Music » Features

Only Human

Some find Otis Redding's biography hard to handle

by

comment
The usual suspects were on hand in Macon, Georgia, recently when a life-size statue of Otis Redding was unveiled at a local park. The Redding family and a smattering of dignitaries, politicians, news media and fans were present. But one person who didn't receive an invitation to the ceremony was Scott Freeman, the author of Otis!, The Otis Redding Story.

"I didn't get an invitation," he states dryly.

The terse response from Freeman speaks volumes about how his book has been received -- not by the public or reviewers, who have praised the work, but by the singer's family. Zelma Redding, who never remarried after Otis' death in 1967, bristled when asked about it. "It's not a book that I authorized or participated in," she tells CL.

She says she's read "some of it" and claims "there's no truth to it, to my knowledge" -- which is a broad and inaccurate statement about the seemingly well-researched 250-page biography. A close inspection reveals what may have soured it for Mrs. Redding and her family.

Otis! details the life and short career of one of soul music's most essential talents, a legend who was halted at the height of his powers by a still unexplained plane crash.

More than just a history of the soul shouter known for such classics as "Respect," "Hard to Handle" and "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," Otis! chronicles the once-fertile Macon music scene. The unassuming city produced or nurtured music greats Little Richard, James Brown, Johnny Jenkins and scores of other influential talents.

Naturally, Freeman is miffed that the Georgia Music Hall of Fame's souvenir shop currently doesn't stock the book.

"It boggles my mind that a book detailing the story of how Macon became almost the epicenter of the R&B, rock & roll and funk movement is not carried by the Hall of Fame."

The book is included in the Hall's non-lending library, and a spokesperson for the store said it might be for sale in the future.

Though Freeman's work is essential reading for those interested in Georgia's contribution to music history, there are key voices missing. Zelma, along with Otis' manager and business partner Phil Walden, was prevented from giving interviews due to a Redding movie under development. But Freeman did obtain information from others close (some might argue, closer) to the artist. Many had never been asked about their involvement with Redding, and their contributions offer insight into his personality apart from his public persona.

Freeman places Redding's story in the context of the turbulent social times unfolding in the early 60s when the Civil Rights Movement was slowly making inroads for blacks in society. But Redding and his band were still subject to substantial prejudice, even violence -- especially while on tour in the South.

Regardless, most of the figures vital to Redding's career were white, including Walden, the owner of Redding's record label, half of his studio band and rock impresario Bill Graham (who booked him at crucial Fillmore West shows). All were critical to his crossing over to the hippie crowd at Monterey Pop Festival.

"People used to call Otis "The Ambassador,' because he was able to appeal to whites on both a professional and personal level," explains Freeman. "R&B music historically drew in listeners who would hear Pat Boone, then check out Little Richard. Right before Otis died, he had just broken through by winning the Melody Maker poll in England, beating Elvis as best male vocalist."

But Freeman also uncovered a less appealing aspect to the man. "Otis personified a self-actualized black male who didn't carry a chip on his shoulder and who was friendly and warm. In real life though, Otis led this gang in Macon and ran with a pretty rough crew," Freeman says. "This was a side of him that no one out of Macon saw. He was Otis the homeboy in Macon, and Otis the star elsewhere."

Perhaps Zelma would rather leave this facet of her husband's background to the memories of the few still living who knew him growing up. Or maybe she doesn't want it revealed that Redding considered filing for divorce just before his death.

Freeman acknowledges that memories about events occurring more than 35 years ago get fuzzy -- a fact exemplified in an enlightening passage about Redding's debut recording. The author interviewed six people in attendance at the session that resulted in "These Arms of Mine," all who remember it differently. "You try to be true to the perception of the story from the person you interviewed. You just present it accurately and let the reader decide, especially if it conflicts with something else," he explains.

Then there's the larger question: Who has the ethical and/or legal power to shape the legacy of a deceased music figure? "The story owns itself, and it's for the public," says Freeman. "So many people think it's their story, when their story is actually only a piece of the greater whole."

Freeman's book exudes a deep, if not blinding, respect for Redding and what he achieved artistically, especially in light of the obstacles facing a poor but talented singer from the South.

"What I tried to do was write as honest and deep a profile of Otis as I could. As biographer, that's your job. Your allegiance is to the story and getting it right."

Add a comment