Half a century has passed since the shocking disappearance of Otis Redding at age twenty-six, when the twin-engine Beechcraft carrying him and most of his touring band the Bar-Kays to a concert crashed in a Wisconsin lake on December 10, 1967. For many who were around then, the time elapsed has not alleviated the shock. The subtitle of Jonathan Gould’s new biography, An Unfinished Life, properly acknowledges the pang of lost possibilities that accompanied that news bulletin. It came at a time of much violence and protest against violence, and was followed soon enough by further catastrophic losses. In the midst of all that, it was hard to give any meaning to Otis’s death beyond random bad luck—although that didn’t stop the inevitable rumors of conspiracy and murder for political or financial reasons.
It wouldn’t have been the Sixties without such rumors. By that point, paranoid distrust was well on the way to becoming the culture’s new mental wallpaper. Buffalo Springfield’s “Paranoia strikes deep,/Into your life it will creep” (“For What It’s Worth,” released January 1967) had sounded the note early, and by year’s end the benign ecstasies of the Monterey Pop Festival, where Otis had performed so triumphantly in June for what he addressed as “the Love Crowd,” were a rapidly curdling recollection. Upon his death, the qualities his fans tended to associate with Otis Redding—his humor, his passionate forthrightness, his delight in the dynamics and textures and constantly evolving grooves of his music—at once belonged to a moment definitively passed.
We played those albums—The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (1965), Otis Blue (1965), The Soul Album (1966), Dictionary of Soul (1966)—every day in rotation, because their open-spiritedness made rooms more livable and walls less inclined to close in. He suggested a fortunate temperament, not inclined to pettiness and incapable of fake solemnity; able to express pain and frustrated longing with nothing of self-pity, and then turn it around—sometimes in the same phrase—into a mood of free-flying elation. In the absence of any very specific information it was all that easier to make a culture hero of him.
We knew his roots were in rural Georgia, if not from liner notes then from “Tramp,” his 1967 duet with Carla Thomas. Carla: “You know what, Otis? You’re country! You’re straight from the Georgia woods!” Otis: “That’s good!” Impossible to miss the unimpeachable knowledge that in “Chained and Bound” he brought to the lyric: “Taller than the tallest pine,/Sweeter than a grape on a vine.” There hadn’t been time to find out much. His whole publicly known career, starting from the breakthrough August 1962 session at the Stax studios in Memphis where he first recorded “These Arms of Mine,” had lasted five and a half years. His published statements amounted to little more than a…
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