Jonathan Gould’s last book, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, took on a subject that has arguably been done to death. With all the ink that’s been expended on the Beatles over the last five decades—from minute-by-minute birth-to-breakup accounts to erudite musical analyses, first-hand reminiscences, and sensationalist tell-alls—how could anyone possibly have something new to say about the Fab Four? Gould’s book presented the group’s history in an original sociological context, applying fresh and lively insight to the nuances of the music, all while proving himself uncommonly adept at acknowledging the Beatles’ shortcomings without gratuitously skewering our heroes.
Gould’s new book, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, presents the author with a different challenge. The too-short tale of ’60s soul singer Otis Redding’s rise from an accidental audition at Memphis’ legendary Stax Records to his stunning breakthrough with the white rock audience at the Monterey Pop Festival, his tragic death in a plane crash at age 26, and the posthumous success of his biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” is well-enough known among fans of classic rock ‘n’ soul. Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music (1986) created the template for discussing Redding and other Southern soul artists and the social/musical crosscurrents among which they emerged. The last four years have yielded Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself, a richly textured history of Redding’s label, Stax Records; Charles L. Hughes’s sharply revisionist Country Soul; and Mark Ribowsky’s high-spirited Redding biography Dreams to Remember.
The task with Redding isn’t so much to make the old story new as to get it right. Redding’s crossover with white hippies at Monterey in 1967, and Aretha Franklin’s #1 smash hit with a cover of Redding’s “Respect” a few months earlier, captured a remarkable moment in American popular culture. At that time the musical tastes of black and white youth coalesced around Redding and Franklin and a handful of other ascendant African-American artists not long after the apogee of the Civil Rights movement. Combine this with the oft-repeated characterization of Stax Records as a place where black and white musicians and singers worked side by side to cut some of the tightest, most propulsive American music ever made, and any writer would be hard-pressed not to ascribe a sublime transcendence to that moment.
Some of the best parts of Gould’s book are his incisive descriptions of Redding’s live performances and recording sessions. In particular, Gould’s attention to Redding’s talent for “head arranging” (conceiving horn and other instrumental parts and relaying them to his musicians and collaborators without relying on formal music charts) brings the creation of soul classics like “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and “Respect” to life.
Gould also does a solid job of chronicling Redding’s incremental growth as an artist, culminating in the summer of 1967, during which he spent months recovering from a throat operation, listening constantly to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and resolving to put more emphasis on words in his own songs. The fruitful period of writing and recording that followed that fall—just prior to his death—yielded not only “Dock of the Bay,” but the new batch of songs that became the posthumously released The Immortal Otis Redding, a crowning achievement that stands among the half-dozen finest albums of the 1960s.
But even more than his vivid re-creations of Redding’s composing and recording work, it’s Gould’s insightful portrayal of the Segregated South’s racial climate that makes Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life so compelling. A fascinating aspect of Gould’s book is his unflinching analysis of Redding’s relationship with his white manager, Phil Walden. The two met as teenagers in their hometown of Macon, Georgia, and Walden recalls that he and Redding “really hit it off instantly.” But Gould posits that the encounter wasn’t quite as simple for Redding.
“What Phil meant was he liked Otis right away,” Gould writes, “and that Otis seemed to like him as well. At the time, what Phil could not understand was something that generations of white people in the Jim Crow South had failed to understand, which was how adept black Southerners were at giving white Southerners the impression that they ‘liked’ them. For blacks in the South, 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.”
Compare Gould’s rendering of this encounter to the version presented in Mark Ribowsky’s energetic and engaging—but in some respects comparatively lightweight—Dreams to Remember (2015). Ribowsky quotes Walden’s assertion that the partnership was based on “blind belief in each other,” then declares that it “was based on a handshake, man-to-man, Southern trust.” It takes a number of shaky assumptions about 1959 Macon to make that handshake mean all that Ribowsky suggests.
As Gould concedes, the real problem with trying to reconstruct that moment is that we have Walden’s recollections, but we don’t have Redding’s. What’s missing in Gould’s biography is the voice of Redding himself. At one point, Gould quotes an interview with a British reporter on Redding’s first European tour, noting that this interview might be the one time a writer bothered to ask Redding about his creative process before the singer’s untimely death. It’s so gratifying to get Redding’s take on his own work that it serves to make the absence of his voice elsewhere in Gould’s book—and in every other Redding biography that has or ever will be written—all the more poignant.
Playlist: Jonathan Gould’s Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life
No book about a unique and legendary performer like Otis Redding can properly stand alone; Redding’s music, and the recordings of other artists who influenced him, collaborated with him, or performed alongside him, are inseparable from the stories Gould tells about their creation and their impact. As a companion piece to Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, here’s a Spotify playlist including a number of songs that figure prominently in Gould’s version of Redding’s story.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.