Being on the road all the time equals tons of hours on planes and trains. Sometimes I even take advantage of those hours, such as when my good friend (and super-talented DJ) Tracy gives me a book on one of my favorite artists.
Otis Redding (a.k.a. The Big O, a.k.a. Mr. Pitiful) was picked as #8 on the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time by Rolling Stones Magazine. Yet he was more than just a voice; he shaped an entire era of music around him. With his keen sense of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, his personal lyrics, and his “leave nothing unexposed” performances, he was like a raw nerve that touched — and continues to touch — everyone who hears his music.
If you’re a fan of Soul or Blues music, stories of rising above musical and racial barriers, or curious about a musician’s process, then this is an enjoyable (if meandering) starting point.
Do you like a good book? I don’t mean the writing; I mean the actual, physical book itself. Then pick up the hardback edition with a stand-out vintage cover that pops on your bookcase / bedroom floor, and pages with classic roughed-up edges that give it seriously sexy “book feel” (that’s like “mouth feel” for food, but, you know, for your fingers instead; you won’t want to eat this book it’s so damn good-looking).
Do you like names? In a short few years, Otis crossed paths with a veritable Who’s Who List of Soul-Blues-Rock artists and was a bridge for their varied musical styles. This book details the long line of artists he took under his wing; songs he wrote for other musicians; acts who shared a stage with him; and the numerous managers who had a hand in his success.
If your answer to the above was YES, then you’re in luck!
Finding His Roots
The author weaves a tale (sometimes smoothly but sometimes ham-fistedly) of the decisions that shaped the life — even more so than the career — of Otis Redding.
Why was a tiny city like Macon, Georgia so important to an international star?
What impact did working with future mega-stars like Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. have?
Whose songs did Otis cover, and who covered him …sometimes better than him?
How can someone who plays no instruments write songs for an entire band?
If those insights are highlights, then the tough parts of this book bog down in repetition and obvious fan-boy gushing which feels sophomoric. Halfway through the book you’re guaranteed to pause, look up into space, and say out loud, “Yes, we know his daddy was a preacher, which created lots of moral conflicts. Move oooon….” Or, when you cross a section that reads “…but Flanberg didn’t tell Rogers about Williams…” you’ll pause again, squint at the page thinking, “Should I remember who all these people are??”
Yet the biggest disappointment in this book is something the author had no control over: flipping through the pages, you’re aware of slowly getting closer to the inevitable shock, which is….
[ SPOILER ALERT ]
…Leia is Luke’s sister. Wait, I mean, you’re ever one page closer to the fateful flight that ended Otis’ musical journey just as it was peaking at age 26. Twenty. Six. Y’all.
Who knows what magic might have been born without that premature ending? Well, this book’s main strength is letting you imagine it with better clarity of the times and players, Otis’ creative process, and the black music industry of the 60s. As a bonus, this book took me longer than normal to read because I kept stopping to listen to the tunes mentioned — and any excuse to put on Otis is alright!
Although there are other Otis books which delve further in-depth on the sources contributing to his sound and feature additional first-person interviews, this is an easily accessible book for building dreams of “what could have been…”
For everyone else, be sure to grab his Live! in London and Paris double-album and escape into a world of a man who can shake huge crowds to their very soul.