Category Archives: Music

Magic Moscow Moment

 

Stuart Isacoff, When the World Stopped to Listen:

Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath 

            Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., known to the world as “Van,” was the pianist from Texas who at age 23 astounded the world when he won the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.  The Soviet Union, fresh from launching the satellite Sputnik into orbit the previous year and thereby gaining an edge on the Americans in worldwide technological competition, looked at the Tchaikovsky Competition as opportunity to showcase its cultural superiority over the United States.  Stuart Isacoff’s When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath takes us behind the scenes of the 1958 competition to show the machinations that led to Cliburn’s selection in Moscow.

            They are intriguing, but come down to this: the young Cliburn was so impossibly talented, so far above his fellow competitors, that the competition’s jurors concluded that they had no choice but to award him the prize.  But before the jurors announced what might have been considered a politically incorrect decision to give the award to an American, they felt compelled to present their dilemma to Soviet party leader and premier Nikita Khrushchev. Considered, unfairly perhaps, a country bumpkin lacking cultural sophistication, Khrushchev asked who had been the best performer.  The answer was Cliburn.  According to the official Soviet version, Khrushchev responded with a simple, straightforward directive: “Then give him the prize” (p.156).

            Isacoff, a professional pianist as well as an accomplished writer, suggests that there was more to Khrushchev’s directive than what the official version allows.  But his response and the official announcement two days later, on April 14, 1958, that Cliburn had won first place make an endearing high point to Isacoff’s spirited biography.  The competition in Moscow and its immediate aftermath form the book’s core, about 60%. Here, Isacoff shows how Cliburn became a personality known worldwide — “the classical Elvis” and “the American Sputnik” were just two of the monikers given to him – and how his victory contributed appreciably to a thaw in Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The remaining 40% of the book is split roughly evenly between Cliburn’s life prior to the Moscow competition, as a child prodigy growing up in Texas and his ascendant entry into the world of competitive piano playing; and his post-Moscow life, fairly described as descendant.

            Cliburn never recaptured the glory of his 1958 moment in Moscow, and his life after receiving the Moscow prize was a slow but steady decline, up to his death from bone cancer in 2013.  For the lanky, enigmatic Texan, Isacoff writes, “triumph and decline were inextricably joined” (p.8).

* * *

            Cliburn was born in 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana, the only child of Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Sr., and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn.  When he was six, he moved with his parents from Shreveport to the East Texas town of Kilgore.  Despite spending his earliest years in Louisiana, Cliburn always considered himself a Texan, with Kilgore his hometown.   Cliburn’s father worked for Magnolia Oil Company, which had relocated him from Shreveport to Kilgore, a rough-and-tumble oil “company town.”  We learn little about the senior Cliburn in this biography, but mother Rildia Bee is everywhere. She was a dominating presence upon her son not only in his youthful years but also throughout his adult life, up to her death in 1994 at age 97.

        Prior to her marriage, Rildia had been a pupil of renowned pianist Arthur Friedheim.  It was Southern mores, Isacoff suggests, that discouraged her from pursuing what looked like her own promising career as a pianist.  But with the arrival of her son, she found a new outlet for her seemingly limitless musical energies.  Rildia was “more teacher than nurturer” (p.12), Isacoff writes, bringing discipline and structure to her son, who had started playing the piano around age 3.  From the start, the “sonority of the piano was entwined with his feelings for his mother” (p.12).  By age 12, Cliburn had won a statewide piano contest, and had played with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in a radio concert.  In adolescence, with his father fading in importance, Cliburn’s mother continued to dominate his life. “Despite small signs of teenage waywardness, when it came to his mother, Van was forever smitten” (p.21).

               In 1951, at age 17, Rildia and Harvey Sr., sent their son off to New York to study at the prestigious Juilliard School, a training ground for future leaders in music and dance.  There, he became a student of the other woman in his life, Ukraine-born Rosina Lhévinne, a gold-medal graduate of the Moscow Conservatory whose late husband Josef had been considered one of the world’s greatest pianists.  Like Rildia, Lhévinne too was a force of nature, a powerful influence on the young Cliburn.  Improbably, Lhévinne and Rildia for the most part saw eye to eye on the best way to nurture the talents of the prodigious young man.  Both women focused Cliburn on “technical finesse and beauty of sound rather than on musical structure,” realizing that his best qualities as a pianist “rested on surface polish and emotional persuasiveness” (p.54).  Each recognized that for Cliburn, music would always be “visceral, not abstract or academic.  He played the way he did because he felt it in the core of his being” (p.34).

           More than Rildia, Lhévinne was able to show Cliburn how to moderate and channel these innate qualities.  Without her stringent guidance, Isacoff indicates, Cliburn might have lapsed into “sentimentality, deteriorating into the pianistic mannerisms of a high romantic” (p.56). Although learning through Lhévinne to hold his interpretative flourishes in check, Cliburn’s “overriding personality – emotionally exuberant, and unshakably sentimental – was still present in every bar” (p.121).  By the time he left for the Moscow competition, Cliburn had demonstrated a “natural ability to grasp and convey the meaning of the music, to animate the virtual world that arises through the art’s subtle symbolic gestures. It set him apart” (p.18).

          During his Julliard years in New York, the adult Cliburn personality the world would soon know came into view: courteous and generous, sentimental and emotional.  He had by then also developed the idiosyncratic habit of being late for just about everything, a habit that continued throughout his life.  Isacoff mentions one concert after another in which Cliburn was late by periods that often became a matter of hours.  Both in the United States and abroad, he regularly compensated for showing up late by beginning with America’s national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”  At Juilliard, Cliburn also began a smoking habit that stayed with him for the remainder of his life.  Except when he was actually playing — when he had the habit of looking upward, “as if communing with the heavens whenever the music reached an emotional peak” (p.6) — it was difficult to get a photo of him without a cigarette in his hands or mouth.

           It may have been at Juilliard that Clliburn had his first homosexual relationship, although Isacoff plays down this aspect of Cliburn’s early life.  He mentions Cliburn’s experience in high school dating a girl and attending the senior prom.  Then, a few pages later, he notes matter-of-factly that a friendship with a fellow male Juilliard student had “blossomed into romance” (p.35).  But there are many questions about Cliburn’s sexuality that seem pertinent to our understanding of the man.  Did Cliburn undergo any of the torment that often accompanies the realization in adolescence that one is gay, especially in the 1950s?  Did he “come out” to his friends and acquaintances, in Texas or New York, or did he live the homosexual life largely in the closest?  Were his parents aware of his sexual identity and if so, what was their reaction?  None of these is treated here.

            With little fanfare, Juilliard nominated Cliburn in early 1958 for the initial Tchaikovsky International Competition, taking advantage of an offer of the Rockefeller Foundation to pay travel expenses for one entrant in each of the competition’s two components, piano and violin.  The Soviet Union, which paid the remaining expenses for the participants, envisioned a “high-culture version of the World Cup, pitting musical talents from around the globe against one another” (p.4). The Soviets confidently assumed that showcasing its violin and piano expertise after its technological success the previous year with the Sputnik launch would provide another propaganda victory over the United States.

            Soviet pianists who wished to enter the competition had to pass a daunting series of tests, musical and political, to qualify for the competition, with training similar to that of its Olympic athletes.  Many of the Soviet Union’s emerging piano stars were reluctant to jump into the fray.  Each had a specific reason, along with a “general reluctance to become involved in the political machinations of the event” (p.59).  Lev Vlassenko, a “solid, well-respected pianist” who became a lifetime friend of Cliburn in the aftermath of the competition, emerged as the presumptive favorite, “clearly destined to win” (p.60).

            On the American side, the US State Department only reluctantly gave its approval to the competition, fearing that it would be rigged.  The two pianists whom the Soviets considered the most talented Americans, Jerome Lowenthal and Daniel Pollack, traveled to Moscow at their own expense, unlike Cliburn (pop singer Neil Sedaka was among the competitors for the US but was barred by the Soviets as too closely associated with decadent rock ‘n roll; they undoubtedly did Sedaka a favor, as his more lucrative pop career was just then beginning to take off).  Other major competitors came from France, Iceland, Bulgaria, and China.

            For the competition’s first round, Cliburn was assigned pieces from Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.  The audience at the renowned Moscow Conservatory, where the competition took place, fell from the beginning for the Texan and his luxurious sound. They “swooned at the crooner in him . . . Some said they discerned in his playing a ‘Russian soul’” (p.121).  But among the jurors, who carried both political and aesthetic responsibilities, reaction to Cliburn’s first round was mixed.  Some were underwhelmed with his renditions of Mozart and Bach, but all found his Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff “out of this world,” as one juror put it (p.120).

          Isacoff likens the jurors’ deliberations to a round of speed dating, “where the sensitive antennae of the panelists hone in on the character traits of each candidate. . . There is no magical formula for choosing a winner; in the end, the decision is usually distilled down to a basic overriding question: Do I want to hear this performer again?”(p.117).  Famed pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who served on the jury, emerges here as the equivalent of the “hold out juror” in an American criminal trial, “willing to create a serious ruckus when he felt that the deck was being stacked against the American.  As the competition progressed, his fireworks in the jury room would be every bit the equal of the ones onstage” (p.114).

            Cliburn’s second round program was designed to show range.  Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms were the heart of a romantic repertoire.  He also played the Prokofiev Sixth, a modernist piece that reflected the political tensions and fears of 1940 Russia.  Cliburn received a 15-minute standing ovation at the end of the round, the audience voting literally with its feet and hands.  In the jury room, Richter continued to press the case for Cliburn, although the jury ranked him only third, tied with Soviet pianist Naum Shtarkman. Overall, Vlassenko ranked first and eminent Chinese pianist Shikun Liu second.

            But in the third round, Cliburn blew the competition away.  The round  began with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, for which Cliburn delivered an “extraordinary” interpretation, with every tone “imbued with an inner glow, with long phrases concluding in an emphatic, edgy pounce. The effect was simply breathtaking” (p.146). Cliburn’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “treacherously difficult” (p.147) Piano Concerto no. 3 was even more powerful.  In prose that strains to capture Cliburn’s unique brilliance, Isacoff explains:

After Van, people would never again hear this music the same way. . . There is no simple explanation for why in that moment Van played perhaps the best concert of his life. Sometimes a performer experiences an instant of artistic grace, when heaven seems to open up and hold him in the palm of its hand – when the swirl of worldly sensations gives way to a pervasive, knowing stillness, and he feels connected to life’s unbroken dance.  If that was not exactly Van’s experience when playing Rachmaninoff Concerto no. 3, it must have come close (p.146-47).

         Cliburn had finally won over even the most recalcitrant jurors, who briefly considered a compromise in which Cliburn and Vlassenko would share the top prize.  But the final determination was left to premier Khrushchev.  The Soviet leader’s instantaneous and decisively simple response quoted above was the version released to the press.  But with the violin component of the competition going overwhelmingly to the Soviets, the ever-shrewd Khrushchev appears to have concluded that awarding the piano prize to the American would underscore the competition’s objectivity and fairness.  One advisor recalled Khrushchev saying to her: “The future success of this competition lies in one thing: the justice that the jury gives” (p.156).  The jury’s official and public decision of April 14, 1958 had Cliburn in first place, with Vlassenko and Liu sharing second.  Cliburn could not have accomplished what he did, Isacoff writes, without Khrushchev, his “willing partner in the Kremlin” (p.206).

        Cliburn had another willing partner in Max Frankel, then the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times (and later, its Executive Editor). Frankel had sensed a good story during the competition and reported extensively on all its aspects.  He also pushed his editors back home to put his dispatches on page 1.  One of his stories forthrightly raised the question whether the Soviets would have the courage to award the prize to Cliburn.  For Isacoff, Frankel’s reporting and the pressure he exerted on his Times editors to give it a prominent place also contributed to the final decision.

             After his victory in Moscow, Cliburn went on an extensive tour within the Soviet Union. To the adoring Russians, Cliburn represented the “new face of freedom.” Performing under the auspices of a repressive regime, he “seemed to answer to no authority other than the shifting tides of his own soul” (p.8).  Naïve and politically unsophisticated, Cliburn raised concerns at the State Department when he developed the habit of describing the Russians as “my people,” comparing them to Texans and telling them that he had never felt so at home anywhere else.

          A month after the Moscow victory, Cliburn returned triumphantly to the United States amidst a frenzy that approached what he had generated in the Soviet Union.  He became the first (and, as of now, only) classical musician to be accorded a ticker tape parade in New York City, in no small measure because of lobbying by the New York Times, which saw the parade as vindication for its extensive coverage of the competition.

          After Cliburn’s Moscow award, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to host each other’s major exhibitions in the summer of 1959.  It started to seem, Isacoff writes, that “after years of protracted wrangling, a period of true detente might actually be dawning” (p.174).   The cultural attaché at the American Embassy in Moscow wrote that Cliburn had become a “symbol of the unifying friendship that overcomes old rivalries.  . . a symbol of art and humanity overruling political pragmatics” (p.206).

           A genuine if improbable bond of affection had developed in Moscow between Khrushchev and Cliburn. That bond endured after Cold War relations took several turns for the worse, first after the Soviets shot down the American U-2 spy plane in 1960, followed by erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the direct confrontation in 1962 over Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba. The bond even continued after Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, indicating that it had some basis beyond political expediency.

           But Cliburn’s post-Moscow career failed to recapture the magic of his spring 1958 moment.  The post-Moscow Cliburn seemed to be beleaguered by self-doubt and burdened by psychological tribulations that are not fully explained here.  “Everyone had expected Van’s earlier, youthful qualities to mature and deepen over time,” Isacoff writes.  But he “never seemed to grow into the old master they had hoped for . . . At home, critics increasingly accused Van of staleness, and concluded he was chasing after momentary success with too little interest in artistic growth” (p.223).  Even in the Soviet Union, where he made several return visits, critics “began to complain of an artistic decline” (p.222).  In these years, Cliburn “developed an enduring fascination with psychic phenomena and astrology that eventually grew into an obsession. The world of stargazing became a vital part of his life” (p.53).

           Cliburn’s mother remained a dominant force in his life throughout his post-Moscow years, serving as his manager until she was almost 80 years old.  As she edged toward 90, she and her son continued to address one another as “Little Precious” and “Little Darling” (p.230).  Her death at age 97 in 1994 was predictably devastating for Cliburn. In musing about his mother’s effect on Cliburn’s career trajectory, Isacoff wonders whether Rildia Bee, the “wind that filled his sails” might also have been the “albatross that sunk him” (p.243).  While many thought that Cliburn might collapse with the death of his mother, by this time he was in a relationship with Tommy Smith, a music student 29 years younger.  With Smith, Cliburn had “at last found a fulfilling, loving union” (p.242). Smith traveled regularly with Cliburn, even accompanying him to Moscow in 2004, where none other than Vladimir Putin presented Cliburn with a friendship award.  Smith was at Cliburn’s side throughout his battle with bone cancer, which took the pianist’s life in 2013 at age 79.

* * *

            Tommy Smith became the happy ending to Cliburn’s uneven life story — a story which for Isacoff resembles that of a tragic Greek hero who “rose to mythical heights in an extraordinary victory that proved only fleeting, before the gods of fortune exacted their price” (p.8).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 5, 2018

 

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Filed under American Politics, History, Music, Soviet Union, United States History

Two Who Embodied That Sweet Soul Music

 

Jonathan Gould, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life 

Tony Fletcher, In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett 

        By 1955, the year I turned 10, I had already been listening to popular music for a couple of years on a small bedside radio my parents had given me. My favorite pop singers were Patti Page and Eddie Fisher, whose soft, staid, melodious songs seemed in tune with the Big Band and swing music of my parents’ generation. The previous year, 1954, a guy named Bill Haley had come out of nowhere onto the popular music scene with “Rock Around the Clock,” which he followed in 1955 with “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Haley’s two hits became the centerpiece of my musical world. They were so different: they moved, they jumped – they rocked and they rolled! – in a way that resembled nothing I had heard from Page, Fisher and their counterparts.

        The term “rock ‘n roll” was already in use in 1955 to describe the new style that Haley’s songs represented. But “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” were not the only hit tunes I listened to that year that seemed light years apart from what I had been familiar with. There was Ray Charles, with “I Got a Woman;” Chuck Berry with “Maybelline;” and, most exotic of all, a man named Richard Penniman, known in the record world as “Little Richard,” rose to fame with a song titled “Tutti Frutti.” What I didn’t realize then was that Charles, Berry and Penniman were African-Americans, whereas Haley was a white guy, and that Charles and his counterparts were bringing their brand of popular music, then officially called “rhythm and blues” (and more colloquially “R & B”) into the popular music mainstream on a massive scale for white listeners like me.  Within a decade after that breakthrough year of 1955, “soul music” had largely supplanted “rhythm and blues” as the term of choice to refer to African-American popular music.

          Also listening to Charles, Berry and Penniman in 1955 were two African-American teenagers from the American South, both born in 1941, both named for their fathers: Otis Redding, Jr., and Wilson Pickett, Jr.  Redding was from Macon, Georgia (as was “Little Richard” Penniman). Pickett was from rural Alabama, but lived a substantial part of his adolescence with his father in Detroit. Each had already shown talent for gospel singing, which was then becoming a familiar pathway for African-Americans into secular rhythm and blues, and thus into the burgeoning world of popular music. A decade later, the two found themselves near the top of a staggering alignment of talent in the popular music world.

          As I look back at the period that began in 1955 and ended around 1970, I now see a golden era of American popular music.  It saw the rise of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, along with oh so many stellar practitioners of that “sweet soul music,” to borrow from the  title of a 1967 hit which Redding helped develop. Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard Penniman may have jump-started the genre in that pivotal year 1955, but plenty of others were soon competing with these pioneers: Sam Cooke, James Brown (another son of Macon, Georgia), Fats Domino, Marvin Gaye, the Platters, the Temptations, Clyde McPhatter and later Ben E. King and the Drifters, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were among the most prominent male stars, while Aretha Franklin, Mary Wells, Dionne Warwick, the Marvellettes, the Shirelles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were among the women who left their imprint upon this golden era.

          But if I had to pick two songs that represented the quintessence of that sweet soul music in this golden era, my choices would be Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” two songs that to me still define and embody soul music. Two recent biographies seek to capture the men behind these irresistible voices: Jonathan Gould’s Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, and Tony Fletcher’s In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett.  Despite Redding and Pickett’s professional successes, their stories are both sad, albeit in different ways.

         Gould’s title reminds us that Redding died before the end of the golden age, in a plane crash in Wisconsin in December 1967, at age 26, as his career was soaring.  Pickett in Fletcher’s account had peaked by the end of the 1960s, with his career thereafter going into a steep downward slide. Through alcohol and drugs, Pickett destroyed himself and several people around him. Most tragically, Pickett physically abused the numerous women in his life. Pickett died in January 2006 at age of 64 of a heart attack, most likely brought about at least in part by years of substance abuse.

        Popular music stars are rarely like poets, novelists, even politicians who leave an extensive written record of their thoughts and activities.   The record for most pop music stars consists primarily of their records.  Gould, more handicapped than Fletcher in this regard given Redding’s premature death in 1967, gets around this obstacle by producing a work that is only about one-half Otis Redding biography.  The other half of his work provides a textbook overview of African-American music in the United States and its relationship to the condition of African-Americans in the United States.

        Unlike many of their peers, neither Redding nor Pickett manifested much outward interest in the American Civil Rights movement that was underway as their careers took off and peaked. But the story of African-American singers beginning their careers in the 1950s and rising to prominence in the lucrative world of 1960s pop music cannot be told apart from that movement.  At every phase of his story of Otis Redding, Gould reminds readers what was going on in the quest for African-American equality: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King’s marches, Civil Rights legislation passed under President Lyndon Johnson, and the rise of Malcolm X’s less accommodating message about how to achieve full equality are all part of Gould’s story, as are the day-to-day indignities that African-American performers endured as they advanced their careers.  Fletcher does not ignore this background – no credible biographer of an African-American singer in the ‘50s and ‘60s could – but it is less prominent in his work.

        More than Fletcher, Gould also links African-American music to African-American history.  He treats the role music played for African-Americans in the time of slavery, during Reconstruction, during the Jim Crow era, and into the post-World War II and modern Civil Rights era. Gould’s overview of African-American history through the lens of African-American music alone makes his book worth reading, and may give it particular appeal to readers from outside the United States who know and love American R&B and soul music, but are less familiar with the historical and sociological context in which it emerged.  But both writers provide lively, detailed accounts of the 1950s and 1960s musical scene in which Redding and Pickett rose to prominence.  Just about every soul music practitioner whom I admired in that era makes an appearance in one or both books.  The two books should thus constitute a welcome trip down memory lane for those who still love that sweet soul music.

* * *

        Otis Redding grew up in a home environment far more stable than that of Wilson Pickett.  Otis was the fourth child, after three sisters, born to Otis Sr. and his wife Fannie. Otis Sr. had serious health issues, but worked while he could at Robbins Air Force base, just outside Macon, Georgia.  Although only minimally educated, Otis Sr. and Fannie saw education as the key to a better future for their children.  They were particularly disappointed when Otis Jr. showed little interest in his studies and dropped out of high school at age 15. As an adolescent, Otis Jr. was known as a “big talker and a good talker, someone who could ‘run his mouth’ and hold his own in the endless arguments and verbal contests that constituted a prime form of recreation among people who quite literally didn’t have anything better to talk about” (Gould, p.115; hereafter “G”).

        Wilson Pickett was one of 11 children born into a family of sharecroppers, barely surviving in the rigidly segregated world of rural Alabama.  When Wilson, Jr. was seven, his father took the family to Detroit, Michigan, in search of a better life, and landed a job at Ford Motor Company. But the family came apart during the initial time in Detroit. His mother Lena returned to Alabama, and young Wilson ended up spending time in both places.  Wilson was subject to harsh discipline at home at the hands of both his mother and his father and grew into an irascible young man, quick to anger and frequently involved as an adolescent in physical altercations with classmates and friends.  His irascibility “provoked ever more harsh lashings, and because these still failed to deter him, it created an especially vicious cycle,” Fletcher writes, with the excessive violence Wilson later perpetrated on others representing a “continuation of the way he had been raised” (Fletcher, p.17; hereafter “F”). For a while, Pickett attended Detroit’s Northwestern High School, where future soul singers Mary Wells and Florence Ballard were also students. But Pickett, like Redding, did not finish high school.

         Both married young. Otis married his childhood sweetheart Zelma Atwood at about the time he should have been graduating from high school, when Zelma was pregnant with their second child.  Otis arrived more than an hour late for his wedding. Despite this less-than-promising beginning, he stayed married to Zelma for the remainder of his unfinished life and became a loyal and dedicated father to two additional children. Pickett married his girlfriend Bonnie Covington at age 18, when she too was pregnant. The couple stayed technically married until 1986, but spent little time together. Pickett’s relationships with his numerous additional female partners throughout his adult life all ended badly.

        Pickett discovered his singing talent through gospel music both in church in rural Alabama and on the streets of Detroit.  In the rigidly segregated South, Fletcher explains, the African-American church provided schooling, charity and community, along with an opportunity to listen to and participate in music.  Gospel was often the only music that young African-Americans in the 1940s and early 1950s were exposed to. “No surprise, then, that for a young Wilson Pickett, gospel music became everything” (F., p.18).  Similarly, it was “all but inevitable that Otis Redding would chose to focus his early musical energies on gospel singing” (G., p.62) at the Baptist Church in Macon which his parents attended.

       Redding gained attention as a 16-year old for his credible imitations of Little Richard. Soon after, he was able to replicate fluently the major R & B songs of the late 1950s. Through a neighborhood friend, Johnny Jenkins, a skilled guitarist, Redding joined a group called the Pinetoppers which played at local African American clubs – dubbed the “Chitlin’ circuit” – and earned money playing at all white fraternity parties at Mercer University in Macon and the University of Georgia.  Redding also spent a short time in Los Angeles visiting relatives, where he fell under the spell of Sam Cooke. Pickett started singing professionally in Detroit with a group known as the Falcons, which also featured Eddie Floyd, who would later go on to record “Knock on Wood,” a popular hit of the mid-60s.  Pickett’s first solo recording came in 1962, “If You Need Me.”

          Redding and Pickett in these two accounts had little direct interaction, and although they looked upon one another as rivals as their careers took off, each appears to have had a high degree of respect for the other. But each had a contract with Atlantic Records, and their careers thus followed closely parallel tracks.  Based in New York, Atlantic signed and marketed some of the most prominent R & B singers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin (whose charms were felt by both Redding and Pickett), along with several leading jazz artists and a handful of white singers. By the mid-1960s, Atlantic and its Detroit rival, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, dominated the R & B sector of American popular music.

       Both men’s careers benefitted from the creative marketing of Jerry Wexler, who joined Atlantic in 1953 after working for Billboard Magazine (where he had coined the term “rhythm and blues” to replace “race music” as a category for African American music). Atlantic and Wexler cultivated licensing arrangements with smaller recording companies where both Redding and Pickett recorded, including Stax in Memphis, Tennessee, and Fame in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Redding and Pickett’s relationships with Wexler at Atlantic, and with a colorful cast of characters at Stax and Fame, play a prominent part in the two biographies.

          But the most affecting business relationship in the two books is that which Redding established with Phil Walden, his primary manger and promoter during his entire career. Walden, a white boy from Macon the same age as Redding, loved popular music of all types and developed a particular interest in the burgeoning rhythm and blues style.  Phil initially booked Otis to sing at fraternity parties at all-white Mercer University in Macon, where he was a student, and somehow the two young men from different worlds within the same hometown bonded. Gould uses the improbable Redding-Walden relationship to illustrate how complex black-white relationships could be in the segregated South, and how the two young men navigated these complexities to their mutual benefit.

       In 1965, Pickett produced his first hit, “In the Midnight Hour,” “perhaps the song most emblematic of the whole southern soul era” (F., p.74). The song appealed to the same white audiences that were listening the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the other British invasion bands. It was “probably the first southern soul recording to have such an effect on such a young white audience,” Fletcher writes, “yet it was every bit an authentic rhythm and blues record too, the rare kind of single that appealed to everyone without compromising” (F., p.76).

         Pickett had had three major hits the following year, 1966: “634-5789,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and “Mustang Sally.” The first two rose to #1 on the R & B charts.  Although “634-5789” was in Fletcher’s terms a “blatant rip-off” of the Marvellettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” and the “closest Pickett would ever come to sounding like part of Motown” (F., p.80), it surpassed “In the Midnight Hour” in sales. In 1968, Pickett turned the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” into his own hit. He also made an eye-opening trip to the newly independent African nation of Ghana, as part of a “Soul to Soul” group that included Ike and Tina Turner and Roberta Flack.  Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” worked the 100,000 plus crowd into a frenzy, Fletcher recounts. Pickett was the “ticket that everyone wanted to see” (F., p.169) and his performance in Ghana may have marked his career’s high point (although the tour included an embarassing low point when Pickett and Ike Turner got into a fight over dressing room priorities).

          “Dock of the Bay,” the song most closely identified with Otis Redding, was released in 1968, and became the only posthumous number one hit in American music history.  At the time of his death in late 1967, Redding had firmly established his reputation with a remarkable string of hits characterized by powerful emotion and depth of voice: “Try a Little Tenderness,” “These Arms of Mine,” “Pain in My Heart,” “Mr. Pitiful,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Like Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” a Beatles’ hit, Redding also “covered,” to use the music industry term, the Rolling Stones’ signature hit, “Satisfaction,” with his own idiosyncratic version.  Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” and Redding’s “Satisfaction,” the two authors note, deftly reversed a trend in popular music, in which for years white singers had freely appropriated African-American singers’ work.

         Gould begins his book with what proved to be the high water mark of Redding’s career, his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. There, he mesmerized the mostly white audience – “footloose college students, college dropouts, teenaged runaways, and ‘flower children’” (G., p.1) – with an electrifying five-song performance, “song for song and note for note, the greatest performance of his career” (G., p.412).  The audience, which had come to hear the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, rewarded Redding with an uninterrupted 10 minute standing ovation.

          After Monterey, Redding developed throat problems that required surgery.  During his recuperation, he developed “Dock of the Bay.” Gould sees affinities in the song to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Otis was seeking a new form of musical identity, Gould contends, becoming more philosophical and introspective, “shedding his usual persona of self-assurance and self-assertion in order to convey the uncertainty and ambivalence of life as it is actually lived”(G. p.447).

          Redding’s premature death, Gould writes, “inspired an outpouring of publicity that far exceeded the sum of what was written about him during his life” (G., p.444). Both writers quote Jerry Wexler’s eulogy: Otis was a “natural prince . . . When you were with him he communicated love and a tremendous faith in human possibility, a promise that great and happy events were coming” (G., p.438; F., p.126). There is a tinge of envy in Fletcher’s observation that Otis’ musical reputation remained “untarnished – preserved at its peak by his early death” (F., p.126).

          Pickett’s story is quite the opposite.  Although he had a couple of mid-level hits in the 1970s, Pickett’s life entered into its own long, slow but steady demise in the years following Redding’s death.  Pickett drank excessively while becoming a regular cocaine consumer during these years. His father had struggled with alcohol, and Pickett exhibited all the signs of severe alcoholism, including heavy morning drinking. Fletcher describes painful instances of domestic violence perpetrated against each of the women with whom Pickett lived.  He was the subject of numerous civil complaints and served some jail time for domestic violence offenses.  Of course, Redding might have gone into a decline as abrupt as that of Pickett had he lived longer; his career might have plateaued and edged into mediocrity, like Pickett’s; and his personal life might have become as messy as Pickett’s.  We’ll never know.

* * *

          Pickett was far from the only star whose best songs were behind him as the 1970s dawned.  Elvis comes immediately to mind, but the same could be said of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Barry Gordy moved his Motown operation from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, where it never recaptured the spark it had enjoyed . . . in Motown.   By 1970, a harder form of rock, intertwined with the psychedelic drug culture, was in competition with that sweet soul music. The 1960s may have been a turbulent decade but the popular music trends that began in 1955 and culminated in that decade were, as Gould aptly puts it, “graced by the talents of an incomparable generation of African-American singers” (G., p.465). The  biographies of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett take us deeply into those times and its unsurpassed music. It was fun while it lasted.

Thomas H. Peebles

Marseille, France

February 26, 2018

P.S. For an audio trip down memory lane, please click these links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTVjnBo96Ug

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGVGFfj7POA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sp3JOzcpBds

 

 

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Filed under American Society, Biography, Music, United States History