H ow often have you heard it said that the soul music made in Memphis in the 1960s was color-blind? That when it came to writing, recording, and performing that music on stages across the U.S. and Europe, black and white musicians and singers, engineers and studio heads worked without regard to skin color. It was the music, they all believed, that counted. And it did at Stax and American Sound Studio in Memphis. As it did over in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, at FAME Studios. Factor in Nashville’s studios, because black and white musicians were working together there too, despite the racial divisions still operating throughout the South. Charles L. Hughes in no way disputes the greatness of the music made. He’s been a fan of R&B, soul, and country from as far back as boyhood. But as a historian of race and the South, he takes a deeper look into the workings of the Southern music industry in the 1960s and ’70s in Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (The University of North Carolina Press), and what he describes as the “country-soul triangle” (Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville) is more complicated than the phrase “color-blind” would suggest. Nor, Hughes argues, were integrated Southern studios necessarily the “transcendent spaces of racial interaction” that we’ve been led to believe they were. Nor were they exactly the setting for “racial breakthroughs.”
In his book, Hughes — who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin, who recently spent time as a postdoctoral fellow at Rhodes College, and who today teaches at Oklahoma State University — goes further to demystify the myths:
“[C]ontrary to any utopian ideas of racial transcendence,” he writes, “the day-to-day experiences of triangle musicians were defined by complex and sometimes uneasy interactions between black and white. From its beginnings, the triangle was built on a fundamentally unequal relationship that simultaneously created and restricted the possibility of interracial collaboration.”
That’s a bold statement to make, and that’s why Hughes pays particular attention to the careers of individual musicians — Arthur Alexander, Joe Tex, and George Jackson, for example. He takes in the Black Power struggles at Stax, New South “swamp rock,” and “Outlaw country” made popular in the 1970s too. He rightly recognizes the talents of many, but he’s equally right to insist that these musicians were craftsmen, not “conduits” — versatile professionals first and foremost, working musicians, black and white. The field of opportunity was, however, never entirely level. And in short: “[I]t was far easier to transcend the ‘musical color line’ if you were white.”
Country Soul is a valuable corrective to the misleading renderings so often encountered in the literature about the period and in the popular imagination. Nobody’s arguing, however (least of all Hughes), that the music produced in the country-soul triangle didn’t and doesn’t still count — first, foremost.
C harles Hughes writes of racial transcendence. For transcendence of another kind and for 700 or so years, readers have turned to the Divine Comedy of Dante. According to Craig Werner and Rhonda Mawhood Lee, listeners have also been turning for 40 years or so to the voice of Al Green and for much the same reason. That’s correct: Dante and Al Green together in one book by Werner and Lee, and they’ve called it Love & Happiness (White Cloud Press), which the cover describes as “Eros According to Dante, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and The Rev. Al Green.” If you think that’s an unlikely foursome, not so says Werner (who teaches literature, music, and cultural history at the University of Wisconsin) and Lee (an Episcopal priest). What do all four of these uncommon figures have in common? A shared interest in eros, philia, and agape.
Those Greek terms define love between two individuals, within families, friends, and communities, and, at the summit of faith, the self-giving love of the divine. Dante addressed all three levels of understanding in his Comedy , and to varying degrees so did Shakespeare in his plays, Austen in her novels, and Green in his songs and especially after he became the good reverend. What led Green into the ministry is the stuff of legend: an incident in 1974 inside his home in Memphis involving the married woman Green was seeing and a pot of boiling grits, which she poured onto the singer’s back.
But that one incident puts Green’s career turn too simplistically, and Werner and Lee don’t describe it as such in Love & Happiness . What they do offer is an especially nuanced view of Green’s entire career, from the singer’s upbringing inside a storefront church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to his life-changing meeting with producer Willie Mitchell of Memphis’ Hi Records. Mitchell’s role: to play “music industry Virgil” to Green’s Dante. But what connects Dante and Green? Werner and Lee call them “soul brothers across the centuries,” and to prove it, the authors offer a playlist and guide to Green’s lyrics concerning body and spirit. Werner, apparently, didn’t have the spirit — he once harbored a deep distrust of organized religion — until he too had a life-changing Sunday inside Green’s Pentecostal Full Gospel Tabernacle.
In the summer of 2001, Werner led a bus-load of college students to sites of significance to the civil rights movement, and one of the last stops was Memphis. That Sunday, Green’s church took Werner to a place he hadn’t known he needed to go. According to the book’s introduction:
“There, wrapped in gospel music and the words of Scripture, supported by interlocking networks of philia, he felt something move in his soul and heard a call that has continued to echo and direct his journey. … Love & Happiness is part of his restless quest.”
Something of the same could be said of Werner’s writing partner, Rhonda Mawhood Lee. Again according to the introduction, they’re each doing “their best to hear, to live in response to, and to pass on the call to manifest the power of love in [their] lives,” and their book is a highly learned, eye-opening examination of love in all its forms and across the centuries. The surprising quartet that inspired Love & Happiness : a trio of soul brothers and one soul sister by the name of, that’s right, Jane Austen.
N o one will ever know exactly what went wrong that day,” writes Mark Ribowsky. He’s referring to the day — December 10, 1967 — when the small plane carrying Otis Redding and most of the members of his band the Bar-Kays descended through overcast skies and into the freezing waters of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. Only one passenger, trumpet player Ben Cauley, survived, saved by the seat he was still strapped into.Radio listeners knew what happened three months after they learned of that shocking plane accident. The crossover hit that Redding had been dreaming of made it to number one on the pop and R&B charts: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” It earned him a gold record, and it won him two Grammys. Ribowsky calls the success of that song “a fitting, fatalistic coda” to the life of Otis Ray Redding Jr. of Macon, Georgia.
At the time of his death, Redding was 26, and as Ribowsky writes: “The last song Redding recorded, and one that nobody outside of the studio would ever get to hear him sing live, was the one that would wind up on the most turntables — enough for the song to be rated as the sixth most played song of the twentieth century, over six million times on the radio, and loads more since.”
Ribowsky’s Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul (Liveright/W.W. Norton) covers all the above facts about the sad end of Redding’s short career. He also reminds readers that Redding’s Stax career began almost by accident as well — a happy one, this time.
In 1962, Redding drove his friend guitarist Johnny Jenkins from Macon to Memphis for a recording session, and there was time near the end of that session for Redding to take the microphone too. He sang one song. “You got another one?” Stax co-founder Jim Stewart asked. Redding did: “These Arms of Mine.” When asked about the sound he wanted from the players, Redding, who couldn’t read music, told guitarist Steve Cropper, “Just gimme those church things.” That was all the direction the Stax house band needed.
Twenty minutes after Redding sang “These Arms of Mine,” Stewart handed him a contract to sign.
More than 300 pages of additional details are in this full-length biography of Otis Redding, details to interest any lover of the man’s music. But is Mark Ribowsky — who’s written books on the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Phil Spector, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Supremes, in addition to sports biographies of Tom Landry, Josh Gibson, and Howard Cosell — the man to write it? There’s plenty here to have you asking that question, and chosen at random, there’s the time Redding took part in some foolish gunplay in 1964: a “jaw-dropping shootout, involving one of the top artists in music history,” Ribowsky writes, and to add to the hyperbole, he calls it an “insane, psychotic episode.”
That is the caliber of writing in this, the new biography of Redding we have now — or will in a few weeks. The official publication date of Dreams to Remember is in June.