New Otis Redding Bio Digs Deep Into '60s Soul

"King of Soul" Otis Redding at the start of 1967. He would not survive to see 1968.
"King of Soul" Otis Redding at the start of 1967. He would not survive to see 1968.

Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding , Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul
By Mark Ribowsky
Liverlight Publishing, 400 pp., $27.95

When he died on December 10, 1967 — on a small plane with members of the soul group the Bar-Kays crashing into the icy waters of Lake Minona, Wisconsin — Otis Redding’s career was definitely on the upswing. The “King of Soul” (the title in deference to a certain godfather) had already established his bona fides. In a few years the man from Macon, Georgia went from sweating it out on the chitlin’ circuit to...sweating it out on massive stages at home and abroad.

He even made inroads into the white rock audience (or, has he called them, “The Love Crowd”) as one of the breakout acts at the Monterey Pop Festival. And with appearances already on the books for high-profile venues like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show and American Bandstand, movie scripts arriving, and a planned duets record with Aretha Franklin — who had a far bigger hit with the Redding-written “Respect” than he did — he was poised for something bigger.

In retrospect, it seems shocking that Otis Redding hadn’t even clocked in enough time on this planet to hit the 27 Club, but he was still a year shy of the mark when the plane went down. Yet compared to a lot of his contemporaries, Redding seemed different. Decked out in lime-green or electric-blue suits, his country-fed physique, guttural moans and stalking the stage like a sex panther made him seem like a real…man. And while many know his tunes — “Shake,” “Tramp” (a duet with Carla Thomas), “Try a Little Tenderness” (forever Ducky’s song in Pretty in Pink), “These Arms of Mine” and posthumous hit “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” — info on the man is sketchier.

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That changes with this book. While Redding has been the subject of a previous biography (Scott Freeman’s Otis!) Ribowsky here has penned the definitive look at the life and career of Otis Redding thus far. More importantly, he offers a sort of parallel book about the political and social implications of “Southern Soul” music in the ‘60s, as well as the story of Stax Records, Redding’s label where he was also the undisputed marquee artist.

The book is full of intriguing stories. How his career started as a flippant addition to another man’s recording session. How his rivalry with Sam and Dave onstage sharpened all three men's performance. How his forceful. patronage of singer Arthur Conlkey (“Sweet Soul Music”) chafed many at Stax. And how he almost covered Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” (he liked the “breaks just like a little girl” line)…but just couldn’t get into the Bard of Hibbing’s lines about methamphetamines and pearls.

Also fleshed out are what some saw as Redding’s not-so-nice sides. While an early death has the Big O’s personal reputation cemented in this sort of jovial, smiling, Big Daddy host (which he was), others in Ribowsky’s personal interviews and research also paint a portrait of a man who could be arrogant, entitled and not afraid to throw a power play no matter who it hurt. Then there’s the horn-dogginess. While his expansive appetite for women wreaked a certain havoc on his marriage to stay-at-home wife Zelma, a former backup singer also makes claims of how unchivalrous Redding could be to his, um, female admirers.

Claiming that he not only treated his white groupies worse, banishing them all when he was done with him, she also maintains that after she refused his advances, he retaliated both in her career and finances (though these claims are solely hers).

Race is a theme through the narrative, with Redding both reeling and benefiting from the timbre of the times. Though it should be noted he had no issue with collaborating with pale-skinned musicians and executives like Jim Stewart, Jerry Wexler, Steve Cropper, and Duck Dunn if it furthered his career and ambitions.

Houston appears once in the narrative, during a 1967 date that found Redding and James Brown playing the same night in the city, though Brown at the larger venue. At the end of his concert, Brown told the audience “I’ll see you at Otis Redding’s show!”, a generous act that ensured that the latter’s venue was filled to capacity. Brown and Redding even performed a duet of which, tragically, there is no footage. And in fact, there is precious little video of Redding live at all, most of it either in the Monterey Pop movie or a black-and-white capturing of a Stax/Volt revue show in Europe.

Dreams to Remember could have fumbled in taking on too much outside of a straight Redding bio. But by placing his life and music in a greater context, Ribowsky reaches for something more, and succeeds. It’s a parlor game for music fans to consider the “what if” scenarios about where a gone-too-soon artist might have gone careerwise. Would Otis Redding have become a psychedelic soulster in the vein of a Sly Stone or the Chambers Brothers? Or a funkmaster like George Clinton? Or smooth pop singer like the Philadelphia International artists?

It’s interesting to note that his biggest and best-known hit, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” had most around Redding scratching their heads when he brought in the plaintive, almost folky tune to record. And debate continues whether the end whistling — now a trademark for the song — was intentional or just a placeholder for words to come later. The young singer never lived to hear that song’s final version (with Steve Cropper's guitar fills and sounds of waves and seagulls), nor enjoy its four weeks at No. 1 in early 1968. But in Dreams to Remember, listeners can find a new appreciation for this “King of Soul” whose reign was all too brief.

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