I was walking on our small green college campus, singing. Dave, beside me, tall and lank and not known for flattery, said, “You should sing, Cliff.” He thought a moment. “You do sing, Cliff.”
I shrugged and thanked him. “I can sing a little, I guess. I can’t perform.”
“They could teach you that stuff.”
One of my two favorite singers never learned that stuff. A gawky six foot one, Otis Redding, who couldn’t dance to save his life, would march in place on stage. “If you can’t march to it,” he once announced with an endearing defensiveness, “it ain’t no good!”
The basement of my family’s little house held much that my three older siblings once held dear. Along the white stucco walls were stacks of soul LPs and singles. On one red 45 was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay”—recorded in 1967, very shortly before his death at twenty-six in a plane crash. I discovered it in the summer of 1975, less than a year after my father died.
For years, “Dock of the Bay” was the only Redding song I knew. I didn’t realize it was both the culmination of a career cut short and a departure from the rest of that career. Redding’s singing on “Dock” is both soulful and contemplative, conveying the plight of a man who has traveled far in search of something he may well never find. (“Two thousand miles I’ve roamed / Just to make this dock my home.”) His voice is resigned, in contrast, I would discover, to his singing on the records that made his reputation. On his 1966 song “Cigarettes and Coffee,” Redding establishes a seemingly calm scene: at “about a quarter till three” in the morning, an hour of quiet dark, a man and woman share cigarettes and coffee while the man talks about their relationship. To this stillness Redding brings urgency, pleading that they go forward together—“If you would take things under consideration and walk down this aisle with me, I would love it, yeah”—the intensity and yearning in his voice rising along with his need to be understood.
And then there is real calm. Also in my family’s basement was my big brother’s LP The Best of Sam Cooke, whose cover featured a black-and-white image of the matinee-handsome, youthful, smiling singer against a yellow background. Yellow is often associated with happiness; on recordings Cooke often seems happy, or at least easy and relaxed. Whether he is reuniting with his love (“Ain’t That Good News”) or wishing he were back with her (“Bring It On Home”), his voice has an unflappability at its core. The miracle of Sam Cooke is that this quality always fits the mood. When he sings, “If you ever change your mind / About leaving, leaving me behind / Bring it to me—bring your sweet loving / Bring it on home to me,” he sounds at once sad about what has happened and satisfied that he has found the voice to say it.
If calm is a constant in Cooke’s singing, the texture of his voice ranges from silk to sandpaper, depending on his audience—the mostly white pop fans for whom he crooned or the mostly black soul fans for whom his delivery took on a rasp. In his more soulful numbers, in that rasp, there is still another quality mixed with joy, one that recognizes joy’s darker side.
That side is known to all adults: both the moods that contrast with—and so allow us to recognize—joy, and the amoral nature of joy itself. Sometimes the knowledge is written on faces. I have a photograph of myself sitting next to a male friend; at the time it was taken, we were in our early thirties, and I was the father of a small child. My friend and I, sitting and leaning forward, are both smiling, but I am always struck—what is a personal essayist but a professional narcissist?—by what else is on my face, settling around the eyes: every experience I’d had, everything I brought to bear on raising another, and all that raising another had added to those experiences. I saw the same in the grim smile of another friend as he and I talked in his apartment one evening. I’d known this man since we were young editorial assistants, and I could see, as he sat across his kitchen table, talking about his negotiations with his teen daughter, a knowingness that had not always been there, a quality for an actor to study.
This is the knowingness in Cooke’s voice when he sings, “. . . I ain’t felt this good since I don’t know when / And I might not feel this good again / So come on and let the good time roll / We gon’ stay here till we soothe our souls / If it take all night long . . .”
In my early twenties I shared an apartment with a friend I’ll call Lisa. After a few months she moved to a different city, preventing what would possibly, and possibly unwisely, have become a romantic involvement. Lisa, who represented a road not taken, one day rather tactlessly suggested another untaken path: hearing me sing to myself, and having read some of my work, she asked, “Why writing? Why not singing?”
The answer requires an absurd comparison. Both Cooke and Redding, from young ages, exuded confidence around others, an invaluable asset for performers; I remember a counselor at the summer day-camp I attended saying that I was “too quiet.” Cooke and Redding grew up in religious households where singing—beginning with gospel music—was simply what their families did; Sundays found the members of my household scattered to the winds, and a story famous in our family has it that when I was a baby, my mother came running from our next-door neighbor’s house because she thought I was screaming in agony—only to find one of my sisters singing while washing the dishes.
And yet I love to sing. Writing allows one to express what one thinks and feels, but singing, for me, is all feeling, guided by instinct to the right notes but otherwise freed from my near-constant companion, rationality. My eyes close; I am lost in sound.
I occasionally fantasize about singing “Ain’t That Good News” in a coffeehouse somewhere. But I am happy singing for myself. I don’t regret that I never tried to do it professionally. Some ideas may live most happily at the dream stage.
My regret is that I don’t seem to do it as well as I once did. As a family man who has not lived alone for over a quarter-century, I do not belt as often or as freely as before, and maybe my singing muscle has atrophied. Maybe after five decades voices just get worse. Whatever the cause, sometimes when I sing now, I hear my voice straying from the right note, like a small child too curious to walk home in straight lines. Has my voice faded? Or is it that my ear has gotten better? None of this would seem to matter, since I only ever sang for myself. But it presents a minor challenge to my sense—which I have carried deep into middle age—of who I am, who I have been, and what I can do going forward. In itself this challenge is not much; yet it seems a harbinger of a great deal.
Why are Cooke and Redding my favorite singers? Why not, say, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, who, objectively speaking, had two of the greatest voices ever to grace the recording industry? Such preferences are mysterious and subjective, but if I had to make a guess, it would involve my father. His death, when I was eleven, was both sudden and not. He had long had cardiovascular problems, which his smoking did not help; on the other hand, his maladies did not fit my limited understanding of illness, and his death, for me, came out of nowhere—one day he was walking and talking like a normal, healthy person, and the next day he was gone. I still had the guidance and heard the voices of the women in my life—my mother, my grandmother, my two sisters—but the chief male voice had been silenced. Is it possible that on some level, missing that authoritative male voice, I craved others, even the disembodied? Especially when those disembodied voices were so beautiful?
One bit of irony is that I soon lived longer than both of my elders Cooke and Redding. Another is that if I really was seeking guidance in the two men’s voices, keys to the mystery of how to live, the circumstances of Cooke’s death suggest that I was barking up the wrong tree. Cooke’s great demon was his libido. Three of his girlfriends were pregnant with his children at the same time. On the last night of his life, in late 1964, he checked into a motel with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute and who ran off with his wallet and pants; enraged, wearing only a jacket and shoes, he went to the motel office demanding to know where the woman had gone, and the manager—who later claimed Cooke had become violent with her—fired a gun at him. The last words of the soul icon were reported to be, “Lady, you shot me!” He was thirty-three years old.
Why do I still listen to these men? Cooke and Redding, who both died young, would not seem able to provide guidance from beyond the grave to a growing boy, let alone an aging man. Yet the work each did in the last year of his life offers a clue for going forward. After years of singing songs whose trademark was their urgency, Redding, in his final recording, offered up a masterpiece of mournful contemplation. Cooke, spurred by a personal encounter with racism to write and record the 1964 song “A Change Is Gonna Come,” an anthem of the civil rights movement, traded the calm at the core of his delivery for a tone of restlessness and longing.
When I was a young man and felt I was singing well, my voice followed the style of the singer I’d heard perform the song. On the page, I’ve never consciously imitated another writer.
Otis Redding admired, and sought for himself, both Sam Cooke’s status as a soul singer and his autonomy in the studio. Jonathan Gould, author of Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, observes that fairly far into Redding’s career, Cooke’s “effortless grace” as a performer “still eluded” Redding; somehow he never learned “that stuff.” But we do not turn to Redding for effortless grace—we already have Cooke. Redding’s art, at least before “Dock of the Bay,” lay in obvious effort, the feeling that he conveyed so strongly through the suggestion that he could not convey it strongly enough.
As people age, their faces become the faces of their families. (In that photo, I begin to resemble my father.) Yet the people become more themselves. They begin to know better what they love. The things I love bring me joy of the kind that shone forth from Sam Cooke; in my desire to embrace those things in the years I have left, I feel the urgency of Otis Redding.
It is the urgency of a young man walking home with his small child. The man is set on his destination; the child wants to stop at every rock, every tree. Leaves have fallen, and the wind carries a chill. Sometimes, nonetheless, the man lets himself stray from the path a little and follow his child, because he never knows what they might find.
Clifford Thompson is the author of Signifying Nothing: A Novel (2009); Love for Sale and Other Essays (2013); Twin of Blackness: A Memoir (2015); and What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues (forthcoming this November). Winner of a 2013 Whiting Award, he teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, and the Bennington Writing Seminars. He lives in Brooklyn. (updated 09/2019)