Author: Mark Ribowsky
Title: Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul by
Publication Info: Liveright (2015)
It’s hard to believe that Otis Redding was only 26 years old when he died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967. His accomplishments as a singer, song-writer, and producer left behind a colossal legacy for someone so young. Ribowsky’s biography examines Redding’s life as an artist depicting him not only as a talented singer and musician, but the creator and defining star of soul music (I feel that Ribowsky gets a bit hagiographical in this sense as much as I admire Redding’s musical greatness).
The biography explores Redding’s upbringing in Macon, GA – a city that also gave us Little Richard and James Brown – his rise to fame as a stunning stage performer, recording with Stax records in Memphis, and becoming a soul superstar in the mid-60s. A lot of key moments in Redding’s life are covered in depth including writing and recording “Respect” and how that song was transformed into a defining hit song by Aretha Franklin, covering the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” even though he wasn’t very familiar with the song and ended up improvising new lyrics, his standout performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival, writing and recording “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” and his tragic death. Ribowsky is also interested in detailing Redding’s role in the rise of Stax Records, defining a Southern soul sound grounded in being the music of the black community in contrast to Detroit’s Motown Records attempts to produce crossover hits. While Redding did not have hit songs on the pop charts in his lifetime, he managed to have great success and wealth by keeping recordings in the charts for long periods of time, and concurrently with The Beatles, using the long-playing album as a vessel for pop music artistry instead of the single. The Beatles are also Redding’s fans and loaned him and his retinue limousines every time they performed in London.
While Redding is known as a big-hearted and friendly person, Ribowsky doesn’t shy away from his dark side. The culture of Stax Records involves casually adding one’s own name as a writing credit, swindling other artists from royalties, and in-fighting among the stable of artists, something Redding was not above participating in. He was also involved in a shoot-out in Macon that somehow miraculously was kept out of the news coverage of the time. Worst yet, according to at least one women in the band, Redding and his crew were guilty of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct on their tours.
If you’re interested in Otis Redding and soul music, this is an excellent study of the man and his times, and outside the bits of hagiography, and excellent biographical work.