Otis Redding remains an immortal presence in the canon of American music on the strength of such classic hits as “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “Respect,” a song he wrote and recorded before Aretha Franklin made it her own. In Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, Jonathan Gould finally does justice to Redding’s incomparable musical artistry, drawing on exhaustive research, the cooperation of the Redding family, and other previously unavailable sources to present the first comprehensive portrait of the singer, his background, and his incandescent career.
Gould delves into a social history of the time and place from which Redding and his music emerged, closely examining the increasingly porous boundaries between black and white popular music in a tensely ratcheted racial moment of our country’s timeline. Gould’s indelible portrait of Redding and the massive rise of soul music in the ’60s is a revealing look at a brilliant artist, and a provocative exploration of race and music in America that still resonates in our collective ears and minds today.
Jonathan Gould spoke with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright about his approach to writing about music as a musician himself, the genesis of gospel and how it influenced Otis and soul at large, and how ingeniously Redding maneuvered through the recording industry to take control of his own career and command our cultural attention across all audiences.
Read It Forward: Jonathan, I understand you’re a jazz musician. Is that right?
Jonathan Gould: I haven’t played professionally for a long time, but that’s what I started out doing. I played drums.
RIF: Cool. Did you draw upon your own musical skills in writing this book?
JG: Very much so. I approach thinking and writing about music from the perspective of a musician. That’s what interests me most about musical performers: their actual work. A lot of people who aren’t in a particular field of art tend to miss that dimension. For the people who do it, it’s their work. They approach it as work, and it has all the characteristics of work. Sometimes it’s rewarding, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes people feel out of their depth, and sometimes on top of what they’re doing. There’s a tendency to romanticize creative activity for people who don’t necessarily engage in it in their own lives. It makes them think that you sit and wait for wonderful things to happen, and they do. So that perspective affects the whole way I approach writing about Otis or, before that, the Beatles in Can’t Buy Me Love.
RIF: Have you found there are similarities and differences between being a musician and being an author?
JG: Many. Start with the biggest dissimilarity, which is one of the nice things about performing: you do it, and you’re done with it. It’s over. You can’t do it until the next night, or rehearsal the next day. With writing, for someone like me who can be obsessive about things, it seems like it never stops. You can leave your desk, but it’s still going on in your head, in a way that’s different from performing.
The business of it is very different. Learning to play an instrument is about putting in hours of repetition as you build up skill to play without thinking about the rudiments of what you’re doing. I don’t think writing’s quite like that, though maybe it is. I’ve reached the point where I write sentences and paragraphs, and block them out without thinking about it, so I can put all of my effort into the content.
Playing the drums is a great antidote to sitting at a desk typing on a computer. It’s a great release. I go down there and just do something creative that has a very different feeling to it. Writing’s up in your head, except in rare moments when you’re moved by your own work. And playing music had better not be up in your head, or else it’s going to sound it, you know?
RIF: One of the things I found so compelling is how you set the stage, going back into the evolution from slavery to Jim Crow, what it was like to be African-American in the South, and what the music was like. Can you talk about your research process, and how you got around the little that was out there about Otis?
JG: That’s the smoke and mirrors, and I’ll admit it in that way. When I wrote about the Beatles, I decided I wasn’t going to be the five-thousandth person to interview them about being a Beatle, because it had been done. With Otis, it was pretty simple. There’s one legitimate interview he gave and a few brief interviews in Britain, where they took him more seriously as an artist.
So I was faced with the problem of having what Otis had to say in that interview, and a couple pages of quotes I was able to find. Then I had what people told me he said. I’d interview someone like Alan Walden, and he’d say, “Well, what Otis said about this was that,” or interview Phil Walden, his other manager, who’d say, “Otis told me this.” With those types of quotes, you’re dealing with hearsay in a legal sense, and I’d have to think hard about whether Otis would’ve said that. Would he have said it in that way, does that ring true? If it would, then I’d be confident saying, “Otis’s response to that was this.” But if not, I’d reject the quote, because it didn’t make sense to me.
I had access to dozens of songs, many of which he wrote, all of which he sang. The quote from scripture I put at the beginning, “By their works ye shall know them,” that’s what I had to fall back on. In terms of communicating Otis’s personality, I relied on how he came across as a performer, but it’s smoke and mirrors.
The other thing I felt I had to be careful about, because African-American life and history in America has been subject to endless stereotyping, is to say, “Well, in this way, he was typical of his generation,” or “his parents’ experience was typical of their background and generation.” But with a lot of reflection, I felt fairly confident doing that in certain places, and letting the reader know I was doing it. When I’m talking about his parents’ upbringing and his grandmother, it became clear that we really don’t know, but we can surmise that’s what their life was like, because it’s what life was like for hundreds of thousands of people in their same position in the South.
RIF: As a songwriter, Otis was making these breakthroughs just before he died, which seems devastating. You brought such incredible analysis to his songs. Talk about diving into those melodies and words on the page to intuit more about him.
JG: Otis’s songs, for the most part, are simple; they rely on his ability to put them across. The ideas behind the songs, and his persona, say a lot about him. In many aspects, beginning with his music, he was this devotional personality. It says a great deal about his attachment to family and hometown, given that his life consisted of being away from both for weeks on end. I tried to get an understanding of his day-to-day experience when he was an increasingly successful performer. Most musicians find touring a difficult, stultifying, deadening process. It’s not a series of thrilling social encounters and, in Otis’s case, sexual encounters. I thought about the endless logistics, particularly for the first few years, issues about where he was going to stay or could eat on the road, all before the Civil Rights Act in 1964. I related that to the trajectory of his songs. It’s about a young man who was coming into his own as a songwriter and as an adult.
There’s one song he wrote where he sings, “I’ve been loving you for 20 long years, and I’ll love you for 20 more.” And this is coming from a 26-year-old, right? It’s fascinating that he wrote from a premonition of experience. It exposes how people think of songwriting as a function of autobiography. The most effecting version of that is “Dock of the Bay,” where the lyrics of the song reference his home in Georgia. It leads people to say, “Oh, he’s writing about himself.” But the person he’s describing is more somebody like Otis if he hadn’t had this successful career. And that’s the essence of what a talented artist does: start with their own experience, but move into a more generalized realm, or a more specific one, that evokes a character different from themselves.
RIF: And how ironic that he died shortly after recording that song.
JG: People have been trying to make a feature film about Otis for almost 30 years now. And part of it has to do with the fact that his story is indeed so cinematic, the arc culminating in this tragic death. But what compounds the tragedy is that this was somebody on the cusp of greater success, artistic maturity, and emotional maturity as a man. Those things come together in a way that’s very affecting.
RIF: One line I love from your book is, “Musical artists are the sum of their musical influences.” Can you talk about Otis’s influences and mentors, and how they were integral in charting his path?
JG: The influences that were strongest on him were a history of the genesis of soul music itself. Louie Jordan loomed in his background. Gospel music loomed large; Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Sam Cook. And that bloodline exploded into the soul music phenomenon of the 1960s. I was determined to go into detail about Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Sam Cook. I had to understand who they were, what they accomplished, and what they represented to understand what was going on in Otis’s head, how he was managing his development as an artist.
The surprising thing was how important this revolution of black church music in the 1930s was. I’d thought that gospel music was something that went way back to the 19th century, and there certainly was a powerful line of sacred music and spirituals. But gospel was a relatively recent phenomenon, a product of the social dynamics of the great migration that rose in the 1930s and spread like wildfire. Gospel music spread through the black churches of the North and South the way the Beatles spread through teenage bedrooms in the 1960s. It was infectious, and it happened very quickly and produced a new approach to black church music. Otis and his generation were the first African-American children to be schooled on this increasingly expressive, rhythmic music, which we now think of as gospel.
RIF: The 1960s was a hugely defining time in music, and saw this resurgence of traditionally black music coming into the mainstream. What was it during the era that brought this music into everyone’s homes, black and white?
JG: The media was radio, and radio in the 1950s had to reinvent itself. It had to save itself from the fact that television had usurped its role as the main form of home entertainment. TV sets took over within a matter of ten years. As a result, these profitable radio stations lost all of their programming. They had to find new audiences, and just like the internet today, they had to find content.
Stations discovered this untapped African-American audience, people who spent an inordinate amount of their hard-earned wages on entertainment and the things advertisers wanted to sell. So the phenomenon of black appeal, of black-oriented radio, created a situation where anybody could tune into rhythm and blues and gospel stations, and there was no way to segregate it. One of the effects of segregation was to wall off the black community and black culture from white audiences. And you couldn’t do that with radio. There’s no way to get just a little bit of the internet, and there was no way to get just a little bit of radio.
Teenagers like to dance and listen to music, and that’s always been the case. The white teenage audience in America discovered R&B, this dynamic, compelling form of dance music, and couldn’t get enough of it. R&B and rock and roll were, like most dance music, an eroticized art form. For the first time, you had young white people exposed to attractive, dynamic black men and women, with the fact that it was black men being the real soul of the great taboo of segregation. It was a component of a social revolution that was the other side of the Civil Rights movement.
RIF: Mm-hmm. Otis was a product of the South and southern music, and as a black man was pulled into an industry run by white people to make music that white people would enjoy. Can you talk about that paradox of being a black musician playing to a predominantly white audience?
JG: He had experience, because he started off playing in bands that played for white fraternities. He went into it with his eyes open, and as a person of enormous intelligence, he assessed the situation of a black performer playing for white audiences very clearly. He developed an ability to navigate, and did that with great skill. He understood that was where a different kind of success lay. He’d come to understand the music business had changed to where he could make a very good living performing on weekends, going out on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights performing at places like the Fillmore, and not have to engage in endless rounds of one-nighters on the chitlin circuit.
Otis was an acutely intelligent African-American man in the South, and developed a way to relate to white people that would put them at ease and, at the same time, further his career. He did it with the people at Stax Records, with Kim Stewart and Jerry Wechsler. He presented himself in a way that they responded with great enthusiasm and admiration, and it shifted the social balance in their relationship. With Otis, the relationships he formed with the managers, he dealt with on a pretty equal basis, and I think he insisted upon it. There was no way to engage with him except on that basis. When Phil Walden said, “He wasn’t just a magnificent singer; he was a magnificent man,” these were people who saw an African-American man that way, and Otis knew it and presented himself that way.
RIF: Switching gears, your two music biographies are epic in length and in research, and I know they took a long time to write. How do you stay interested in the subject matter for years and years?
JG: First, I chose wisely. With the Beatles, I didn’t really know what I was getting into, and I was lucky that I never reached the point where I just got sick of them. There are all sorts of stories of biographers who fell out of love with their subjects and sometimes produced amazing, sometimes awful, and sometimes great books as a result of that. I was able to be critical of the Beatles, and I got impatient with one or the other at any given point when I was writing. With Otis, I knew my admiration and appreciation of his music wasn’t going to change, it was only going to get deeper.
I think what keeps you interested is the ability to constantly come up with mysteries that need to be solved. All the time when I’m writing, I’m asking, “Why did that happen?” or, “What was the story behind that?” On a day-to-day basis, it’s posing those questions and trying to come to solutions that keeps me interested.
I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Otis’s records. When I know I’m going to be writing about a particular song or album, I take a break from it for a month or two so I can start with somewhat fresh ears. But the whole point of why are we still talking about Otis Redding? Why is anybody still interested in reading about Otis? It’s because the music doesn’t tire. It doesn’t wear out. And that was my advantage, too. That’s what I had to work with.
RIF: What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching?
JG: The ongoing surprise was how much Otis was the author and protagonist of his own career. How much he was the driving force and determining factor. The story prior to this book, and I would say the story of Southern soul music in general, was told as a series of—in Hollywood terms—black/white buddy films.
Most of the films that weren’t made about Otis’s career were heavily influenced by Phil Walden, who’s still alive, and was a very dynamic, charismatic figure. They were cast as buddy films about a white guy and a black guy in the Jim Crow South, who got together and conquered the world. And it’s not untrue. But in Otis’s case, I realized that Phil was out of the country during what was the most important stage of Otis’s career, when he went from making his first record to becoming a successful star. His manager was in Germany before the era of long-distance telephones, where you could carry on a relationship in that way.
I thought, “Who’s there to run the show?” I know Alan Walden, Phil’s brother, very well. He’s a wonderful Southern good ole boy, but he was young at the time. Alan was straightforward that he didn’t know anything about the music business when he took over for his brother. It was Otis who was telling Alan how to run the office. It was Otis figuring out how to put together a band and the touring logistics, because there wasn’t anybody else to help him in that way. It wasn’t a merger of white know-how and black talent. It was black talent and know-how that powered his career.
Otis came from this two-parent, hard-working, church-going family. While he clearly sowed many wild oats, he eventually settled down, and the determination, energy, and ambition he brought to his career had to be a product of that. There was something in him that got snuffed out in his contemporaries—a sense of possibility and agency. I think that had to have something to do with his parents and sisters, and this intrepid family he came from.
Author Photo: Richard Edelman