Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky, review by Bruce Jacobs
With acts like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, Motown was the clear powerhouse--until 20-year-old Otis Redding drove to Memphis from Macon, Ga., in February 1962, and blew away Stax guitarist and producer Steve Cropper, belting out two songs he had written himself. As Mark Ribowsky describes that night in his new biography of the young singer, Dreams to Remember, Redding didn't have any arrangements for the band and had only one directive: "Just gimme those church things." His voice did the rest, and Memphis soul music was born with Stax studios as its "Soulsville" home. Ribowsky illustrates the black music Detroit/Memphis divide by contrasting their stars: "Smokey's pipes were as dewy and fluttery as Redding's were scabrous and growling.... Smokey was big-city cool, Redding sweaty, Deep South church pulpit hot." Having written books on Stevie Wonder (Signed, Sealed, and Delivered), the Temptations, the Supremes and, most recently, Lynyrd Skynyrd (Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars), Ribowsky has done exhaustive research about and interviews with all the major players of the era. He knows his stuff.
A brief six years after arriving in Memphis, Redding died in a private plane crash en route to Madison, Wis.; his only million-seller hit, "The Dock of the Bay," was released posthumously, and Stax was soon absorbed by Atlantic Records and then giant Gulf + Western. Gordy and his Motown label disappeared into MCA and then the Universal Music Group of Seagram. Soul music lost its soul to what the often opinionated Ribowsky calls the "slickers from New York... thieves who ran music since the Tin Pan Alley days."
Redding's career was at its peak just six months before the plane crash, when he closed the second night of the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival. Standing out among the Summer of Love line-up that included Janis Joplin, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and the Mamas and the Papas, Redding stole the show with his rousing finale of "Try a Little Tenderness." (Joplin later said, "Otis is God, man.") Former DJ and Stax director of promotions Al Bell applauded the transformative California crowd's response to his studio's and Redding's music, noting that "when the white audience discovered us, we didn't get whiter--they got blacker." Ribowsky's meticulous biography makes it clear that Arthur Conley's 1967 hit "Sweet Soul Music" (co-written by Redding) got it wrong. James Brown wasn't "the king of them all, y'all." Otis was.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.