Soul Survivor: The Real Legacy of Otis Redding

Otis Redding/Photo: CC/Wikipedia

Editor's Note:

Jonathan Gould is a former professional musician and the author of Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America and Otis Redding. He divides his time between a home in Brooklyn and a house near Hudson, New York.

When my girlfriend and I first moved to the hipster enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, around the time I first began writing a book about Otis Redding, we professed to be surprised whenever one of Otis’s songs would come on the mix tapes that provided the background music in the restaurants we frequented. The surprise has long since worn off. Having grown up with unfettered access to all music, all the time, many hip, young millennials listen to Otis Redding as if it hasn’t been fifty years since he cut his last record. Otis’s big hits from the mid-1960s – “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Respect,” and his incomparable interpretation of “Try a Little Tenderness” – have long since achieved the status of pop standards, while his posthumously released masterpiece, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” has been recorded by well over a hundred artists and cited by the broadcast rights organization BMI as one of the ten most frequency played radio songs of all time. But the tracks I hear on the playlists of my fellow Brooklynites go much deeper into his catalog, suggesting something more than just a passing familiarity with his work.

By any measure, Otis Redding was one of the preeminent voices in what may have been the greatest generation of African-American voices in the history of popular music. He belonged to a constellation of stars that included Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin (to name only the most prominent). Together, these artists revolutionized the nature of popular singing and songwriting in the second half of the twentieth century by founding a new school of passionate pop romanticism in which the cant and sentimentality of Tin Pan Alley were replaced by a bold, new synthesis of sacred and secular emotionality that was deeply rooted in the human realities of sex and love. Virtually every pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, or country singer who has come after – whether they know it or not – has been shaped by this synthesis. The cries, whoops, moans, melodic undulations, and rhythmic interjections of soul singing have become an essential part of every modern popular singer’s musical vocabulary.

While contemporary pop stars like Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake (who serenaded the Obamas at the White House in 2013 with “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”) have been forthright in acknowledging their debt to Otis, and hip-hop stars from Public Enemy to Kanye West and Jay-Z have tipped their hats to old school soul by sampling his recordings extensively over the years, Otis’s most pervasive legacy may consist of something so fundamental that most people can’t imagine a time when it didn’t exist in American popular entertainment. Consider this: Prior to the 1960s, it was simply impermissible for a black man to perform in a sexualized manner in front of a white audience in this country. African-American women had been encouraged to flaunt their bodies in public, often against their will, for generations on end. But such was the threat posed by black male sexuality to the institutionalized dogmas of white supremacy that any form of eroticized public behavior by a black man was subject to severe, often dire, sanctions. As they broke down the barriers of social segregation and musical genre to gain popularity with white audiences, the soul singers of the 1960s conclusively shattered this longstanding taboo.

With his imposing physicality, Otis Redding was an especially potent example of a new type of black entertainer who reveled in projecting a stage presence that was unequivocally masculine and unequivocally sexual. And unlike his more anxiously choreographed contemporaries like James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and the many Motown groups, all of whom channeled their physicality into expert dancing, Otis’s unaffected, self-assured, heartfelt style of performance embodied the African-American ideal of a “natural man” that, fifty years later, continues to wield such power and grace in the popular culture of our day.