Journalist Mark Ribowsky (The Last Cowboy, 2013, etc.) has tackled tough subjects in the world of music before with candid, contextual biographies of The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and producer Phil Spector, among others. But he seems both confounded and enthralled by his latest subject, the late soul legend Otis Redding. His latest, Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul (2015), takes a deep dive not only into the life of Redding but also examines the turbulent times in which he lived.
Redding, of course, was a soul singer so profound that he was dubbed “The King of Soul” in a world dominated at the time by the likes of Sam Cooke, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, who famously made Redding’s 1965 hit “Respect” her own. His songs “These Arms of Mine” and “Try a Little Tenderness” have endured the test of time, as well as his posthumous 1968 hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” The singer became the most celebrated and visible representation of Southern Soul and helped to put Stax Records and the Memphis Sound on the map, with the help of titans like Booker T. and the M.G.s, Steve Cropper, and Donald “Duck” Dunn. Tragically, a plane crash in rural Wisconsin in the winter of 1967 took the life of The King of Soul. He was only 26 years old.
“Otis Redding was vital to the development of Southern Soul,” Ribowsky says. “Imagine what the world would be like without Stax Records. They had good guys in Rufus Thomas and Booker T. Jones and those guys but they were acting on such a shoestring that nobility alone was never going to carry them forward. They needed a galvanic star, a neon light in the sky. If you look at the Stax marquee down on Macklemore Avenue in Memphis, you could say that Otis put the juice in that sign. They needed someone who could carry their message out into the world.”
Southern Soul was diametrically opposed to the Motown Sound. Where Berry Gordy used slick production values, orchestral arrangements and a factory-like process for churning out records, Redding and his comrades relied on sweat, spirit, and working-class heart to capture the imaginations of their audiences.
“Otis was the guy that everything revolved around, which is really ironic because he didn’t have those chart-topping hits until he was dead,” Ribowsky explains. “He had to do it not from the top down, but from the bottom up. He had to establish what he was doing first. When he finally did, people didn’t want to buy his singles; they wanted to buy his albums because they wanted to hear more of it. It was all dependent on Otis Redding coming up with these masterful songs, which were all written about him. This is something that is very hard to find in popular music: songs that are written about the person singing them rather than a Tin Pan Alley kind of generic love song. Otis never could have written like that. His songs were all about his hang-ups, his fears, his marriage, his women, his father. I hope I was able to trace all of those forces in the book, because they’re important.”
There is no doubt that Redding’s watershed moment was his storied appearance at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. In a lineup that included The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Grateful Dead, as well as dramatic debuts by The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Janis Joplin, Otis Redding blew away the flower children with powerful performances of Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” “Respect, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and a wild cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” There’s a funny moment in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Monterey Pop when Redding asks the crowd, “This is the love crowd, right?” Ribowsky laughs when I ask about this peculiar introduction to the wider world.
“Yeah, Otis goes psychedelic, even though he didn’t know what psychedelic was, although he was partaking quite liberally when he was out there,” Ribowsky says. “That was Otis’ coming-out party. Otis didn’t know what rock and roll was all about or what the hippies were up to. But he knew he had to conquer all the polar ends of rock and roll for him to outgrow the mid-’60s soul tradition from which he emerged. All he did was be himself. He didn’t tailor the music to a psychedelic rock crowd or destroy any instruments on stage; he was just Otis. The thing about him was that you may not have known all his records but when you saw him, you never forgot him.”
Redding was taken from the world at a particularly volatile time in America. Less than a year after his untimely death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be gunned down just blocks away from Stax Records, followed a month later by Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel. I asked Ribowsky whether he thought Redding might have grown more politically active with time.
“Yes, I think he would have gotten more political but I don’t know how radical he would have gotten,” says the author. “Otis Redding wasn’t ‘book smart,’ and he wasn’t an intellectual performer in that he didn’t have a message in his music other than what he was feeling inside. But you’re right in that he was starting to move toward a more active kind of head. That was the direction that music was heading and so Otis would have wanted to keep up.”
Ribowsky’s sweeping biography also made me think a bit on Redding’s celebrated, posthumous hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” a mournful lament co-written with guitarist Steve Cropper.
“That song is the pane to pain,” says Ribowsky. “It is the national anthem of loneliness and isolation. Otis was experiencing a lot of pressure when he recorded that song in 1967. He had gone through throat surgery that fall and didn’t know if he would ever be able to talk again, let alone sing. He was also at that point in his career, after Monterey, where he needed a big crossover hit. That’s why this song is so authentic. You can hear that he’s not just reciting the lyrics; they came from inside of him. The song is so perfect in retrospect as the denouement of this guy’s life. All he was pleading for was a little space to breathe and get his head together.”
Ribowsky is continuing his journey down some dark roads with an upcoming biography of country legend Hank Williams, but is pleased that people are remembering and rediscovering Otis Redding because of this project.
“These people endure because they were so authentic,” he says. “Music today is just so phony and superficial. A bunch of people get together in a studio and don’t know what they want to make. When Otis Redding came into a studio, he knew exactly the sound he wanted to capture because it was all in his head. He was the one. James Brown was a showman but Otis Redding was almost like a shaman, like a medicine man when he was up there. Otis Redding would knock you over with just his voice.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.