When Otis Redding died on December 10th, 1967, the 26-year-old was an R&B master cresting into superstardom. In June, he’d introduced his stun-gun soul to the Summer of Love crowd at Monterey Pop, alongside breakouts by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Who. And just three days before his twin-engine aircraft crashed into a Wisconsin lake, Redding finished “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” heralding a new chapter of his art. Released posthumously, it would become his only Number One and stand among pop’s greatest achievements.
But as Jonathan Gould notes near the start of his recent 500-page bio, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, Redding’s life story was barely known at the time of his death. Rock journalism hadn’t truly taken off; Redding’s only substantial print interview ran in the fan magazine Hit Parader. (The first issue of Rolling Stone debuted just a month before his death.) The lack of first-person source material and the brevity of Redding’s life invite Gould to go long on context, something he does well: See his 2008 Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. An Unfinished Life takes a similar approach, with equally admirable results.
Opening on a detailed description of Redding’s Monterey set (“I was pretty sure that I’d seen God onstage,” noted Bob Weir), Gould unpacks how the history of Redding’s home state of Georgia was a crucible of black pop. The bigger picture, inescapably, is America’s midcentury civil-rights struggle. Gould goes far afield at times, but his research is deep; it’s grimly illuminating, for instance, to learn Redding turned 14 the same year as Emmett Till.
If facts about Redding’s life are sketchy, Gould still
manages a rich picture of his world. Redding’s golden years as a performer
accelerate thrillingly as he’s discovered by national promoters (Bill Graham
described his three-night run at San Francisco’s Fillmore as “the best gig
I ever put on in my entire life”), like-minded musicians (Joplin turned up
at the club hours early each night to secure a vantage point near the stage)
and critics (future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau called Redding’s music
“the highest level of expression rock ‘n’ roll has yet attained”).
And naturally, Gould charts the arc of the mighty “Respect” from
Redding’s version to Aretha Franklin’s signature, noting there was talk of the
pair collaborating – which of course, sadly, would never happen.