One of the often rewarding things about writing is the research and, sometimes in tandem, the serendipity. Eliot Smith, the main man in Eliot’s Tale, is someone for whom the music of his early years retains its hold on him, just as it does for many of us who came of age in the 60s and 70s. The music of those days became more than background sounds; it took an upfront and personal place in the culture and the time.
There came one point in the construction of the story that Eliot is driving hard, aimed at yet another destination where he believes that someone will aid him with his quest for understanding “things done and left undone.” He happens across a radio station that’s serving up a wholesome helping of classic soul music, and Eliot has settled into the groove. But just as the station begins to fade out, he hears the one and only Otis Redding launch into that stuttering killer opening: “These…arms…of…mine…” Realizing the need to hear all of that tune and others, Eliot digs out his prized copy of the big man’s greatest hits, which includes “Try A Little Tenderness,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Respect”– which too many people don’t realize Otis wrote even though it was Aretha who scored big with it.
And, of course, virtually everyone knows “Dock of the Bay,” which was the only number one hit on the pop chart for Otis. Just to check a few facts, I did some digging and uncovered an interesting story about the writing of that classic tune. It seems Otis was hanging out at a place next to the water in Sausalito in 1967, listening repeatedly to the Beatles’ recently released Sergeant Pepper’s album. Apparently that album bowled him over, showed him a new approach that suggested a departure. Working with Steve Cropper, the guitarist who was a mainstay of Stax Records, Otis wrote “Dock of the Bay,” which definitely stepped away from the more traditional soul form and attitude. Shortly thereafter, Otis and his band, the Bar-Kays, went into the studio and recorded the track. Three days later, Otis died at age 26 when his plane slammed into an icy lake in Wisconsin. The song was released a month later and banged straight to the top of the pop and R&B charts, and remains a standard. Another tragedy that took a great musician out in his prime, just like Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, Stevie Ray, Marvin, etc.
Another interesting story I happened across in my research involved Otis meeting Bob Dylan, who played him a new tune called “Just Like A Woman.” After hearing it, Otis stated he was going to record it as soon as possible, which supposedly pleased Bob. But, of course, Otis never made it to the studio with that tune, which is a real loss. Each time I hear Bob’s rendering, which has its own beauty, I imagine what it would be like to hear Otis put his soul stamp on a line such as “…she makes love just like a woman, but breaks just like a little girl.”
I’m not sure why it was Otis who came to mind at this point in the story, but I believe, in retrospect, it was because his slow, sad “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” was a perfect representation of how Eliot was feeling at that moment as he feared the potential loss of the woman he loves deeply. That’s the way it is with great songs, the ones we know from other places and times. Sometimes they just capture again for us that perfect symmetry of time and feeling, and encapsulate the emotions we felt once upon a time and render them again in a new context.
If you don’t have any Otis in your collection, do yourself a favor and at least grab one of the greatest hits collections. And then rediscover one of the great voices and the ultimate soul man.