» Subscribe Today!
More of what you want to know.
The Daily News

Forgot your password?
TDN Services
Research millions of people and properties [+]
Monitor any person, property or company [+]

Skip Navigation LinksHome >
VOL. 132 | NO. 243 | Friday, December 8, 2017

50 Years Later

New Redding biography offers different perspective on Stax’s role

By Bill Dries

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()

Almost 50 years to the day after he died in a plane crash while on tour, the image and sound of soul singer Otis Redding remains vital and relevant – and heard.

The 1968 album “The Immortal Otis Redding,” on display at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, includes songs recorded at Stax in the weeks before Redding died in December 1967. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Redding showed up in the recent revival of “Twin Peaks,” and the show’s creator, David Lynch, chose the live version of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” from Redding’s breakthrough

performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

“I just couldn’t believe that version,” Lynch said in a September Q&A with Pitchfork magazine. “So much feeling comes through that thing. It’s one of my all-time favorites. I just go nuts. I start crying like a baby when I hear that thing.”

Rhino, the musical reissue company, is set to release a 7-inch vinyl single of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” Jan. 9, one day after the 50th anniversary of the single’s original release in 1968. It will include the original cut of the song, not the more familiar final version mixed by Steve Cropper after Redding’s death.

Redding died Dec. 10, 1967, when the plane carrying him and his backing band, The Bar-Kays, to a gig plunged into Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin.

Bar-Kays member James Alexander had taken a different flight. Trumpet player Ben Cauley was the only person on the plane who survived.

It didn’t take long for a sort of pop culture catechism to form around the 26-year-old soul singer from Macon, Georgia, who recorded at Memphis’ Stax Records. But a new biography by Jonathan Gould, “Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life,” is challenging the traditional version of Redding’s talent and the role Stax Records played in developing it.

“For me, the biggest challenge in writing the book was to – in the absence of Otis’ actual words, because, of course, he did hardly any interviews while he was alive – to just get in the mindset of these events from his point of view,” Gould said.

The biography questions and examines the white privilege that has influenced the view of Redding’s all-too-brief story over the last five decades.

Stax Records was focused on releasing radio-friendly singles during Otis Redding’s time recording for the Memphis label’s Volt subsidiary. But toward the end of his life, Redding was listening to what other artists were doing with the album format and preparing to go in that direction.

“The people who were involved with Stax and the people who were involved with Otis and his management – most of whom were white – for white southerners of that era to extend themselves to work with black artists … particularly Phil Walden in Macon set himself up for a lot of disapproval from the people around him,” Gould said. “The story has always sort of been told … in terms of the opportunities that a company like Stax or a manager like Phil Walden provided for Otis Redding. At a certain point in the course of writing this book, the balance sort of shifted for me. And I truly started to see it in a different way.”

To Gould, Redding was developing and evolving rapidly into a revolutionary performer and recording artist the last year of his life, with complete control of what he recorded and what he did on stage.

“There’s this amazing contrast between his formidable physical presence and this enormous emotional vulnerability that he expressed in his singing. They played off of one another in a really interesting way,” Gould said. “You didn’t expect a man that looked that way to be so vulnerable … and then turn around and be capable of such assertive sexuality.”

In the studio, Redding was in control from the start.

“Otis was effectively the arranger on almost all of his sessions at Stax, particularly where the horns were concerned,” Gould said. “He really functioned by virtue of just force of personality.”

But he also was evolving in a way Gould believes was outgrowing Stax Records and the basic vision of Stax co-founder Jim Stewart. And by one account that Gould believes is accurate, Redding and Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler talked shortly before Redding’s death about Wexler producing his next record.

“Jim Stewart was not a Sam Phillips,” Gould said, referring to the Sun Records founder. “Sam Phillips was enormously full of himself and a hugely grandiose personality. But the germ of truth in all of that is that Sam Phillips really was something of a visionary. Jim Stewart was not a visionary.”

Even so, Gould says, Stewart was honest in his business dealings with Redding at a time when that wasn’t the norm. And like other record moguls, including Motown founder Berry Gordy, Stewart was focused on radio-friendly singles, even as albums began to overtake singles in sales.

“What he did was to kind of be in the right place at the right time and allow people in most cases to literally walk in the door of his studio and present him with their talents,” Gould said of Stewart. “What I tried to do is look rather carefully at the forms of agency he did exert. I think everybody agrees he didn’t have a good ear.”

In the book, Gould writes that Stewart passed on Wexler’s offer to have Aretha Franklin record at Stax and that shortly before Redding’s death there was some talk of Franklin and Redding recording an album together.

The Bar-Kays were Otis Redding’s backing band in the last year of his life and had a hit in their own right with “Soul Finger” that year. Bar-Kays member James Alexander took a different flight than the one that killed Redding and everyone else in the band except trumpet player Ben Cauley. Alexander would later reform The Bar-Kays and the band would evolve into a trend-setting funk band.

Whether that album would have come to fruition, and what it would have sounded like, is one of numerous possibilities never realized. One of Franklin’s biggest hits was her cover and rearrangement of Redding’s song “Respect.”

But Gould speculates that even without a duet, Redding’s musical curiosity by the last year of his life probably included what Wexler and Atlantic Records recording engineer Tom Dowd were doing sonically with Franklin.

“If you listen to the marvelous recordings that Tom Dowd did with Aretha where her voice is just exploding off the record … this rich balance of sound – Otis by then was sophisticated enough to understand the difference between that and frankly Jim Stewart’s engineering,” Gould said. “I think he was ready to take his big talent and move it into a larger arena of recording.”

Gould acknowledges that his judgments on Stax are at odds with those of other authors who have written about the Memphis recording studio and label. But he says he’s not diminishing the role of Stax in American culture.

“If they did nothing but put together and sustain that extraordinary band that they had, their reputation as a record company would be immortal anyway,” he said.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is cited in just about every book about Stax and Redding as a sea change in his career and soul music. The other material recorded with it for Redding’s next album, Gould believes, would have been a bigger breakthrough musically and culturally.

“I think his next album would have been, if one takes the material that was left behind … that material alone could have been combined into what would have been the most spectacular original album by an African-American artist I think that anybody had ever heard,” Gould said.

“Because the imagination wasn’t there or the determination and the vision wasn’t there because Otis wasn’t there, that material was released in this kind of cautious, piecemeal sort of way. Nobody knew quite what to do with it.”

PROPERTY SALES 61 61 6,453
MORTGAGES 46 46 4,081
BUILDING PERMITS 113 113 15,474
BANKRUPTCIES 19 19 3,289