When I mention Otis Redding to anyone, the usual comeback is “yeah I love ‘Sittin on the Dock of the Bay.'” And while that is a great song, there is SO much more to Otis Redding. Did you know it was Otis Redding who wrote “Respect” and recorded it before Aretha made a hit of it? Did you know Otis Redding did a cover of the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” Did you know the Grateful Dead once opened for Otis and Janis Joplin idolized him? Did you know Otis Redding’s only recorded for five years?
I didn’t know any of this either until I read Otis Redding an unfinished life by Jonathan Gould. I bought this book after I bought the Record Store Day release of the 50th Anniversary of Otis Redding Live in Europe. After one listen, I was obsessed. I immediately ordered Gould’s book and another Otis/Stax book as well as the dvd and record of Otis’ performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, the 7 LP Otis Redding Definitive Studio Album Collection to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, a limited edition 7″ vinyl of the 50th Anniversary “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” and a couple shirts. Before my obsession started, my favorite Otis Redding song was “Try a Little Tenderness.” Now that amazing song is tied with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
Otis Redding an unfinished life is equal parts Civil Rights history, music history and Otis Redding biography. Gould does a great job weaving them all in together to show you Otis’ music in the context of what was going on in the world both musically and politically. Once Gould got into Otis’ life (around page 150), it was very detailed about his career, but I would have enjoyed reading more about his personal life. I felt as if I never got to know the man, just the performer.
Otis died in 1967. Yet in 1962 Otis was still unknown. With just two records as a member of the Pinetoppers, Otis went to record at Stax in Memphis (where he would record all his albums). He played the Apollo in 1963 and his first record Pain in My Heart was released in 1964. In the fall of 1964, Otis’ idol Sam Cooke was murdered then Ray Charles went into rehab leaving a huge void in soul music that Otis was more than ready to fill. In 1965, Otis’ first real hit “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” was released. Jjust two years before his death, Otis gets his first chart topping hit.
Otis wrote and recorded “Respect” then Aretha Franklin had a hit with a little later. The Rolling Stones covered three of Otis’ songs, so he recorded their “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Otis recorded “Try a Little Tenderness” with Isaac Hayes playing on the record. The Grateful Dead opened for Otis Redding at the Filmore in San Francisco where Janis Joplin was also in attendance as she idolized Otis. In 1967 after a five month convalescence following throat surgery, Otis recorded “(Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay” as a way of reinventing himself. Otis would never know the success of this song as it reached number 1 (his only number 1 hit) when it was released after his death.
On December 10, 1967, Otis Redding died in a plane crash in a lake near Madison, Wisconsin. All of the members of the Bar-Kays were also on the plane and died (except one). (Another member of the Bar-Kays also survived because he was driving.) Ironically, I finished this book on December 8th, just two days before the 50th Anniversary of Otis’ death. One of these days I will get to Macon, Georgia (where Otis is from) to pay my respects and touring Stax Museum in Memphis will have a whole new meaning to me now. While living in Memphis, I was lucky enough to see Steve Cropper and Book T and the MGs (who played on Otis’ recordings) and the Bar-Kays (although most are not original members obviously) perform.