Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life – Jonathan Gould
On December 10, 1967, a charter plane carrying singer Otis Redding (1941-1967) crashed in Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin as it made its final landing approach. Redding was twenty-six years old and left behind a widow Zelma, and three young children. At the time of his death, he was a top-selling recording artist on the brink a stellar career and the song he recorded shortly before his death “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay”, went on to become a hit that still sounds good to this very day. His widow Zelma, is the president of the Otis Redding Foundation and his children Karla, Otis, III, and Dexter are on the board of directors. Through their hard work, Redding’s legacy lives on as millions of fans of the Soul music replay his songs singing along with an artist who helped define a genre and an era.
Redding died more than a decade before I was born but I have come to appreciate his musical genius. When I saw this book by Jonathan Gould, I knew that it would be an interesting read. And to my satisfaction, my instincts proved to be correct. Admittedly, my knowledge of Redding’s personal life was lacking but I had always known, like millions of others, the particulars of his untimely death. But what I did not know, was the man behind the music. Redding, like other artists such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Wilson Pickett, became a larger than life figure and a titan in the genre of music that became known commercially as Soul. But the question remained, how did Redding rise to fame and why did he die so young? Contained within the pages of this definitive biography are the answers to those questions and many others and Gould not only tells Redding’s story, but also takes us back in time as we relive the Civil Rights Movement while taking a closer look at what race once was and still is in America.
Without question the book is a biography, Gould ingeniously intersperses Redding’s story with historical events that changed the United States one step at a time. And the way it is done fits perfectly for in order to understand Redding, it is necessary to understand the America he was born into, a country far different from the one in which more than 300 million now live. Born in 1941 in the deep south, Redding came face to face with the horrors of Jim Crow at an early age and the system of legal segregation and oppression affected every aspect of life for African-Americans. The daily threat of death and deprivation gave rise to a movement for equality, accompanied by music that reached deep inside a person, in effect, touching their soul. Some parts of the book might be a tough read as Gould does avoid many dark episodes that occurred during Jim Crow such as lynching, the humiliating practice of blackface and the absurd laws that once prevented Black and White Americans from being seen together in the same place. The stories and the events are uncomfortable but there is no way around it and its purpose is to remind us of the seemingly endless barriers artists like Redding were forced to overcome in pursuing the passion that they loved as America was being forced to look at itself in the mirror.
Similar to other singers of his time, Redding found his voice in the church as the son of a pastor before realizing that his voice could give him a career. But in contrast to other singers, his early life was not filled with craziness and in many ways was quite ordinary until fate takes over and he crosses paths with Phil Walden, the man who would help make him a star. At this point in the book, the story picks up in pace as Redding sets his sights on Los Angeles while becoming a husband and father. And at twenty-two years of age, he was living a life that many could only dream of. He performed with some of the biggest names in the business from James Brown, Booker T & The MGs to the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018). The result is that the book is not simply a biography but a step back in time to a period that we will never see again. In fact, what was being done by singers then could not be done today as Soul is a genre all but retired and there is no equivalent Civil Rights Movement. Hip-Hop and Pop haven taken over the airwaves making the days of Motown a distant memory. But to their infinite credit, the sounds coming out of Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York and other cities have stood the test of time, sounding as good today as they did when they were recorded.
It should be noted that Redding had his faults like other stars and also saw life through a different lens. Gould includes all of it as any good biographer should do. In the end, Redding was a human being, born with flaws that many of us have. Those flaws as well as his positive traits, are critical in analyzing his life and understanding why he was mourned in death. Stardom was already in his grasp and he was on track to ascend to an even higher level of fame. Gould, did an incredible job of putting together this story that covers Redding’s life from start to finish. Through interviews with those who knew him, Walden and even the late Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, Gould has created the go-to book on the life of Otis Redding. His writing style brings the past alive and at times I felt as I were right next to Otis as he had discussions with Walden and Wexler. There will never be another Otis Redding who did in fact have, an unfinished life.