the songs of otis redding -- 9/30/15

Today's selection -- from Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky. Two songs by Otis Redding, 'Respect' and '(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay,' were cultural linchpins of the tumultuous 1960s:

"If one looks back at the 1960s through a high-magnification lens and with a healthy sentience of culture and the innate role popular music played within it, two songs might very well reveal everything there is to know about the nature and meaning of that decade. Indeed, within this book's covers, the argument can and will be made that these two recordings -- Aretha Franklin's cover of Otis Redding's 'Respect' in the spring of 1967, and Redding's posthumously released '(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay' early in 1968 -- rise above all other three-minute, 45-RPM, vinyl-backed symphonies derived from those turbulent and terrifying times. One reflects the need for generational outcasts to find a place among new societal norms, the other the need to find sanctuary in that new place.

"Unlike 'Sgt. Pepper'/'Incense and Peppermints' entreaties to tune in and drop out, or 'Blowin' in the Wind' /'Eve of Destruction' vetoes of hubristic war and group-think intolerance, 'Respect' and 'Dock of the Bay' provided the thread and threnody of the most uproarious and portentous of decades. Performed not incidentally by the 'king' and 'queen' of soul, they helped seed social change that, alas, never came to fruition in Redding's time and was in fact smacked down metaphorically in the decade's dying days by the literal deaths on a motel balcony in Memphis -- mere blocks from where Otis Redding recorded most of his songs -- a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles, and a speedway in Altamont.

Otis Redding - Respect

"Both of these priceless, timeless, chart-topping capsules of an America at war with itself, were so perfectly timed, just months apart, that they stand as a cause and effect. With them, Otis Redding found his own calling, not as a musician, but as a prophet and a poet. In other words, Redding -- simply the most overpowering and electrifying soul stage performer of his time, and just as profound an influence behind the scenes --became the nerve and conscience of soul music about to be fully integrated into the rock and roll arc.

" 'Respect' was clearly much larger in overall meaning than its individual verses, which were meant to add dynamite to the emotional ammunition of Redding's raspy, open-wounded wailing, which was perfectly coordinated with the edgy call-and-response horn blasts and soul-deep back beat that stamped the jazzy, sweaty funk of the 'Memphis sound.' But because it was recorded in 1965, the year of the Voting Rights Act, a year after the Civil Rights Act, and two years after the March on Washington, such a demand by a black man -- to be appreciated for his hard work and the sacrifices he made -- transcended the song's narrow trope of a man looking to be respected by his woman after a hard day. Civil rights anthems were not necessarily tightly and obviously focused on the cause; during the march, when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his 'I Have a Dream' peroration, Little Stevie Wonder's raucous 'Fingertips (Part 2)' was the top song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a major crossover step for a black artist, and for no easily discernible reason was a sort of quasi-anthem for the event, wafting as it did on transistor radios through the crowds on the Mall between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

"In the same way, the songs of Motown and Stax/Volt were heard often on Armed Forces Radio in the jungles of Vietnam, offering American Gls who didn't want to be there the familiarity of life back home, a hint that such music soldered civil rights to anti-war protests and another prompt to question why they were indeed there."


Mark Ribowsky


Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul


Liveright Publishing Corporation


Copyright 2015 by Mark Ribowsky


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