Forty years after his passing, the legacy of Otis Redding remains stronger than ever. As the decades have gone by since December 10, 1967 when the world tragically lost one of its greatest soul singers, the power and impact of this Georgia-born R&B pioneer’s music and career shows no signs of diminishing. Through a recorded legacy that spans a mere six years (less than a decade?) but is filled with classic after classic, the man whose distinctive music influenced British rock stars and his American soul music peers alike continues to be accorded and afforded the global recognition and (borrowing the title of one of his most enduring compositions) respect he richly deserves. And beyond those precious recordings (mostly cut in Memphis at Stax Records between 1963 and 1967), there is The Big “O” Youth Educational Dream Foundation, created by his widow, Mrs. Zelma Redding which reflects the deeply held commitment her husband expressed to giving back to the community with a special emphasis on education.
Fittingly, the last four months of 2007 starting with the anniversary of what would been Redding’s 66th birthday, September 9th, (September 12 was named “Otis Redding Day” by the Mayor of Macon) included a number of key events: the release of a first-ever DVD “Dreams To Remember, The Legacy Of Otis Redding” from Stax/Concord; the unveiling of the “Otis Redding: I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” multi-media interactive exhibit featuring over 175 artifacts at the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame; and a special music tribute, “An Evening Of Respect…The Legacy Continues” hosted by Kenny Lattimore, Chanté Moore, and Diana DeGarmo with performances by The Macon Symphony Orchestra, The Bar-Kays, Taj Mahal and The Reddings (his sons Dexter and Otis III), a benefit for the Big “O” Youth Educational Dream Foundation.
For Zelma Redding, 2007 represents a particular benchmark after years of work on preserving and protecting her husband’s legacy: “It’s wonderful for me to see how people still love Otis’ music after forty years and how a whole new generation has discovered his work. It’s such an honor when I get letters from people telling me that they named their son after him. I am surprised; for the first few years, the appreciation was there but after so many years, it seems to get bigger and bigger.”
In the annals of rhythm and blues, few artists are as deserving of the kind of admiration and love that Otis Redding has commanded since he first came to the attention of the mainstream music-buying public in 1963. Almost as soon as his initial recordings for Stax Records became available to avid R&B fans in Europe, Otis Redding became a prime influence for groups like Britain’s Rolling Stones and indeed, the reverence for his music throughout Europe resulted in packed audiences when he headlined the now-famous Stax/Volt Revue during its spring 1967 tour of the continent. In the U.S., Otis Redding’s star was mostly decidedly in it’s ascendancy after his show-stopping performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June of that same year, around the same time that singer Aretha Franklin, the future ‘Queen Of Soul’ was establishing herself as a hit-maker with her rendition of Otis’ own “Respect.”
In the company of such icons as Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard and James Brown, Otis Redding helped shape the direction of black music, using a blues-drenched vocal style, initially derived from his early years singing in church. Redding’s emotive heart-wrenching approach instantly distinguished him from other soul men of the day and on such ballads as “These Arms Of Mine” (his first national charted single) and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” (written with fellow R&B journeyman Jerry Butler) as well as an unforgettable cover of the pop standard “Try A Little Tenderness,” Otis Redding was his own man. On up-tempo groove sides like Redding compositions “Respect,” “Mr. Pitiful,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and a funky reading of The Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Otis ruled.
Masterpiece albums like “Otis Blue” (an expanded version of which is being released in late 2007), “The Dictionary Of Soul” and “The Soul Album” became the template for recordings by others, filled with passionate performances that would influence more than one generation of recording artists. Indeed, the list of those who have covered or sampled songs from the Otis Redding catalog includes The Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, Al Green, The Black Crowes, Pearl Jam, John Mayer, Christine Aguilera, Etta James, Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton, Kanye West, Kelly Clarkson and Toots Maytal.
We can speculate that Otis Redding would probably have been truly surprised to know the degree to which his music would reverberate four decades after he first recorded it. Certainly, his humble beginnings in Georgia would have given no clue that ‘Big O’, as he was affectionately known, (as much because of his commanding physical stature as for his all-encompassing impact at Stax Records) would go on to become a global legend.
Born in Dawson, Georgia on September 9, 1941 into a family of six, Otis Redding’s love for music found expression after his family moved to Macon and he began singing in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church, as well as participating in the band at Ballard Hudson High School.
Determined to help his family financially, he dropped out of high school and went on to work with the group the Upsetters who had been Macon native Little Richard’s backing band. Otis began competing in local talent shows for the five-dollar prize, but after winning fifteen times straight, he was no longer allowed to compete!
After performing at such local venues as the Grand Duke, Otis’ first recording session – with The Upsetters – took place in July 1960. Within months, an eighteen-year old Otis joined another Macon-based band, (guitarist) Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers in 1960, recording briefly with the group. Jenkins went to Memphis in October 1962 to record at the then newly-established Stax studios and with some time left at the end of the session, Otis was given the opportunity to cut two of his own songs, “These Arms of Mine” and “Hey Hey Baby.”
History was made that night and Otis signed with the Stax imprint, Volt Records, returning seven months later for the second of some thirty more recording sessions he would complete between June of 1963 and November 1967, when he would cut “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay”. The wistful, highly personal song would posthumously top the U.S. pop and R&B charts and become Otis Redding’s most enduring and memorable globally-known anthem.
Beyond the thirty singles (including three duets with label mate Carla Thomas from their famed 1967 “King & Queen” album) and ten original albums that bore his name, Otis Redding’s prowess as a live performer was renowned: in the wake of hits like 1963’s “Pain In My Heart,” 1966’s “My Lover’s Prayer” and his 1967 re-working of his musical hero Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” Otis became a major headliner in the U.S., initially performing on the ‘chitlin’ circuit of theaters such as The Apollo in New York, The Howard in Washington, D.C. and The Regal in Chicago and throughout the South (where his popularity was particularly strong), before doing shows at rock and pop venues such as The Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles and heading off to perform in Canada and the Caribbean.
It was European audiences who first demonstrated their true respect for Redding; in September 1966, the No. 1 rated British television music show “Ready Steady Go!” was dedicated to Otis and when he returned some six months later with fellow artists for the Stax/Volt Revue (including Booker T. & The MGs and The Mar-Keys who provided musical backing at the studios in Memphis where Otis recorded), Otis enjoyed night after night of standing ovations in cities like London, Paris and Stockholm. Upon his return to the U.S., after being named “No. 1 Male Vocalist” in Britain’s “Melody Maker” poll, Otis was booked for the Monterey Pop Festival, sharing the stage with popular rock, pop and folk acts of the day such as Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. On that June 1967 night, backed by the MGs, Otis Redding performed before his largest audience ever, some 30,000-strong, making musical history as the virtual highlight of the entire three-day festival. A matter of weeks later, he was in San Francisco for shows at The Fillmore West and it was during a weeklong stay on a houseboat in Sausalito that the inspiration came for “Dock Of The Bay.”
With a decidedly-different, more acoustic flavor, the song was one of a dozen or so Otis cut in Memphis in November 1967, in his last recording sessions before the night of December 10th when the private plane he owned went down in Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin, leaving just one survivor (Ben Cauley of The Bar-Kays who were backing Otis at the time). In the wake of his tragic passing, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” (which earned Otis a posthumous Grammy Award for “Best R&B Song” and has been certified by BMI for over eight million plays) was issued in early 1968 with subsequent albums such as “The Immortal Otis Redding,” “Love Man” (Zelma Redding’s personal favorite) and “Tell The Truth” among further releases as testament to Otis Redding’s abiding soulful artistry.
Beyond the studio and the stage, Otis was a pioneer in many other areas: as president of his own publishing firm, Redwal Music Co., Inc., he was very active in the company's operation and directly responsible for the company's leadership in the music publishing field. To date, the company has copyrighted over 200 commercially successful songs and published many songs which have sold in excess of one million copies each. Otis also had his own Jotis Records label and was responsible for mentoring soul man Arthur Conley (of “Sweet Soul Music” fame) as one of its original artists.
The idea that music could be a universal force, bringing together different races and cultures, was central to Otis' personal philosophy and reflected in his everyday life. At a time when it may not have been considered politically correct, Redding had a white manager, Phil Walden, and a racially mixed band. His commitment to making a contribution was evidenced by the donation of scholarships and the home barbeques for underprivileged children that he and wife Zelma would host: “He always gave back to the community,” recalls Mrs. Redding, who started the Otis Redding Fund some twenty years ago to give scholarships to different organizations.
While his music and his humanitarian contributions were of prime importance to Otis Redding, his love for his family was close to his heart and soul; Otis met his wife Zelma Atwood in 1959 and they married in August 1961. Together they have four children: Dexter, Karla, Otis III, and Demetria (Dee-Dee) who was adopted after his death. In 1965, he moved them into a spacious 300 acre property, "The Big O Ranch" in Round Oak, Georgia, affectionately named after "The Big O" himself. Since his death Mrs. Redding has expanded the ranch to 460 acres.
Sons, Dexter and Otis III are active music producers and songwriters, both traveling internationally. Dee-Dee is a Business Development Manager for Heartland Hospice in Macon, while Karla is a successful and influential entrepreneur having founded and jointly managing the day to day operations of Karla's Shoe Boutique in downtown Macon, GA. She also works closely with her mother Zelma, the executrix of the Redding Estate, where she manages the daily requests for use of Otis’ music in commercials and for samples, as well as overseeing the use of his name and image. Now, she also heads up The Big “O” Youth Educational Dream Foundation. “We did a concert in 2003 for the Otis Redding Fund,” Mrs. Redding recalls, “and we decided it was time to take it to another level with the creation of this foundation which provides scholarships for further education, particularly for music and arts programs in Macon and middle Georgia, and seeks to mentor children through the arts. I know Otis would be proud.”
Redding would also no doubt be proud that his music lives on and that his legacy continues: a bronze statue of Otis stands in Gateway Park in Macon and The Otis Redding Memorial Park was dedicated in Memphis in 2001. A commemorative stamp bearing his portrait was issued by the United States Postal Service in 1993 and since his passing, honors have included 1988 induction into the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame, 1989 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame induction in 1994, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award from NARAS in 1999, a 2006 Legacy Award from The Rhythm & Blues Foundation and the inception of the “Otis Redding Excellence Award” by Billboard Magazine in 2006 (with first recipient, producer and record label head, Jermaine Dupri).
Beyond the honors, accolades and awards, there is the wonderful music that he made which still reverberates across the globe. While the world was blessed with his presence for just twenty six short years, the lasting legacy of Otis Redding remains intact, a testament to a one-of-a-kind true-to-life always-real soul man of the first order.