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The King of Soul in the Twenty-First Century: Otis Redding and The Dock of the Bay 50 Years Later

He was larger than life—both physically and metaphorically—at a time when he wasn’t allowed to be. A dominant, unyielding black man garnering mass appeal sounds like the type of story white America wouldn’t be able to tell during the civil rights movement. But Otis Redding made it possible. Fortuitous circumstance, vivid style, passion, and unabashed humanity turned a long-shot hero into one of the most beloved popular singers of the 20th century.

Miracles come at a cost, however. Otis was tragically killed at the age of 26 when the plane he took on the way to a concert crashed into a lake. Prior to his death, however, he had accumulated so many songs that there was enough material for five posthumous album releases. On the first of these albums, “The Dock of the Bay,” released Feb. 23, 1968, Otis laments, begrudges, celebrates, and awaits, but most importantly he transmits feeling. His every vibration becomes the vibration of the audience, and his mind unravels in such a way that even the most stubborn critic can’t deny his truthfulness. It was this truthfulness, fostered by disregard for traditional pop standards and powered by an exposed, electrifying voice, that allowed Otis to garner the attention necessary to influence an entire generation of music.

The American pop music scene was a difficult landscape to traverse for black artists during the civil rights movement. Becoming a crossover success—an artist who had appeal both among black and white audiences—often required the veiling of one’s skin color. As a result, most of the popular black music of the late 1950s and early 1960s was sculpted to avoid evoking the biggest fears of white America: black power and black (generally male) sex. Feminine artists—women like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, and men like Little Richard—managed to succeed without intimidating. Sam Cooke sang in a sweet, unaggressive tone, and even flamboyant front-man Chuck Berry famously changed the lyrics of Johnny B. Goode from “colored boy” to “country boy” to avoid offending. Although it’s impossible to deny these artists shaped pop culture to be more amenable to future black talent, their influence wasn’t significant enough to normalize the controversy of Otis Redding. How is it then, that a symbol of black male sex who sang with the pain of generations of his abused predecessors attained such positive critical reception?

The short answer: Otis lived his music. Listening to an Otis track feels like a real-time experience. His process is so natural and deconstructed that it’s easy to ignore considerations of race even while his gospel voice crashes into you. Nowhere is this better felt than in some of his takes from “The Dock of the Bay.” In “The Glory of Love,” the listener receives an unobstructed view of Otis’ internal state. The listener observes as Otis progresses from introspective, to vexed, then to a manic wailing of “You got to know what the glory is, the glory is.” He finishes the song with his trademark frenetic exultation of “gotta, gotta, gotta,” and the song abruptly ends. This song undermines the traditional structure of pop music—there is no hook and really no pattern. It’s Otis’ stream of consciousness as he spills his secrets. Even more subversive is the way the song builds into the end, with Otis sounding almost agitated moments before the song completes. The more overwhelmed Otis sounds on tracks, the harder it is to doubt his credibility.

Otis’ authenticity is on display throughout many other tracks on the album. Having previously been a blue-color laborer, he was truly an everyday person in the body of a star. His eschewing of stardom is evident on the title track of the album when he relates to the everyday person, promoting “I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay / wastin’ time.” In the next song “I Love You More Than Words Can Say,” Otis strips himself of his ego and pleads with an ex-lover. He’s unpretentious as he admits he’s the one who is hurt and begs for another chance. It’s not just the content, but the form that’s so compelling. The slow trembling of his vibrato makes him vulnerable in a way that even the most personal lyrics couldn’t. He proves to audiences that they get his whole heart regardless of how sensitive the subject matter is. In “Open the Door,” Otis’ pace and pitch mirror his emotions, which results in mania and sadness juxtaposed in a way only an ultimate auteur could make feel natural. The song fades out in amplitude, but not attitude, with Otis just as fiery in the last second as in the first. Otis proves with song after song that he will give the audience everything he has because, frankly, he is not capable of doing otherwise.

Inspiring audiences was his forte, but Otis also inspired countless future stars with his frank, heartfelt delivery. His approach to music and his singing style influenced artists like The Doors, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Marvin Gaye. It should come as no surprise that his rugged style would influence many of these rock greats. Beyond his musical influence, Otis is deeply felt in the cultural arena. Popularizing a gospel brand of soul music created pathways for countless black artists to express themselves. Ostentatious showmen like Michael Jackson and Kanye West owe thanks to Otis for creating a space where they could thrive. Perhaps as thanks, Kanye immortalized Otis when he made the song “Otis,” which featured the legend’s grumbly vocals from “Try a Little Tenderness” as the bassline.

Otis didn’t follow tried and true methods of songwriting. Sometimes the denouement was the moment for excitation, and sometimes the hook was the moment for melancholy and cogitation. He could interrupt himself on a track without skipping a beat, and could fit more into a song than other artists could fit into an entire album. His voice was his music, and his soul was the purveyor of his message. He required nothing more than a couple of honks of the horn or basic guitar chords to produce unforgettable hits. Otis managed to popularize one of America’s blackest forms of music during one of the most racially contentious periods of the 20th century. When he went down in a plane on that fateful day in December 1967, America lost its heart, but the future kept its soul.

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