When people hear the word Otis their first associated thought is probably ‘the elevator guy’. The man behind the invention that provides most of us with our everyday quota of highs and lows. For me, when I hear ‘Otis’, I think ‘Redding’. Otis Redding. Considered (as Wiki puts it) ‘one of the greatest singers in the history of American popular music.’
A man, sadly, not destined to live past that dreaded age of 26/27, which has, like Otis, taken several others: Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, to name a few. Redding died in a plane crash but not before leaving behind a catalogue of music that still resonates today. John Keats, the English poet, would be a literary parallel, I suppose, Keats, too, losing his life to tuberculosis at 25 but not before bequeathing us a huge legacy of his work.
What it must be, I wonder, to be so young and still so productive; to achieve the pinnacle of success at an age when most young men are still contemplating life and its many options. I have loved Redding’s Dock of the Bay ever since it was recorded shortly before his death in 1967. Ironically, its lyrics tell a story of a man who’s at a loss as to what to do, and so he does pretty much nothing.
Just sits on the dock of the bay (from the time of the morning sun until evening falls), watching the ships roll in and roll away, watching the tide ebb and flow; a classic exercise in time wasting. The song probably made Redding heaps of money, but for us youngsters of that period, it touched a chord: it spoke to us about adolescent confusion (those were times when parents didn’t sit their offspring down and ask, very formally, ‘Now what are you going to do with your life, do you think? What do you want to be?’)
My parents, for sure, couldn’t afford to pose such a question (What do you want to be?) for fear that some unrealistic reply would short circuit their good intentions. I once voiced my opinion without being asked, saying, ‘I’d like to be a concert pianist, eventually.’ My mother’s three-word response was, ‘Don’t be silly!’ She wasn’t being cruel or anything.
What she undoubtedly meant was, ‘Firstly, where are we going to find a piano for you to learn on and, secondly, where’s the money to hire a tutor?’ And bang! That’s how a dream may be shot dead with three bullet-like words, all unintentional. Not that I’d ever have made it as a pianist in the end. I’m sure of that now. But back then it was like watching a dream set alight.
My mother’s three-word response was, ‘Don’t be silly!’ She wasn’t being cruel or anything
Adolescent aspirations, however, as all grown-ups now know, can be highly illusive. Another time, in another teenage dream, I blurted out, without being asked, that I wanted to be a forensic investigator. My mother simply looked at me askance and asked, using three different words, ‘How’s your chemistry?’ Whereupon I’m sure I turned pale, for chemistry and I were never on the same page as acquaintances.
And so, in this manner, a young dreamer happened upon Otis Redding, positing a life featuring endless days of doing nothing whatsoever. A tempting offer, until a very practical minded uncle took time out to remind me, in his own literary way, that ‘You won’t make a place in the sun by sitting in the shade of your family tree.’ Start reading, he suggested, because ‘you’ll gain from exposure to the thoughts of others.’ (Not merely Otis Redding, he was subtly informing me.) It was good advice, though.
I can pick up a book even today and shut out the world.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.