Otis Redding is pictured performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967. Later that year, the multitalented singer, songwriter, and producer died at the age of twenty-six.
Photograph by Bruce Fleming / AP
Fifty years ago, on December 10, 1967, a private plane carrying Otis Redding and the members of his touring band stalled on its final approach to the municipal airport in Madison, Wisconsin, and crashed into the waters of Lake Monona, killing all but one of the eight people onboard. Though Redding was only twenty-six years old at the time of his death, he was regarded by growing numbers of black and white listeners in the United States and Europe as the most charismatic and beloved soul singer of his generation, the male counterpart to Aretha Franklin, whom he had recently endowed with the hit song “Respect.” In the preceding year, on the strength of his triumphant tours of Britain, France, and Scandinavia, his appearances at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and his domineering performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, Redding had pushed beyond the commercial constraints of the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” of ghetto theatres and Southern night clubs. He was determined to become the first African-American artist to connect with the burgeoning audience for album rock that had transformed the world of popular music since the arrival of the Beatles in America, in 1964.
Redding’s success with this new, ostensibly hip, predominantly white audience had brought him to a turning point in his career. Thrilled with the results of a throat surgery that left his voice stronger and suppler than ever before, he resolved to scale back his relentless schedule of live performances in order to place a greater emphasis on recording, songwriting, and production. In the weeks before his death, he had written and recorded a spate of ambitious new songs. One of these, the contemplative ballad “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” became his self-written epitaph when it was released as a single, in January of 1968. A sombre overture to the year of the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon as President, the song went on to become the first posthumous No. 1 record in the history of the Billboard charts, selling more than two million copies and earning Redding the unequivocal “crossover” hit he had sought since his début on the Memphis-based label Stax, in 1962. To this day, according to the performance-rights organization BMI, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” remains one of the most frequently played (and streamed) recordings in the annals of American music.
In an age of pop culture replete with African-American superstars like Michael Jackson, Prince, Usher, Bruno Mars, Kanye West, and Jay-Z, it is hard for modern audiences to appreciate how revolutionary the self-presentations of soul singers like Otis Redding were when they first came on the scene. Prior to the mid-fifties, it had simply been taboo for a black man to perform in an overtly sexualized manner in front of a white audience in America. (Female black entertainers, by contrast, had been all but required to do so.) In the South, especially, the social psychology of the Jim Crow regime was founded on a paranoid fantasy of interracial rape that was institutionalized by the press and popular culture in the malignant stereotype of the “black brute,” which explicitly sexualized the threat posed by black men to white women and white supremacy. Born in Georgia in 1941, the same year as Emmett Till, Otis Redding grew up in a world where any “suggestive” behavior by a black male in the presence of whites was potentially suicidal.
This dire imperative began to change with the proliferation of black-oriented radio stations, in the nineteen-fifties, which enabled rhythm-and-blues singers like Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Ray Charles to sell large numbers of their records, sight unseen, to white teen-agers. Yet it was significant that these early black crossover stars were piano players, who performed behind keyboards, and whose sexuality was further qualified, in Domino’s case, by his corpulence; in Charles’s case, by his blindness; and, in Richard’s case, by the effeminacy that he deliberately played up as a way of neutering the threat of his outlandish stage presence. It was no accident that the one black crossover star of the nineteen-fifties who made no effort to qualify his sexuality, the guitarist Chuck Berry, was also the one black star to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, in 1960, on a trumped-up morals charge. By that time, a new contingent of black singers led by Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson was making its mark on white listeners with a more polished style of self-presentation that became the model for Berry Gordy’s carefully choreographed Motown groups.