[Marxism] Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 8 12:35:53 MST 2019


LRB, Vol. 41 No. 1 · 3 January 2019
Got to go make that dollar
Alex Abramovich

Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life by Jonathan Gould
Crown, 544 pp, £12.99, May 2018, ISBN 978 0 307 45395 2

Otis Redding was born in 1941 on a farm in Terrell County, Georgia, 150 
miles south of Atlanta, but raised further north in Macon, a small, 
bustling city at the geographical centre of the state. Of the cotton 
fields but not from them, he was a sharecropper’s son who grew up in an 
early iteration of America’s inner-city projects, forming a gospel 
quartet with the neighbourhood boys, joining a junior choir at the 
church where his father was a deacon, banging away on a drum set his 
mother bought him with money she had earned as an Avon lady in town.

Otis was the fourth of six children. The youngest was born in 1955. The 
projects, which had been new when the Reddings moved in, were already 
crumbling, and so the family moved, out of the Tindall Heights Homes and 
into a house they had bought on a dirt road just outside the city 
limits. They had a vegetable garden, a hog pen, a chicken coop. 
Redding’s most recent biographer, Jonathan Gould, says that Otis (14 at 
the time) ‘felt a special disdain for anything that smacked of 
“country”, flatly refusing to wear the overalls his parents bought for 
him’. Four years later, the house burned to the ground and the Reddings 
moved back to Tindall Heights.

The year Redding turned 14 was also the year that Little Richard – a 
Macon native who had made a small name for himself as a gospel singer 
before switching over to rhythm and blues – recorded ‘Tutti Frutti’. 
Redding fell in love with the song, and with Little Richard’s voice, 
which he found himself capable of imitating. In 1957, when Little 
Richard returned to the church and left his band, the Upsetters, without 
a front man, Redding – who had been winning amateur talent shows around 
Macon – was tapped to fill in for a while. By the summer of 1958, he had 
dropped out of school, teamed up with a local guitarist named Johnny 
Jenkins, and joined a group called Pat T. Cake and His Mighty Panthers.

Soul music was coming into its own. Ray Charles was recording for 
Atlantic Records; Sam Cooke had left the Soul Stirrers; James Brown was 
touring with his Famous Flames. But Otis Redding wasn’t a soul singer 
yet. Billed as Otis ‘Rockin’ Redding or ‘Rockhouse Redding’, he sang 
rock and roll and remained heavily indebted to Little Richard. Bouncing 
around with Jenkins, who had split off from the Panthers to form the 
Pinetoppers, Redding played frat parties throughout the South and worked 
odd jobs, moonlighting as a well-digger, petrol station attendant and 
hospital orderly. He had his first child, married the child’s mother, 
Zelma, and made a few forgettable records, one of which came out on 
Macon’s short-lived, regrettably named Confederate label. But Redding 
was still very young, and determined to make it. ‘Everything he told me, 
I just believed him, because he believed in himself to the fullest,’ 
Zelma told Peter Guralnick.

In the summer of 1962, a month before his 21st birthday, Redding got his 
big break. On 14 August or thereabouts (accounts vary), he drove Jenkins 
to Memphis to record at Stax and persuaded the studio’s founder, Jim 
Stewart, to let him sing a few songs too. ‘The first track they 
attempted was the latest of Otis’s Little Richard impersonations,’ Gould 
writes. ‘With Steve Cropper playing rhythm and Johnny Jenkins on lead, 
the band struck an uneasy balance between rockabilly and blues that only 
exaggerated the outdated sound of the material.’

If Redding had gone home then – if Stewart had cancelled the session – 
that might been the whole story. Instead, in Gould’s telling:

Steve Cropper sat down at the piano, an instrument he could barely play. 
When he asked Otis what key he wanted to sing in, Otis said it didn’t 
matter. ‘Just play me those church things,’ he told Cropper, who 
correctly took that to mean a 16-bar gospel progression in 12/8 time. 
Otis led them into the song with a vocal pickup that began: ‘These … 
arms … of … mi – ine.’

‘I keep singing them sad, sad songs,’ Redding would sing a few years 
later. ‘Sad songs is all I know.’ This was a put-on: by then, he had 
written and recorded ‘Security’, ‘Respect’ and ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’ 
– songs in which he continued to channel Little Richard’s exuberance – 
as well as a rollicking cover of ‘Satisfaction’ (which the Rolling 
Stones had conceived as a homage to Redding and the Stax studio sound; 
Keith Richards later called the Stones’ version ‘a demo for Otis’). 
Slow, pleading ballads like ‘These Arms of Mine’, ‘Chained and Bound’, 
‘My Lover’s Prayer’, ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ and ‘Pain in My 
Heart’ may have been his bread and butter, but Redding was also proud, 
headstrong and, by most accounts, happy. He seems to have taken great 
pleasure in the things fame brought him. By the time he turned 24 he had 
his own publishing company, his own production company and his own 
record label, where he developed his own protégés. He was always on tour 
or in the studio – ‘“Got to go make that dollar” became his catchphrase 
around this time,’ Gould writes – but when he came home, it was to a 
270-acre ranch, which Redding called ‘the Big O Ranch’, in Jones County, 
twenty miles outside Macon. Although he had bristled at anything 
‘country’, the life of a country squire was the one that he’d settled on.

In 1966, he began to cross over in earnest with white audiences. That 
spring, Redding played a series of shows at the Whisky a Go Go in Los 
Angeles. On the first night, Bob Dylan turned up with an advance 
pressing of ‘Just Like a Woman’, which he hoped Redding would cover. (‘I 
like it but it’s got too many fuckin’ words,’ Redding said, according to 
another of his biographers. ‘All these pigtails and bobbytails and all 
that stuff.’) In the fall, Redding played in front of rapt audiences in 
Paris and London. In December, he played the Fillmore in San Francisco – 
a three-night stand that set the stage for a triumphant performance, in 
June 1967, at the Monterey Pop Festival. That August, a one-week stay on 
a houseboat in Sausalito inspired the writing of ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock 
of the Bay’, which Redding went into Stax to record two months after his 
26th birthday. A few weeks later, on 8 December, a Friday, he popped 
back into the studio, where Cropper was working on the overdubs. Then he 
flew to Nashville, to play one of several shows he had booked for the 
weekend. On Saturday, he played in Cleveland. On Sunday, together with 
most of the members of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, he flew on his 
private Beechcraft H18 to the last show, in Madison, Wisconsin. Four 
miles shy of the airstrip, the airplane stalled and crashed into Lake 
Monono. Only the Bar-Kays’ trumpet player, Ben Cauley, survived.

Redding’s last recording was supposed to have been a new start: an 
attempt, born of listening to Dylan, as well as the Beatles, to reach 
the widest possible audience. Issued posthumously, it became his first 
number one single: ‘Looks like nothin’s gonna change,’ he sang. 
‘Everything seems to stay the same.’ But Redding’s death had transformed 
the meaning, just as Sam Cooke’s death had transformed the meaning of 
his last great song, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Now it was Redding who 
would stay the same while the rest of the world barrelled forward.

Cooke was another of Redding’s heroes, and on Otis Blue/Otis Redding 
Sings Soul, an 11-song album recorded over the course of 24 hours in 
1965, he covered ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Gould doesn’t like the 
recording, which he calls ‘the sole mis-step’ on an otherwise glorious 
album.

After a ‘brave beginning,’ Gould writes, Redding ‘loses his grip on the 
lyrics and starts groping for the sense of the song’:

Under normal circumstances, someone – whether Jim Stewart, [recording 
engineer] Tom Dowd, or Otis himself – would have stopped the take so 
that Otis could get his bearings, refresh his memory, and re-record the 
track. But with time of the essence, Otis forges ahead, faking it as he 
goes, mangling the song’s parable of a man who’s shunned by his biblical 
‘brother’ to include his ‘little mother’ as well, and discarding the 
ethereal ending of the original (a rapturous swell on the line ‘Oh yes 
it is’) in favour of an unconvincing coda that ends with some bantering 
wordplay (‘You know and I know, that you know, that I know’) lifted from 
another song on Cooke’s Live at the Copa LP.

Maybe; but to my mind, it makes no more sense to imagine that Redding 
forgot the words to this song – already a Civil Rights anthem – than it 
does to think that Louis Armstrong had ‘forgotten’ the words to ‘Heebie 
Jeebies’. It may be closer to the truth to say that, outside his music, 
Redding was a man who had been denied a voice. One of the difficulties a 
biographer has to contend with is that, while he was alive, very few 
people thought to interview him, and no one at all interviewed him in 
depth. There are press releases, written in the first person, but, Gould 
says, these were ghosted by Redding’s manager, Phil Walden. And even if 
Redding had been interviewed, there’s good reason to think that he would 
have stuck to the shallows. (‘For blacks in the South,’ Gould writes, 
with some understatement, ‘the ability to ingratiate themselves with 
whites was an essential social skill, especially in the case of whites 
who were in a position to do them significant harm or good.’) Musicians 
such as Nina Simone, Oscar Brown Jr and J.B. Lenoir might have been more 
forthcoming, but they weren’t quite pop stars; for musicians like 
Redding, and Cooke before him, the market exerted its own set of 
pressures. And yet, Cooke had managed to say a great deal, and Redding’s 
version cuts just as deeply.

Take the first ten words of Cooke’s lyric: ‘I was born by the river … in 
a little tent.’ The ‘I’ is Moses. It’s also Sam Cooke, who was born by 
the Mississippi. And it is also a personification of black America 
during the Civil Rights era: ‘I go to the movie and I go 
downtown/Somebody keep tellin’ me: “Don’t hang around.”’ Cooke’s parable 
had many layers, meanings that Redding had to transform, not only 
because Cooke had died, but because events since his death – the marches 
from Selma; the assassination of Malcolm X – had changed the national 
mood. This is what gives Redding’s coda such force.

‘There’s been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long,’ are the 
last lines Cooke sang:

But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh yes it will

‘But there was a time,’ Redding sings, ‘that I thought: “Lord this could 
last very long.”’

Somehow I thought I was still able to try to carry on
It’s been a long, long, long time coming
But I know, but I know, a change gotta come
It’s been so long, it’s been so long, a little too long
But a change has gotta come
I’m so tired, so tired of standing by myself
And standing up alone –
But a change has gotta come
You know and I know; you know that I know
And I know that you know, honey
That a change is gonna come

The bit that Gould hears as a flub, or an ad lib, sounds to me like an 
ironclad epistemological argument: ‘You know and I know. You know that I 
know. And I know that you know.’ It’s desperate, haunted, heartbreaking 
stuff – and the saddest thing about it might be that (as Leonard Cohen 
once put it) everybody knows, and it still doesn’t make any difference.

In her otherwise excellent survey of soul music, Nowhere to Run (1984), 
Gerri Hirshey writes that ‘Otis Redding, with the first proceeds of his 
success, bought up the land near Macon that his ancestors had been 
slaves on.’ That isn’t true; the plantation that Redding’s people had 
been enslaved on was miles away from Redding’s ranch. But it’s a telling 
mistake because, as it happens, Roland Hayes – one of the first African 
American concert singers – did end up buying the Georgia plantation that 
his own mother had been a slave on. Hayes was a remarkable man, and a 
fine lyric tenor, at a time when America had no use for that sort of 
thing. ‘Roland W. Hayes, coloured tenor – Can’t see any value in his 
voice,’ Thomas Edison wrote in 1919, when Hayes tried to record for 
Edison’s label. When Hayes did record, fronting the money himself, he 
made a point of recording ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Leoncavallo’s 
Pagliacci. The aria had been recorded several times already by Caruso 
(Hayes’s favourite singer). But when Hayes sang the words – a clown’s 
tortured description of ‘laughing at the grief that poisons his heart’ – 
the layers of meaning seemed to fold back on themselves. Paul Laurence 
Dunbar’s poem ‘We Wear the Mask’ was still very famous; minstrelsy was 
still a going concern. What did it mean for black Americans to sing 
arias about clowns who cried beneath their made-up faces? And what did 
it mean that, in order to do so, they had to sing in Italian?

*

‘The Negro in the United States has achieved or been placed in a certain 
artistic niche,’ James Weldon Johnson wrote, at around the same time, in 
his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922):

When he is thought of artistically, it is as a happy-go-lucky, singing, 
shuffling, banjo-picking being or as a more or less pathetic figure. The 
picture of him is in a log cabin amid fields of cotton or among the 
levees. Negro dialect is naturally and by long association the exact 
instrument for voicing this phase of Negro life; and by that very 
exactness it is an instrument with but two full stops, humour and pathos.

The passage comes to mind whenever I listen to Redding’s music, remember 
the nickname (‘Mr Pitiful’) given to him by a DJ in Memphis, and think 
of all the constraints that he had to work with, and against. That is to 
say, I think about them until the moment when Redding’s voice washes all 
thoughts away.

‘You know she’s waiting, just anticipating,’ Redding sang in his 
definitive reworking of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’, which Bing Crosby had 
recorded at the height of the Great Depression in 1933. Crosby was 
singing about kindness and romantic love in the midst of economic 
collapse. Redding was singing about romantic love, sure, but he was also 
singing about kindness and compassion as it applied to Civil Rights era 
America. In Redding’s recording, it’s his people – black people – who 
are waiting, anticipating, hoping for the change that has got to come. 
In songs like ‘Security’ and ‘Respect’ (which Aretha Franklin 
transformed just as radically as Redding had transformed ‘Tenderness’) 
he asked for similar things, which all boiled down to the basic human 
needs that America had historically denied to Redding’s people.

The idea that black vernacular songs contained multiple meanings, which 
revealed themselves to different listeners at different times, was 
already old when Hayes appeared on the scene. In 1855, in My Bondage and 
My Freedom, Frederick Douglass described songs, sung by slaves, that 
sounded like ‘jargon to others, but [were] full of meaning to themselves’:

‘I thought I heard them say,/There were lions in the way, /I don’t 
expect to stay/Much longer here./Run to Jesus – shun the danger –/I 
don’t expect to stay/Much longer here,’ was a favourite air, and had a 
double meaning. In the lips of some, it meant the expectation of a 
speedy summons to a world of spirits; but in the lips of our company, it 
simply meant a speedy pilgrimage toward a free state, and a deliverance 
from all the evils and dangers of slavery.

Under slavery, singing about slavery itself was forbidden. No songs 
about the ‘specific condition’ were allowed, and the end of slavery 
changed less than it might have. More than a hundred years later, in 
Detroit, Smokey Robinson – then the in-house genius at Motown – was 
mining similar territory. ‘“Tears of a Clown” was a track that Stevie 
[Wonder] had,’ Robinson said. ‘And he came to me one day – we were 
having like a Christmas party at Motown … and he said he had this track 
to hear and he wanted me to write a song to it.’ The bit Wonder had 
written was the distinctive, calliope-like riff that starts the song. 
‘That’s a circus thing,’ Robinson thought:

So I just wanted to write something that would be profound about the 
circus and touch people’s hearts, I guess. And the only thing I could 
think of was Pagliacci, who was the clown who made everybody else happy 
while he was sad because he had no one to love him. So that’s what 
‘Tears of a Clown’ was about.

But, as it happens, Robinson had been playing around with the theme for 
years. In 1964, he’d written a song for Carolyn Crawford – ‘My Smile Is 
Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)’ – which included the lines ‘Just like 
Pagliacci did/I’ll keep my sadness hid.’ In 1965, he’d written ‘Tracks 
of My Tears’:

Outside, I’m masquerading
Inside, my hope is fading
Just a clown, since you put me down
My smile is my make-up
I wear since my break-up with you

You didn’t need to know anything about Roland Hayes – who’s to say 
Robinson knew anything about Hayes; though who’s to say he didn’t? – or 
even American history to fall in love with these songs. That was the 
whole point of Motown, which called its music ‘The Sound of Young 
America’, not ‘The Sound of Black America’, because the label’s founder, 
Berry Gordy, wanted to conquer America, not just coexist with it. To a 
remarkable degree, he succeeded. And yet, it was striking: if you kicked 
hard enough at the floorboards of Robinson’s songs, you found yourself 
in the middle of the Middle Passage.

For Stax, Redding’s death was a staggering loss. While the studio was 
still in mourning, Warner Brothers bought Atlantic Records, the New York 
label that Stax had long-standing agreements with. When Jim Stewart went 
over the paperwork, he found that Atlantic, and now Warner Brothers, 
owned all of his master tapes, as well as the contract on Sam and Dave, 
the studio’s breadwinners now that Redding was gone. Then, in April 
1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated a few miles away at the 
Lorraine, a motel which had been a safe haven for Stax musicians.

‘That was the turning point,’ Steve Cropper’s musical partner, Booker T. 
Jones, told Guralnick. ‘The turning point for relations between races in 
the South. And it happened in Memphis.’ That summer, in Miami, the 
National Association of Television and Radio Announcers held its annual 
convention. In 1967, H. Rap Brown had shown up at the convention and 
made demands. In 1968, the convention fractured completely along racial 
lines. White men were threatened or attacked: Aretha Franklin’s 
producer, Jerry Wexler, was hung in effigy; Allen Toussaint’s business 
partner, Marshall Sehorn, was pistol-whipped in his hotel room; and 
Redding’s manager, Phil Walden, received death threats. Wexler was 
exaggerating when he said that this ‘was the end of rhythm and blues in 
the South’. But, by the start of the 1970s, Jim Stewart had been pushed 
out of Stax, Steve Cropper had left the label, and Booker T. Jones had 
moved to Los Angeles. By the middle of 1972, Gordy had moved all of 
Motown’s operations to LA, too. Meanwhile, Walden had gone on to manage 
the Allman Brothers, and his brother Alan, who had also worked for 
Redding, was managing Lynyrd Skynyrd – a white Southern band that 
performed in front of gigantic Confederate flags. By the time Stax 
collapsed, in 1975, it was a radically different company from the one it 
had been a decade earlier, operating in a radically different musical 
landscape.

What place would Redding have had in that landscape? It’s fun to think 
about the things he might have done in the wake of Marvin Gaye’s What’s 
Going On? or Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On. Almost 
in passing, Gould describes Redding’s plans to start a summer camp for 
underprivileged children, along with a union for black entertainers. 
‘When I go back out,’ he told Zelma a month or so before his death, 
‘it’s going to be the new Otis Redding. I’ve got to change my style now. 
People are tired of hearing me plead and beg. I’ve got to be different. 
I’m gonna be new.’



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