Interview: Mark Ribowsky, Author Of 'Dreams To Remember' "He had an underground kind of appeal that built on itself," says author Mark Ribowsky, whose book Dreams to Remember traces Redding's unlikely pivot into national stardom.
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'Like An Avalanche': Otis Redding's Unstoppable Crossover

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'Like An Avalanche': Otis Redding's Unstoppable Crossover

'Like An Avalanche': Otis Redding's Unstoppable Crossover

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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

See if you can guess who's being described here. In the end, he was bigger than the music he sang because of how he sang and interpreted it during the most traumatic, metamorphic decade in history. And, given how little soul has survived him, Lord how we could use him now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE BEEN LOVING YOU TOO LONG")

OTIS REDDING: (Singing) I've been loving you...

BATES: The one and only Otis Redding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE BEEN LOVING YOU TOO LONG")

REDDING: (Singing) ...Too long to stop now. You were tired.

BATES: Otis Redding really only had about five years in the spotlight before his untimely death at the age of 26, but in that time, he left a body of work adored around the world. By the way, that hint I gave you came from a new book by Mark Ribowsky called "Dreams To Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, And The Transformation Of Southern Soul." Ribowsky describes Redding's childhood in segregated Georgia, the son of a sharecropping, devoutly religious father who did not favor young Otis' interest in secular music or the clubs around the South they called the chitlin' circuit.

MARK RIBOWSKY: His father would just as soon shut out any music beyond a church organ when he was growing up. And they always had that ambivalent relationship, the father never really being on his side. So Otis really had to do it on his own. And what he did was troll. You know, when everybody else would troll downtown Macon, go to the clubs, see Little Richard, The Upsetters, all these great local bands, James Brown and tried to infiltrate the scene, which he did very easily. He was so emboldened to try to get his career started that he went to LA on his own and tried to make it there in 1959 and was a total bust. This is the part that people aren't really aware of because it's almost like lost history. And I dug up a few of the guys who he recorded for in LA and they knew he had talent, but he didn't have the right material 'cause he was trying to be another Little Richard or sound like another Jackie Wilson. When Otis started doing Otis is when it all started happening. And that happened when he had his audition in Memphis for Stax, and he sang "These Arms Of Mine." And the earth moved when he did that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THESE ARMS OF MINE")

REDDING: (Singing) Mama, come on, baby. Yes, be my little woman. Just be my lover. Oh, I need me somebody, somebody to treat me right.

BATES: 1967 was a huge year for Otis Redding. He performed at the Monterey Pop Festival during the Summer of Love, if I remember correctly.

RIBOWSKY: Yep.

BATES: He shared the stage with Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix - all totally different music than the kind of music he usually sang. How was his performance received?

RIBOWSKY: I still think it was the peak of the festival. He was able to command the closing spot even without having a crossover hit to that audience. Well, you know, Janis Joplin called him God. You know, before the festival she said this is God that's coming on stage here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE")

REDDING: (Singing) Shake - everybody say it. Shake - let me hear the whole crowd - shake.

BATES: Basically he's singing to a bunch of high, white kids.

RIBOWSKY: High, white kids on the - rich, white kids on their summer break. He had to convince people who were not necessarily in the soul audience, the soul market, that he was a great entertainer. He played the Fillmore for Bill Graham, and Bill Graham called him the biggest talent he ever saw in his life. This is Bill Graham saying this now, who saw everybody. And, you know, you had people like Jerry Garcia and Joplin and Grace Slick begging Bill Graham to let them open for Otis. So he was conquering all these markets. It was astonishing what he was doing without a crossover hit. He had an underground kind of appeal that built on itself, grew like an avalanche.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE")

REDDING: (Singing) Move your body like a hip and let's shake. Lord, have mercy. Shake early in the morning. Shake late in the evening. Now, you ring-a-ling-a-ling. Honey, shaking is the greatest thing, but if you really roll got to do the thing with soul. Shake, shake with all your might now.

BATES: Yet, for all of that a year after having to sort of blaze this trail through the musical world, Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash on the way to a performance. He was 26 years old. He had one of the biggest hits of his career posthumously - "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" - and you write about how he had to fight to get Stax to even consider releasing it and he recorded it at the very last minute, right? He almost didn't do it.

RIBOWSKY: He recorded that two days before he died. He was about the only one who believed in it. He and Al Bell had talked for months, actually, about doing a folk version of soul, which had never been done before - sort of folk soul. Otis had had a throat operation in the fall that year. And it was very touchy because nobody knew if he would be able to sing the way he needed to sing again. So he was very worried about that, so he was contemplating, well, how do we do this? How do we broaden in this way? You realize this is after Monterey, so he can't just go back to the chitlin' circuit now, right? He's got to compete with Hendrix. You got to compete with Joplin or he's got to - Jim Morrison. He's got to do all this. You know, so he's wondering what he could do. And he came up with this song, which he wrote while sitting on the dock of a bay in San Francisco. He was staying in a houseboat in the marina out there under the Golden Gate Bridge and watching the ships come in and roll away again. So he did a very literal exposition of what he was thinking and what he was doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

REDDING: (Singing) Sitting on the dock of a bay wasting time.

RIBOWSKY: But with Otis it was sort of the ultimate pain to loneliness. It was, you know, anxiety about, you know, I can't do what ten people tell me to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

REDDING: (Singing) I can do with 10 people tell me to do. So I guess I'll remain the same just sitting here resting my bones and this loneliness won't leave me alone.

RIBOWSKY: It was almost like he was begging for relief. He was begging for a few solitary moments to pull back and breathe a little. So when he comes in with this song two days before he dies, nobody knows what is. Duck Dunn says I don't know what this song is. It's not R&B. It's not soul. It's not rock 'n' roll. I don't know what it is. And Al Bell, of course, who had said let's broaden up, let's do some folk rock here, heard it being recorded that day and said I don't if we could ever release this song. So when he left to go to Cleveland on that ill-fated last journey, you know, Steve Cropper, who wrote it with him and produced it - great guitar player - told Jim Stewart let's release this song. Jerry Wexler up in New York at Atlantic, the overlords of Stax, said no, I can't release this. I don't know what it is. His vocal is too recessed. I can't - you know. It needs to be remixed. He sent it back to Cropper. Cropper said OK, I'll change it. I'll overdub it. I'll do this, I'll do that. Didn't change it whatsoever, sent it back to Wexler, who said, oh, yeah, this sounds a lot better now.

BATES: (Laughter).

RIBOWSKY: He was conned. And they released the song and it was the best decision they ever made because that was, you know, a tidal wave of a song. And I only wish we could've heard more in the same vein.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

REDDING: (Whistling).

BATES: That's Mark Ribowsky. His new book is called "Dreams To Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, And The Transformation Of Southern Soul." Mark, thank you very much.

RIBOWSKY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

REDDING: (Singing) What you want, honey, you got it. And what you need, baby, you got it. All I'm asking is for a little respect when I come home...

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