he life of Otis Redding was short, his pop career even shorter — although it was characterized by a blistering output that included some of the 20th century’s most enduring tracks: the sweetly swaying “These Arms of Mine,” the long-boil plea “Try A Little Tenderness,” the ruminative “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Over the course of the 1960s his artistry blossomed, as he became more secure in his songwriting (Aretha Franklin turned his “Respect’’ iconic) and in his ability to shape-shift his voice so that any song would become dynamite. His 1967 death at 26 in a plane crash remains one of pop’s great what-ifs, the snuffing of a talent nowhere near its prime.
“Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life,” Jonathan Gould’s magisterial biography of the late singer, sets the narrative of the R&B legend’s life against the backdrop of the tumult of the 1960s, the Jim Crow South, and the history of American popular music. The book will appeal to those interested not just in the nuts-and-bolts of where Redding’s talent was birthed — that would be Macon, Ga., with a little help further down the road from Sam Cooke, Little Richard, and Ray Charles — but how soul music developed over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. Rich with meticulously recounted contextual details along with critical insights, Gould’s book balances the historical with the musical to trace the evolution of a great American talent.
“Otis Redding” opens at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the three-day California gathering of giants of the period’s music scene — the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. Redding, with the backing of Stax house band Booker T & the MG’s, tore through a five-song set, paying tribute to Cooke and the Rolling Stones, and closing with “Try a Little Tenderness,” the 1930s standard that Redding annexed as his own the year before. Six months after he brought down the house with that night-closing set, Redding would be gone.
From there, the book reaches back into the 19th century to trace the roots of American popular music in “Negro melodies’’ and the genre’s complicated relationship with race. Gould connects a lot of dots among the details of life in the segregated South, Redding’s family history — including its involvement in the Vineville Baptist Church where young Otis got his start in the gospel choir — and the ways pop music was changing in the mid-20th century. Gould doesn’t explicitly reference the present day’s pop cycles of segregation and integration, of appropriated trends and styles and segmented radio formats, but the depictions of how race played a role in Redding’s career certainly resonate.
Redding, who left school at 15 in 1956, began winning talent shows in his hometown of Macon in the summer of 1958. Around this time black pop music was gathering influence on the radio, and record companies like Stax and Motown emerged.
Redding’s girlfriend, Zelma, gave birth to their first son, Dexter, in 1960, and the two married the following year (they would eventually have two other children, Otis III and Karla). The young musician was then steeping himself in the music of Little Richard, Cooke, and Charles. In 1962, he would write and record “These Arms Of Mine,” the simply stated, yearning ballad that would become the first of his many hits.
“Otis Redding” was written with Zelma’s participation, but it’s hardly a pristine portrait. One chapter ends with anecdote about how he and James Brown almost came to blows after a 1967 show at the Apollo. Brown had invited himself onstage; Redding, Brown, and the storied Stax band the Bar-Kays performed “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” but Brown couldn’t stop what Gould calls his “constant ragging of Otis backstage.” The tabloid material is thankfully light, though, allowing for a full-bodied portrait of how his talent eventually culminated in the 1967 writing and recording of “The Dock of the Bay.”
When Redding showed it to his guitarist and sometime writing partner Steve Cropper, he considered it the debut of “the new Otis Redding” because of its more subdued textures and thoughtful mood. (Gould, who wrote the comprehensive 2007 Beatles history “Can’t Buy Me Love,” notes its similarities in both lyric and musical form to “A Day in the Life,” which had come out earlier that year.) Weeks after laying down that track at Stax Studios — on Dec. 10, 1967 — Redding died after his private plane crashed outside of Madison, Wisc. “Dock” came out in early 1968 and would reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100; the book ends shortly after that, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about Redding’s ultimate legacy on those musicians working today.
At times, readers may feel a bit mired in the minutiae of record contracts and backroom dealings involving eventual record-business titans like Jerry Wexler (the producer who invented the term “rhythm & blues” while working at the industry bible Billboard) and Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ertegun. But if anything that thicket of people looking to make a buck off Redding’s songs and voice shows how complex the music business was already well before the present age of megaglomerates.
“I was pretty sure that I’d seen God onstage,” Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir says about Redding’s Monterey Pop performance in the book’s epigraph, and Gould’s narrative makes the case for the rising power of a talent robbed of the chance to reach its zenith. With meticulous scholarship, lively prose, and a tale that uses a singular musician as a springboard into interrogating America’s political and popular cultures, Gould has created a vital book that helps contextualize one of the most important figures in pop music.
An Unfinished Life
By Jonathan Gould
Crown, 533 pp.,
Maura K. Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.