talent as a performer.

Otis Redding was tuned into ’60s rock culture, and he wanted to reach a broad pop audience. He was willing to change his style, as “Dock of the Bay” showed, but only in ways that felt honest and natural to him. His limited Top 40 success frustrated him — his sole number one pop hit and Grammy came posthumously, with “Dock of the Bay”. But he was not the kind of artist who would do anything for a hit; crossing over would be on his own terms.

The soul and R&B singers and rappers who have come along in the nearly half-century since his death owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Sometimes, as with “Otis”, from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 album Watch the Throne — this gets acknowledged.

RATING 7 / 10