Something happens within a great song, especially if it’s one that’s been labeled “soul.” Things start simple, stating an emotion in declarative terms. A basic hook gets laid down, not necessarily the most original, but enough to start up a groove. Then it all builds.
Jonathan Gould’s much-heralded biography, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, does this in a literary fashion that can throw one. Things kick off with the book’s subject at his peak, on stage closing out the second night of the Monterey Pop festival, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. We get the emotional charge we’ve picked this work up for: a glimpse of the singer’s ill-defined but inarguable greatness as he pumps up an audience left soporific by hippified white people’s music. A sense of good r&b’s professionalism, showmanship, and innate sense of honest feeling.
Then there’s a dip as Gould treads through the sort of civil rights, musical and misty family history territory so many dive into via Wikipedia almost daily, or realize has become a part of these sorts of biographies. It starts to feel like yet another white Northeasterner’s take on what it must have been like growing up black and poor in the Jim Crow south. Things feel a bit trapped…But then, just like this fun, thoughtful and inspiringly analytic book’s subject, its author finds ways to fill out the gaps in Otis’ narrative — a specter for most biographers to date due to his dearth of interviews and sense of privacy when alive — with his own voice, his own arms-wide empathy and ability to get at the ways in which shared elements, history, can shape a man, as well as the songs he sings.
Gould, a former Woodstocker and author of the well-regarded Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America (2007), is a masterful researcher who reaches into deep piles of literature, musical history, sociology and whatever he can get his hands on to understand the moments and strands that build a short, engaging but also emblematic arc of a life that moves from backwoods Georgia to a world-stunning airplane crash into a Wisconsin lake 26 years later. He writes with wit that can be acerbic in its dismissal of overrated talents, both political and musical, but also revelatory in the ways it builds a deeper personality for Redding than has been witnessed before.
Sure, only one Otis comes to mind with mention of Redding’s name. A list of songs lodges easily in one’s throat, from his first recording, “These Arms of Mine,” to his last, “(Sitting On The) Dock of the Bay,” with piles more instantly recognizable in between (“Pain In My Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Respect,” “My Lover’s Prayer,” “Try A Little Tenderness”). That Monterey performance is captured on film, replayed as often as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar-burning American premier at the same event. And the overwhelming sense of a tragic loss of talent at its peak.
Gould dissects the making of each song in the Otis Redding catalog, all created within the singular world of Memphis’ Stax recording studio and its surface semblance of perfect integration. He nibbles at the imperfections in each, the humanity behind the legend: extolling the professional snap of the back-up band, justly-famous Booker T & The MGs, while highlighting bad management choices on the part of so many of the white guys managing this innately and intuitively talented artist; getting at the elements that made other songs of the period, many from the same label, bigger if not better hits; and hinting at fault-lines in Redding’s dismissal of lyrics while also heralding the ways he dissected and made new classic Beatles, Stones & Motown songs by rough-riding their words into his own emotional intensity.
As noted earlier, this all builds beautifully, more like a great soul ballad than the dance hall hit so many music biographies aim at becoming. One feels the time that’s gone into the book’s organization, it’s exegesis, it’s every insightful and often quite-funny sentences. Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life delivers what it promises: A careful examination of the ways in which talent builds upon circumstances, and itself. How it hints at further greatness, even when its owner can’t get at fulfilling it all due to life or, in this case, an epic sort of tragedy.
“In song after song, on record after record, from the start to the finish of his tragically abbreviated career, Otis was soul music’s greatest apostle of devotion. Of all the emotions that the black singers of his generation derived from their collective upbringing in the church and the myriad joys and sorrows of their lives in the world — the carnal rapture of Ray Charles, the sublime sensuality of Sam Cooke, the elegant anguish of Marvin Gaye, and the transcendent glory of Aretha Franklin — Otis’s special distinction turned on his desire to have and to hold,” Gould writes in this follow-up to the Beatles’ great story’s final lines. “He sang of yearning and tenderness, security and respect, of one more day, and a lover’s prayer. He had the capacity to reduce human emotion to its absolute essence, to bring things down to a level of simplicity that nevertheless deified simplification.”
By getting at such unexplainable truths about how art works itself from history, and finding the slow, methodical, yet personalized means to analyzing that which is basically intuitive, Jonathan Gould has demonstrated true literary soul. By doing so after similarly getting at what’s made The Beatles so important for so long, he’s further made his mark as one of our key social historians.
We can’t wait for his next.