Nashay works as a home health aide in New Haven, Connecticut, where we both grew up. A few days ago, we talked about how unsettling the Christmas season is for families, like hers, living in an impoverished part of the city, where four out of every ten residents experience regular food shortages and a majority live below the poverty line. Nashay said that during December, her neighbors “skip out for the holidays. Take your bill money for gifts. You make arrangements in January. Get caught up in February. This is a lot of people. You either sacrifice on the cable or sell your food stamps. Do anything to get by.” In this insecure time of year, many dread the feelings of Christmas.
What soothes and encourages Nashay is music—especially the music of Otis Redding, who communicated vulnerability with such feeling that, she said, “He is the song. You believe he’s been through it.” Redding died fifty years ago, in a mid-December airplane crash, at the very young age of twenty-six, a loss that only deepens the good-sad feeling of listening to him right before Christmas. His great subject was unguarded desire, and, especially during this time of year, his music, his life, and his untimely death express the yearning to survive a cold season, get through, be warm and fed and fine.
Redding never learned to read music, but he had an extraordinary mind for musical sounds—an ability to imagine songs differently from the ways that other musicians did. Band members described him humming them their parts, during recording sessions, in improvised displays of compositional insight that felt, to them, like genius. For most of his career, he resisted lyrical complexity in the songs he wrote and covered; when Bob Dylan hoped that Redding would record “Just Like a Woman,” Redding demurred because the lines were too elaborate. He preferred to take something plainly written and sing the depth into it. “Try a Little Tenderness,” for instance, is a banal old song he transformed into a timeless meditation on human understanding. The words are mere point of departure for a majestic vocal narrative progression he’s invented. In Redding’s early songs, the words sometimes matter so little that they are incoherent.
Even when the lyrics are clear, people tend not to remember them. They recall the way Redding sang a clause, or even just a word; they remember the intensity of feeling when he simply has to know “What can the matter be?” midway through “Lover’s Prayer.” On his rendition of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” he repeats the word “you” over and over and never sings it the same way twice. His cover of Cooke’s “Nothing Can Change This Love” reimagines it as an older man’s song, Redding weathering his version in such a way that what you’re weeping about, as he gets to the end, is death. Redding’s songs often arrive at some kind of aural epiphany. The astonishing sounds he could make, slurring, moaning, sighing, quavering, the way he buries all of himself in three words, “come to me”—it’s a revelation. How many ways are there to say “I got to?”
Redding died young and virtually off the record; next to nobody seems to have interviewed him. The people who knew Redding and who spoke to writers about him have tended to sanctify. Reading Redding’s recent biographers, Jonathan Gould in “Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life,” and, before him, Mark Ribowsky in “Dreams to Remember,” as well as Robert Gordon in “Respect Yourself,” a fine account of Redding’s recording label, Stax Records, you can learn about some strenuous behavior with women, booze, weed, and a gun. There were a couple of disgruntled associates. Redding did get anxious. And while all three are skilled professionals, one senses that the biographers share a mutual frustration—they know there’s more to Redding’s story. The information available simply won’t allow them to appreciably deepen the portrait of his inner life that Peter Guralnick sketched in his 1986 book, “Sweet Soul Music.” The people from Redding’s circle that Guralnick interviewed puzzled the writer. They kept insisting that Redding, who sang so well about hurt and disappointment, who could exude such a downtrodden sensibility that a Memphis d.j. nicknamed him Mr. Pitiful, was in actual life a clean-cut, open, easygoing, self-confident dude with a halo.
Redding was the son of a poor black sharecropper who labored in the rural Georgia peanut and cotton fields until he moved his family to Macon and found work at an Air Force base. The family lived in a public-housing project that overlooked the prestigious Mercer University. That meant Redding saw every day how the other half lived during Jim Crow. Likewise, he was always at risk to the suspicions and whims of white people. To be a strong, sensitive black man growing up in nineteen-fifties Georgia meant trauma enough to explain the general mystery of why Redding sang as he did. Looking back, the songs really were about a lot more than his words described. All around him was pain and insecurity, and Redding’s singular talent gave musical voice to it. What we miss is hearing from Redding in his own words how he experienced the world around him.
There is some evidence to suggest that he was about to provide them. From the moment Redding’s career began, recording sessions had deferred to his relentless touring schedule, and his songwriting deferred to covers. His 1966 album, “Otis Blue,” as fine an LP as any American has ever released, was recorded in a matter of hours; his three originals on it, “Ole Man Trouble,” “Respect,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” are lyrically spare masterpieces that he wrote at speed, sometimes with help. Mostly, the album is covers of songs by Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, B. B. King, Solomon Burke, and the Rolling Stones. What made Redding’s versions sound original and timeless was his studious immersion in several forms of classic American popular music—gospel and the blues and then R. & B., soul, and rock. “Otis Blue” is a tour de force of this kind of conflating interpretation. That same year, 1966, he also recorded a stirring and elliptical version of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”—which, in retrospect, was a harbinger.
In June, 1967, Redding appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival, alongside prominent rock stars like Janis Joplin and the Who, and he completely upstaged all of them. His triumph coincided with mainstream white America’s increasing interest in the music and lives of black musicians. Redding went back to California in August and played a full week of shows in San Francisco. During the week, instead of living in a hotel, he stayed on a houseboat in Sausalito, docked on the San Francisco Bay, where he watched the waves.
In the fall, he took a forced break from the road for throat surgery. Earlier in life, he’d located his own sound by listening obsessively to Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Cooke. Now, at home, he grew a beard and spent his time “wearing out” the latest Beatles album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which he recognized as a uniquely adult artistic accomplishment, a new way of composing what had been music for kids. His final musical model became John Lennon. Redding told his wife, Zelma, that he was going to reinvent himself to write songs addressing the depth of what life brings—“I’m gonna be new.”
Three days before he died, Redding recorded his masterpiece of inner turmoil and self-doubt, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” The lyrics describe the passage of time on the water, ships arriving and departing in a daily rhythm that follows the tides. The narrator speaks of having “nothing to live for,” and the fear that “nothing’s gonna come my way.” Redding’s post-surgery voice is somehow more affecting, has a closer, quieter pull to it. Redding’s pianist, Booker T. Jones, explained that he tried to give “Dock of the Bay” a Mississippi River “maritime feel” that drew from gospel and New Orleans sounds. This helped people to hear in it many unsettling currents of motion. The sociologist Elijah Anderson told me that, in its own time, “Dock of the Bay” was particularly meaningful to men he knew who were shipping off to fight in the Vietnam War. They departed filled with misgiving, aversion, and alarm, and that song, “It did everything for them.” What’s particularly poignant about Redding’s death is the possibility that, with “Dock of the Bay,” he’d just begun writing an interior autobiography in song.
A sadness this time of year is the annual wondering: Had Redding lived on, where might he have travelled musically and lyrically? In his brief allotment of years, he really did overspread the American musical waterfront, his taste catholic enough to extend even to the popular music of the poor white segregated South. Like Ray Charles, Redding loved country music. In 1966, he recorded “The Tennessee Waltz,” written by members of the Golden West Cowboys at Christmastime in 1946, and then made famous by Patti Page four years later, after she released it as the B-side of “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus”—a holiday bagatelle perhaps only Redding could have elevated. The man could sing humanity into anything.
Besides the songs I wish he’d gone on to write, there’s one, more than any other, I wish I could have heard him sing. If there was a John Lennon of country, that would have been the working-class hero Merle Haggard. “If We Make It Through December,” Haggard’s song about a just-laid-off factory worker, indelibly describes how it feels to be poor when you want most to give. I can nearly hear Redding singing, “I don’t mean to hate December / It’s meant to be the happy time of year / And my little girl don’t understand / Why daddy can’t afford no Christmas gift.” There’s no colder sensation than feeling put down by what seems to bring everybody else joy. In those moments of futility, inadequacy, and shame, nothing can really help except time, and a beautiful voice that understands.