The book will appeal to those interested not just in the nuts-and-bolts of where Redding’s talent was birthed but how soul music developed over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. Rich with meticulously recounted contextual details along with critical insights, Gould’s book balances the historical with the musical to trace the evolution of a great American talent ... Gould connects a lot of dots among the details of life in the segregated South, Redding’s family history and the ways pop music was changing in the mid-20th century ... With meticulous scholarship, lively prose, and a tale that uses a singular musician as a springboard into interrogating America’s political and popular cultures, Gould has created a vital book that helps contextualize one of the most important figures in pop music.
Mr. Gould takes a scholarly, wide-angle approach similar to the one he took in his 2007 cultural study of the Beatles, Can’t Buy Me Love. He has tapped into new archival sources, including unpublished interviews with key figures like Wexler, and he has the cooperation of the fiercely protective Redding family. Otis Redding is an incisive and deeply humanistic portrait, if at times offering too much of the big picture and not enough of the Big O.
Jonathan Gould has written an absorbing and ambitious book about a life cut short, a life devoid of the melodrama and self-destruction that enliven the biographies of so many of Otis Redding’s contemporaries … Gould’s book doesn’t challenge the consensus that Otis Redding was a remarkable and remarkably decent person. In fact it succeeds in making him seem a good deal more remarkable by taking the measure of the historical circumstances he emerged from. The known day-to-day facts of Otis’s short life are only part of the narrative Gould has framed … Gould situates these microworlds within a much wider field of action. To do so he often leaves Otis aside for pages at a time, a maneuver he executes with great confidence. None of these excursions are digressions or footnotes; every detail feeds back into the story he is telling.
There have been several previous attempts to tell Redding’s story, and there has been talk for decades of a biopic about this titan of soul. Gould runs up against the same limitations all these efforts have faced: The singer did only a couple of interviews, and there’s a fundamental lack of tension in the life of a person who virtually no one will say a bad word about ... Exhaustive research into Redding’s early years as a performer reveals both his dedication and his uncertain musical vision ... Gould makes a convincing case that, while Redding’s recordings are never less than compelling thanks to his remarkable voice, [Stax label boss] Jim Stewart’s shortcomings held Redding back as a songwriter and repeatedly stymied his popular momentum.
Some of the best parts of Gould’s book are his incisive descriptions of Redding’s live performances and recording sessions ... But even more than his vivid re-creations of Redding’s composing and recording work, it’s Gould’s insightful portrayal of the Segregated South’s racial climate that makes Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life so compelling. A fascinating aspect of Gould’s book is his unflinching analysis of Redding’s relationship with his white manager, Phil Walden ... It’s so gratifying to get Redding’s take on his own work that it serves to make the absence of his voice elsewhere in Gould’s book—and in every other Redding biography that has or ever will be written—all the more poignant.
Drawing on interviews with Otis Redding’s widow, Zelma, as well as interviews with Redding’s family, friends, and musical associates, Gould brings tedious detail to the well-known story of Redding’s life and music ... Gould’s often exhausting study, never sure whether it wants to be music history, social history, or biography, treads over territory already well covered by others.
Otis Redding ranks high in the pantheon of 1960s musical luminaries, so it’s fitting that this biography ranks equally high among such work focusing on popular musical artists. With full cooperation from Redding’s widow and family, along with many involved in his management, his music, and his recording and touring career, Gould, a former professional musician, illuminates the life and work of an artist who flourished during an era when the mainstream press gave scant attention to soul singers and the emerging rock press was just beginning to come to terms with Redding’s music.