Diane talks with Annie Lowrey, staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers economic policy.
By the time singer Otis Redding was a teenager, he was already a star in his hometown of Macon, Georgia. But thanks to a recording contract with Memphis-based Stax records, he started to produce R&B chartoppers like “These Arms of Mine” and “Try a Little Tenderness.” But Redding’s biggest hit — “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” — wouldn’t come until after he died: Three days after he recorded it, Redding was killed in a plane crash at just 26 years old. The song, a blend of folk and soul that marked a big departure from his usual sound, was released posthumously and became one of the most popular tunes of the 20th century. Diane and biographer Mark Ribowsky discuss the short life and legendary career of soul superstar Otis Redding.
- Mark Ribowsky Author of seven books, including "Ain't Too Proud to Beg: The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations"
Listen: Otis Redding Playlist
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul by Mark Ribowsky. Copyright © 2015 by Mark Ribowsky. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In the early 1960s, Otis Redding's songs topped the R&B charts, but his biggest hit came after he died, a mix of folk music and rhythm and blues, "Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay," was a big departure from Redding's usual sound. It hit number one in 1968 and remains one of the most popular songs of the 20th century.
MS. DIANE REHMIn a new biography, Mark Ribowsky writes about Otis Redding's rise to the top, his crossover to the pop charts and the story behind that famous song. The book is titled, "Dreams To Remember: Otis Redding Stacks Records and the Transformation of Southern Soul." Mark Ribowsky joins me in the studio. You, of course, are welcome to be part of the program.
MS. DIANE REHMGive us a call at 800-433-850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Mark, it's good to have you here.
MR. MARK RIBOWSKYIt's great to be here.
REHMThank you. And tell us why you have become so interesting in the soul, rhythm and blues musical groups of the '60s.
RIBOWSKYI don't know. It's growing up in that era. It's sort of something we didn't really appreciate until years later, I don't think. I mean, I was a teenager in the mid '60s and I knew Otis Redding. Of course, he was on the radio all the time and he was on the stations that were down the dial, you know, at the end of the dial rather than in the middle of the dial so you'd have to seek them out.
RIBOWSKYAnd I used to love doing that and I, you know, it was just a tremendous talent. I mean, he'd turn you inside out just listening to him. But I didn't -- you didn't know that much about him. In fact, when he died, a lot of people had never heard of him, believe it or not. As popular...
REHMThey had heard of this...
RIBOWSKYOf Otis -- yeah.
REHMThey had heard the song.
RIBOWSKYThey had heard of him and you know why they had heard of him mostly? Because of Aretha Franklin covering "Respect." I mean, that's how brilliant he was that he made his mark as a writer and a performer. But I did this book because it had never been done properly. I don’t think there's a -- in music, there's a subject left that hasn't been done, maybe four, five, six times.
RIBOWSKYI mean, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, over and over again. But the common thread of those books is that they just never touched on the cultural meaning of these people. Someone like Otis Redding comes along once in a century and you have to place him in that context of culture, of music, of sociology, everything. I mean, I don't want to make it seem like I did an academic kind of writing...
RIBOWSKY'Cause it rocks. It kind of rocks. But...
REHMTalk about his growing up in Macon, Georgia.
RIBOWSKYYeah, that's where it all starts. That's the key in the ignition because Macon, it was sort of the unheralded capital of soul music. I mean, it's where Little Richard came from in the '50s. It's where James Brown made his mark in the late '50s. And Otis Redding, of course, being a young man in the '50s, was able to assimilate, was able to, like a sponge, soak up all this great music coming...
REHMHis father, though, was a preacher.
RIBOWSKYHis father was a preacher. Otis Ray Redding, Sr., a very strict man, man of the cloth, hated that kind of music, which is a common thread, by the way, in a lot of people who became, you know, great singers in that era. Their mothers and fathers hated what they were doing. So Otis had to do it sort of on his own, convince the old man that, you know, this was his future and I don't think he ever really -- they have never really resolved it, those two.
REHMHis mother worked as a maid at Woolworth's.
RIBOWSKYCommon story, again, you know, worked on her knees, you know, cleaning white folks' homes and, you know, at Woolworth's and never complained about it a day in her life. She was, you know, the sort of unsung heroine of the story because she believed in what her son was doing, but she also had to placate her husband, who was a very powerful man because he was the pastor, you know.
RIBOWSKYHe was the vicar. He was the guy who, you know, he made decisions for other people. He was a very strong man.
REHMAnd Otis Redding sang in the choir.
RIBOWSKYAs, again, they often do.
REHMThey often do.
RIBOWSKYI mean, you know, I'm doing a book about Hank Williams now. He sang in the choir with his mother so, you know, it doesn't matter if it's country or R&B, soul, gospel, it always seems to start in the choir. And if you listen to Otis' song, the choir was in every record.
REHMBut, you know, you talk about Macon, Georgia, and Otis Redding and his family lived in a housing project there. What was it about Macon, Georgia, that helped to grow these folks?
RIBOWSKYThey say it's something in the water. I mean...
RIBOWSKY...because they can't really explain it in any kind of tangible, you know, empirical way. It was just a great, you know, it was sort of the center or the old Confederacy.
REHMJim Crowe South.
RIBOWSKYIt was the Jim Crowe South, but, you know, Macon never exploded. It never detonated. It never really, you know, and they had their marches, their sit-ins, you know, the back of the bus. In fact, one of Otis' friends was a white man who sat in the back of the bus just to prove that, you know, if you're gonna send black people to the back of the bus, you might as well send me. And they threw him off the bus, you know.
RIBOWSKYI mean, so this is Macon. It's was a very -- it's a sleepy, quiet town except for its music. And if you look at the history of soul music, so many people came through that area of Georgia. And Georgia really stayed in the picture later on, you know, through the Allman Brothers and people like that, as music changed its nature.
REHMIt's interesting, though. You tell the story of once when he was a young man, he was hiking around with a friend and saw a noose hanging from a tree.
RIBOWSKYImagine having that in your mind as a young man. Yet, they lived their lives as young people live their lives.
REHMTurned to music.
RIBOWSKYIt was part of the atmosphere of the time. You'd walk through the woods, you see a noose. It might give you the chills, but you'd go on with your life. And Otis did and he comingled, you know. When he started singing, he would sing in white clubs and black clubs and he was sort of a one-man, you know, reformation of, like, where black people could go 'cause he was always an overwhelming presence, even as a teenager. And he was able to open doors.
REHMHow big was he?
RIBOWSKYPhysically? He was, you know, if you know -- if you seen Otis, he was a big -- he was a beautiful man. I mean, he was 6'1 and 200 pounds, not an ounce of fat. You know, handsome man and every hair in place and everything. As a teenager, he was sort of like that. We have a picture of him in the book sort of looking like James Brown or Little Richard in that zoot suit.
REHMYeah, saw it.
RIBOWSKYBut the face is Otis. I mean, the face is not James. He doesn't have the big pompadour and the pomaded hair and even as a teenager, I think he knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to sound.
REHMAnd how did that confrontation with his father go?
RIBOWSKYIt wasn't pretty. There were a lot of confrontations, from what I heard, and Otis storming out, coming back. He would sing at clubs till late and traipse in at 3:00 in the morning and the old man would be waiting for him so, you know.
REHMHe was living at home the whole time.
RIBOWSKYYeah, yeah, yeah. He couldn't afford to, you know.
REHMHow old was he when he started singing in clubs?
RIBOWSKYHe was very young. He was very young. He was about 14, 15. The same as Hank Williams. I mean, these people know what they want to do early in their lives and nobody believes in them but them. They're the only ones who believe...
REHMHis mother believed in him.
RIBOWSKYBut the -- yeah, but then, in the '50s, it was sort of, you know, do what your daddy tells you to do, you know, 'cause that's the way women were, basically, especially the wife of a church pastor, you know. But Otis never listened. I mean, he tried to placate his father. He sang in the church choir, as you mentioned, and he would always be there in the church and he would make time for his father, you know, talk about the Bible and all that.
RIBOWSKYOtis was a very religious man. He didn't always live the most religious life later on, but he always had time in his music for that gospel element. I think that placated the father a little bit, too.
REHMSo tell us the story of how he landed his first contract, which I think is fascinating.
RIBOWSKYIt's kind of like, you know...
RIBOWSKY...a CIA thing. I mean, it's like...
RIBOWSKY…'cause everybody knew but Otis that they wanted to give Otis this audition with Stax Records in Memphis. I mean, he was -- he came -- he went up there as a driver for Johnny Jenkins in whose band he was -- very underrated R&B act himself, Johnny Jenkins, who gave him his first break, put him in a band called the Pat T. Cake and the Mighty Panthers in Macon.
RIBOWSKYAnd Johnny Jenkins, a left-handed guitarist, and he used to turn cartwheels onstage. He was very acrobatic. And he was the one that -- I mean, to go through this, you have to sort of -- it takes a little time, but there was a guy named Joey Galkin who was sort of a bird dog of southern talent for Atlantic Records in New York. He was a classical New Yorker, you know, cigar-chomping New York record industry guy, but he knew talent.
RIBOWSKYAnd he heard Otis, but he really was interested in Johnny Jenkins. But as time went along, he knew Otis was the guy he wanted to get that audition with at Stax. So he sort of -- he geared it so that Otis would come up without knowing. But when he was in the studio, they would turn to Otis and say, go ahead, Otis, you know. We got time. Sing a couple songs.
REHMBut take us back to 1962 when he walked into the office of Bobby Smith.
RIBOWSKYOh, of Confederate Records of all things. This, again, shows you how so sanguine everything was in Macon, that there could be a record label called Confederate Records with a black R&B artist.
REHMAnd he begins to sing for him "Shout Bamalama." Well, I thought we were gonna have it. There we are.
REHMTell me about this song, "Shout Bamalama."
RIBOWSKYWell, it sounds familiar, but not for being Otis Redding. I mean, do you -- did you catch the opening of that song?
RIBOWSKYA one, a two?
RIBOWSKYThat's Gary U.S. Bonds' "Quarter to Three." And the rest is Little Richard's, because Little Rich -- it's Little Richard's song. It's originally called "Gamalama," recorded in the '50s. This is Otis' cover. When Otis started, he wasn't yet "Otis." He was Otis in voice but he didn't know with -- what kind -- he didn't have his own songs. He didn't have a repertoire of songs. All he could do was cover Little Richard's songs.
REHMAnd how old was he in 1962?
RIBOWSKYWell, he recorded that song first in 1959...
REHMOh, I see.
RIBOWSKY...when he was 18 because he went to L.A. He had to get away from his father and make it. And he went to L.A. with his sister and he recorded a few songs out there and was a total flop. This is one of the ones he did and he re-recorded it for Bobby Smith at Confederate Records.
REHMThat label soon became a problem for Otis and his manager outside Macon. How come?
RIBOWSKYYeah, because it was named Confederate Records. And to get an R&B record played, you had to go to this circuit of disc jockeys, like John R., in Memphis and people -- John Richbourg his name was -- people who would play these. And they would not play the record because they would have to come on and say, "And now on the Confederate Records label," it became a problem. Not to Otis, he didn't care. I mean, he was great friends with Bobby Smith. Bobby Smith wasn't a racist. He wasn't a Confederate Heritage guy. He was -- just named his label Confederate Records. He had to change it. It became Orbit Records and then he got some attention.
REHMOkay. Now -- now, take us back to this audition for Stax Records.
RIBOWSKYWell, that comes next in line.
RIBOWSKYThat's when he starts getting this buzz. And Joey Galkin, who I -- the aforementioned New York bird dog for Atlantic Records -- hears him and sets up this plot with Otis' manager, Phil Walden. How are we going to get Otis, you know, everybody -- the play here is on Johnny Jenkins. How are we going to get Otis an audition? So what they do is they have -- they borrow a car. They say, "Otis, can you drive?" because Johnny Jenkins didn't drive. He didn't -- he didn't need to. He never wanted to take a plane, never wanted to leave Macon. The only way to get him was to drag him sort of. And Otis was the driver. And he went up there wearing his hospital scrubs because he was working at the time as an orderly at a hospital ward in Macon. So he goes up there in his scrubs. In fact, Steve Cropper, the great guitarist for Stax said, "When we saw him, we said, is there an ambulance out here?"
RIBOWSKY"We didn't know." They did not know him. And he was -- it was so innocent. He was unloading the equipment from the station wagon, not knowing that you don't need equipment once you go -- when you go into Stax Records. It's all there.
REHMIt's all there.
RIBOWSKYSo he goes in there, leaning against the wall because he doesn't know what to do. But here's Otis for you. Even when Johnny is singing, he's saying to Al Jackson Jr., the great drummer, "You think you've got time for me?" I mean, without knowing this plot that had been -- he was going to sing regardless. But even on his own, he was, "You think you got time for me?" So it was all being set up. It was almost like a perfect storm. He was being set up. Jenkins did his two numbers. And they indeed had time because Galkin had squared it with Jim Stewart, the owner of Stax Records. And he goes in and he belts out, "These Arms of Mine."
REHMDo I understand correctly that one person who was there told you that his hair stood on end?
RIBOWSKYMine is now, listening.
RIBOWSKYThis was the song that knocked everybody out. They just couldn't believe it. He had done another song called "Hey Hey Baby," which is another one of those Little Richard kind of knock-offs. And they told him, you know, told Joe Galkin, "We're not looking for another Little Richard." You know? So he sang this one. And then she said, everybody just, whoa. The song, itself, I mean, how simple can a song be? Like, how many chords? Like two chords in that song with triplets on the piano. But you have a voice, you know, putting that extra, ah, you know, at the end of, you know, that...
RIBOWSKY...which is all innate. I mean, they didn't do that -- he didn't do that to -- as, you know, to show off or anything. That was the way they sang in Macon.
REHMBut, at the same time, that song was not an immediate hit. How come?
RIBOWSKYWell it -- no. I mean, how many first records are? And back then, certainly, you know? And Stax, by the way, in 1962, was nothing to brag about. They'd only had a few hits themselves, constantly in trouble moneywise and, you know. I mean, but they were coming, they were coming. They had Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas and the Mar-Keys and, you know, Booker T. and the MGs. So they were -- they were hot. But while it wasn't a hit, it did sell about 600,000 copies because that circuit of DJs I mentioned before fell in love with this record.
RIBOWSKYThat's the actual record, by the way, the actual audition tape of him. That's not a redone. That's the first time he sang with no rehearsal, no -- nobody, you know, saying, "Well, what, you know, how do you want to do this song, Otis?" He just let it fly. And that's the actual record. And people could actually -- when they heard that, they could hear the sincerity, the authenticity in the voice. And that's, you know, that kicked it off for him.
REHMMark Ribowsky is with me. His new book is titled, "Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. I'm going to take a call from Rhonda in Louisa, Va. You're on the air.
RHONDAHi, Diane. Thanks so much for taking my call.
RHONDAWell, I'm from Macon, Ga. And I'm -- can -- I'm so excited to read this book. It's definitely going to be like a Father's Day gift. And so, I'm just -- I just felt like so, like, inclined to call because there's still so much of that spirit of, like, music and soul and just, like, young kids just kind of really putting their heart into, like, the local music scene. And I'm just curious as to, like, if the author spent, like, any time in Macon, kind of being able to experience any of that? And did that influence any of his writing?
RIBOWSKYOh, definitely. You got to go to Macon -- if you want to do Otis, a story about Otis, you got to go to Macon. Because you have to feel the vibe, as you mentioned. It's still there. She's right. I mean, it's still there downtown. I mean, there -- there's the Otis Redding Bridge, there's the Otis Redding Statue, there's the Otis Redding Park, there's the, you know. But there's also the Jefferson Davis Avenue. I mean, it's like a -- it's still a hybrid of culture from Antebellum times. Time does not move fast in Macon.
REHMAnd, indeed, he married a woman from his hometown.
RIBOWSKYWell, she was a girl then. She was about 15, Zelma Atwood, who still looks over his estate like a hawk.
REHMHow old was he when they married?
RIBOWSKYOh, he was probably...
RIBOWSKYWell, he -- yeah. And he got her pregnant when he went to L.A. And it's one of the reasons he came back. I mean, everything's fate, right? If she hadn't been pregnant, he might not have come back from L.A. And he might have wound up washing cars in L.A. for all anybody knew. But he came back because she was about to give birth to their first child, Karla. That was in '59, '60. So he came back to Macon. And he -- if he hadn't come back to Macon, who knows what would have happened, right?
REHMHe stayed married to her the entire time, even though...
RIBOWSKYYes, even though -- that's the great -- the great qualifier. You listen to those songs, I think almost every one of the ones Otis wrote was about his marriage to Zelma, the strains, the struggles, you know? Because he was a macho man living out on the road by himself, able to get women just, you know, reaching out his arm and sweeping them in. And he had to square this with the concept of marriage. Because Zelma was a very, you know, down home, simple kind of girl. Never could have understood that lifestyle of men living out on the road like that.
REHMAnd what about drink and drugs?
REHMHe got into it.
RIBOWSKYYeah. Otis was no -- was no angel when it came to that. That's what I said before, I mean, he was godlike, but he was not a god. He lived the same kind of life that every single other person who lived that lifestyle on the chitlin' circuit in the '50s -- James Brown, Ike Turner -- you know, they all lived this kind of mad, dissonant kind of life, you know. And Otis, as you say, kept his marriage together somehow. But it was always that undercurrent, where it was about to break open at any time.
REHMWhy do you think she stayed with him, knowing, as she did, he was not the best behaved boy on the block?
RIBOWSKYIt's the thing you have to accept if you're a rock and roll wife, even to this day. I mean, ask -- you want to ask Jerry Hall? I mean, you want me to ask Bianca? I mean, you want to ask Carly Simon? I mean, you know, that's the -- it's the business -- it's just like in the "Godfather," this is the business we've chosen, you know? Staying married to these guys is a struggle. But they love them and they always, on some level, think they can reform them, I think.
REHMHow many children did they ultimately have together?
RIBOWSKYThey had three. And then Zelma adopted one after Otis' death. In fact, the two sons, Otis III and Dexter performed in the '80s as a disco R&B band and had a -- had some pretty good success. They had pretty good voices. But they fell by the wayside eventually. There's a lot of talent in that family. They're really -- I mean, to have Otis Redding's genes is no small thing.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You mention respect. And he wrote it but Aretha Franklin covered it. Why didn't it become known when he sang it?
RIBOWSKYWell, it did. I mean, it was in 1965. It was an R&B hit. I mean, he had this great dichotomy where he never could crack through until he was dead, unfortunately, on to the Pop chart. But when he did "Respect," it was a riveting R&B hit. And it had a lot to say because it came in 1965, the year of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And a lot of these songs had that kind of, you know, that kind of -- the meaning that you would never expect it to have but it did because of the times.
REHMInteresting, to me, because you write that this song speaks to a kind of remarkable tolerance that he has handing her a license to do me wrong when I'm not at home.
RIBOWSKYIt's amazing, isn't it? To hear that from a macho man like that? Again, this is part of the dichotomy of Otis. He could be so sensitive and so respectful of women. But he could be so -- such a cad and bounder at the same time. But, yeah, that line is amazing, isn't it? It's like, you know, do me wrong if you want. But when I come home, just give it to me. I don't know if...
REHMGive me that respect when I'm home.
RIBOWSKYGive me the respect -- you don't have to give it to me when I'm on the -- maybe he was trying to do that counterbalance of, you know...
RIBOWSKY...since I'm misbehaving out on the road, you can misbehave when I'm out on the road. But when I get home, we're going to be together and don't ever forget it.
REHMBut you bet, if he had come home and found her...
REHM...with another man, something else would have gone down.
RIBOWSKYI don't even want to think about that...
RIBOWSKY...because there's an incident in the book where Otis, on the eve of one of his shows in Macon, actually got involved in a gun battle, believe it or not, risking his entire career.
REHMOf course, he carried a gun...
RIBOWSKYHe always did.
REHM...a lot. All right. Short break here. Your phone calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Mark Ribowsky is with me. His new book, titled "Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records and the Transformation of Southern Soul." And by the way, you can hear more of Otis Redding's music at our website. Go to drshow.org. You'll find a play list posted with this hour. Here's a wonderful email from Judith, who says I'm 39 years old. Even though I wasn't born when his first music came out, I thank my Latino parents for introducing me to Otis' music. His music makes you stop what you're doing and just listen in awe. He has world appeal. You feel it in the depth of your soul.
RIBOWSKYThat's really true. I mean, I've listened to these records maybe, what, 1,000 times, each one.
RIBOWSKYAnd I never get tired of it. They don't get old. And the reason is the sincerity, the authenticity. Whole books have been written about authenticity in music, which people have had it and which haven't, and Otis certainly did. And the funny thing is, when you listen to these, they almost sort of run together because they're very similar, especially the torch songs, the ballads. They're very similar. They're very simple. But every time - he just did it in such a way that he would turn himself inside-out, and you'd feel that.
REHMMark, tell me what happened. You were about to talk about this situation where he almost got into a gunfight and almost ended his career.
REHMOkay, tell me what happened.
RIBOWSKYHe was -- it was on one of his home -- he would do one show in Macon a year, a homecoming show at the Civic Auditorium. And the night before one of them, I think it was '65, excuse me, he got involved with a gang because his peeps from his childhood, all right, he never grew apart from them. He always kept those childhood friends close by. And when one of them got in trouble, he would stick up for them, even to the point of taking a gun out and brandishing it.
RIBOWSKYSo one guy came back and said he was beaten up over a woman or something, and Otis didn't care that he had this big show the next night. He went out, and he and his bodyguard, Sylvester Huckabee, who later died violently in a crime, went out and started shooting up the house of these two brothers, the McGee brothers. And you know what the amazing thing about it was, though? It wasn't covered in any paper.
RIBOWSKYThere wasn't one line written about it anywhere. The only reason it surfaced is because someone dug out the court papers, you know, because it was settled. It never went to trial or anything like that. He was never charged with attempted murder or anything like that. Huckabee was, but it was just, like, a fine kind of a thing.
REHMHere's the other thing. He had to be traveling, as we said, through Jim Crow South, through the later, earlier days of the civil rights, hangings and everything that was going on then. What was it like for him to confront that?
RIBOWSKYWell, from what I've been told, he never had any kind of, you know, serious incident out there, but he was very fearful. I mean, Dennis Wheeler, who was his buddy from Confederate Records and Bobby Smith, those days, used to travel with him, and they used to hunt together. And he said Otis was just very, very wary of going out there. It was very dangerous. That's why he always carried weapons. He always carried a gun.
RIBOWSKYAnd but what the funny thing is that from what you hear, he made accommodations, even with the Klan sometimes, because of his personality, his charm was such that he was able to get along with just about everybody. Isn't that amazing, that he actually could maybe have a run-in with some Klan guys out there in Alabama and still, you know, is still able to come away.
REHMSo then he performs at the Monterrey Folk Festival in '67. Was that really the first time he makes the crossover to white audiences in a big way?
RIBOWSKYHe had done that the year before, when he played the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in L.A., also another Mecca of rock 'n' roll at the time, where you had to play if you were going to conquer the rock-'n'- roll world. And he didn't want to go out there. He would -- he told his manager, Phil Walden, I have nothing in common with these people. You know, they're white people, they're kind of, you know, elitists, they're, you know, if they like anything about country music, it's because they want to tell their friends they like -- I mean, not country music, soul music, because they want to tell their friends they like soul music. They really have no knowledge of it.
RIBOWSKYBut he had to do it. He had to do it for his career because he needed that crossover appeal. He had to make that great leap forward in '65, '66.
REHMSo then comes "Try a Little Tenderness."
REHMHe was performing right alongside really big acts like Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin.
RIBOWSKYJanis Joplin called him God because among the musicians themselves, this happened, too, when he played in - for Bill Graham in San Francisco at the Fillmore. Jerry Garcia and Joplin and Grace Slick would beg Bill Graham to let them open for Otis, open for Otis Redding, to be his opening act because, you know, there was this great undercurrent of soul music in the business itself, and these people just loved him.
RIBOWSKYBill Graham called him the greatest performer he ever saw, and he saw them all.
REHMAll right, let's go back to the phones, to Don in Tulsa, Oklahoma. You're on the air.
DONWow, what a great show.
DONI hate to have my call interrupt "Try a Little Tenderness." Man, that's terrible.
RIBOWSKYBetter than hearing it on a McDonald's commercial.
REHMYeah, that's right.
DONYeah, exactly, yeah. One, I was going to make a comment, then I was going to ask a question of the author. But the comment would be probably the counterbalance to "Respect" would have to be "Tramp," I would have to say, a great song.
RIBOWSKY"Tramp" was such a fabulous record. He and Carla Thomas, Carla Thomas, they weren't even in the same studio, but you would never know it. No, no, no, they had to do it separately because of their schedules and everything like that, and they just recorded it separately, but you'd never know it. It was, I think, as good as the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell, and that's no small praise, let me tell you.
RIBOWSKYThey were on an equal level, and what's so great about "Tramp" is listening to Otis riff on who he is, you know, which he goes, yeah, you're nothing but a tramp, Otis, you know, you're backwoods, you got no money. And he, like, laughs and says, at the end, I got six -- I got 10 Cadillacs, I got four trucks, I got -- and he's no tramp at all, but he loves playing the part of being a tramp.
REHMAll right, Don, do you have a question?
DONYeah, I did have a -- I do have a question, excuse me. The question was, great, great documentary, Tom Dowd did before his death, and discussing the dynamics at Stax when he showed up, and I'd just like to hear your take on the band with Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper and Isaac Hayes and some of those people. So I'd just love to hear your comments about that.
RIBOWSKYI think it's remarkable that they were the same core on every record. It was the same people, basically, and the same four, five, six people on every record. And later on, as you say, Isaac Hayes comes along, and, you know, Dick Porter comes along. And, you know, these are giants in the industry, and they were all playing on this, they never would, you know, they all matured together because of Otis. Otis was the great force that hurled forward Stax Records from a small company to a company that was on the same ground as Motown in the late '60s or maybe even surpassed Motown in the late '60s.
REHMAll right, let's go to Samuel in Laurel, Maryland. You're on the air.
SAMUELGood morning, Diane.
SAMUELThanks for taking my call.
SAMUELI'm a long time listener, but the first time I called in because I could not let this go by, being from Macon, Georgia, and knowing Otis personally. I remember when that record came out, in '62, I was in the 10th grade, and his brother Luther was there, and we all had the transistor radio listening to it there, you know, at Ballard-Hudson High School.
SAMUELYou know, and we were really enthused and excited about it. And I used to deliver Otis' newspaper to he and his family when they lived over on Railroad Avenue in Macon, Georgia. When he talked about that 63-and-a-half Ford, you know, he had it right there in the yard, you know. And I really want to thank you for doing this show, and I'm going to definitely go out and get this book.
REHMGood, I'm glad, and thank you so much for enriching our program this morning. I must say there is that one song, "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." Tell us how that one came to be.
RIBOWSKYYeah, it came about because Otis was at a real crossroads in his life in '67, you know, the fall of '67 he had had a throat operation, didn't know if he'd be able to sing again, or...
REHMWhat was the matter?
RIBOWSKYIt was polyps, you know, because he -- listen to him.
REHMYeah, I do.
RIBOWSKYI don't know how he went that long...
RIBOWSKYBack then they didn't have ways of protecting themselves. They just went out there and turned their throats into leather, you know.
RIBOWSKYSo he had this operation in New York. He didn't know if he'd be able to sing again or sing as he had, and he had to -- he couldn't even say anything for months, imagine that, back down on the farm, at the big old ranch, you know. So this comes about because Al Bell, who was another great unseen force at Stax Records, later to become its president, then, before that the promotions man, says to Otis, you know, we really should try to broaden a little bit here, maybe do a little folk in soul, which had never been done before. It's a radical idea.
RIBOWSKYAnd Otis is, you know, during this time when he couldn't sing, would play Beatles records over and over again, like, you know, it was almost scary to think of him sitting there in surreal darkness, playing Beatles records, trying to come up with a formula. And this is what he comes up with.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
REHMMark, you call this the saddest song in the world.
RIBOWSKYIt's sort of the saddest song I've ever heard, and there's a lot of sad songs in music. And it was because at that time, Otis was going through this period of uncertainty. He actually wrote that on a dock of the San Francisco Bay, while he was out there doing another show for Bill Graham. And he would just sit there all day with his guitar, watching the ships roll in and rolling away again. Listen to the sadness in this voice. I mean, it was a plea to step back and let him breathe because everybody was after him.
RIBOWSKYAtlantic wanted him to leave Stax. It was all, you know, politics and money and corporate stuff going on, and this is his plea to just be left alone for a while. And, you know, considering, you know, he died two days after recording it, it's fate's way of saying this is the saddest song ever.
REHMWhy did he go up in that plane?
RIBOWSKYBecause he wanted to be like James Brown. He wanted to have his own plane and, you know be the man. And he was taking flying lessons. He wasn't flying the plane that day, but he was in the cockpit. He was in the co-pilot's seat. But James Brown had a jet, a Learjet, and James Brown, who was very great friends with Otis, obviously from the Macon connection, told Otis, Otis, don't go up in that plane. I know that plane. I used to have a plane like that. You can't load it with equipment. The fuel line is going to break. It's going to explode, or it's going to, you know, crash on landing. You cannot go up in that plane.
RIBOWSKYBut Otis, you know, and it was bad weather, too, out there on Monona Lake. I mean, you couldn't even see. It was cold, it was raining.
REHMWhere was he going?
RIBOWSKYHe had a concert in Cleveland, and Madison, actually, he had been in Cleveland, and it was going to be the last concert of that little mini-tour. It wasn't even a tour, it was just two days. And he was going to go back to Memphis, and he was going to remix this song, which Steve Cropper was told to do by the powers that be at Atlantic Records because everybody hated this record except Otis and Steve Cropper.
REHMAnd now has become perhaps the most played song of the 20th century. Mark Ribowsky, thank you.
RIBOWSKYThank you, Diane.
REHMThe book is "Dreams to Remember." And thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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