Remembering Otis Redding: How His Family Keeps His Legacy Alive In Georgia and Beyond
This September would have been Redding's 80th birthday. Fifty-four years after his tragic death, his family continues to honor his legacy through the Otis Redding Foundation.
Soul singer Otis Redding was still ascending to super stardom when the blues-rock band Rising Sons got the nod to open for him at a West Hollywood club in the spring of 1966. Taj Mahal, not yet the acclaimed bluesman that he would become, was lead vocalist for the short-lived group.
In an interview nearly 45 years later, Mahal remembered the buzz-generating performance at the Whisky a Go Go club well. Not so much his band's, but Redding's. He'd never witnessed anything like that four-night stand.
The raw emotion. The frenzied pace. The utter soulfulness of it all.
"This cat just had the rafters falling down," Mahal told music journalist Harvey Kubernik in a 2010 article in the record collector magazine Goldmine.
Redding "wasn't trying to articulate like anybody else," Mahal said. "He was himself."
That Redding stayed true to himself – and true to his Georgia roots – has been long celebrated in the city where he grew up.
Located 80 miles south of Atlanta, Macon bills itself as "The Song and the Soul of the South." Though it's been 54 years since Redding's death in a plane crash at the tragically young age of 26, his music is still frequently heard on the jukeboxes in the city's bars and restaurants. For local bands, his songs –"(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," "Respect," "Hard to Handle" and many others – are always in their back pockets.
"If you really want to get the crowd going, you play Otis. That's what you're going to do in Macon, and everybody is going to know the words and sing it with you. No doubt," said local singer Kim Meeks, who performs at various venues around the city.
Redding's name is often the first recited in a litany of musicians who were either born in, lived in, or recorded in the city. Those include "Little Richard" Penniman, James Brown, Lena Horne, the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band, two members of R.E.M., and Jason Aldean.
That Redding's name rises to the top, "that's saying something," said Ron White, who grew up in Macon and now fronts a band, Blue Mischief, that picks up gigs around Atlanta. "Otis Redding's legacy is something that will always be remembered there."
And elsewhere. In 1989, Redding was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Four decades after his death, Rolling Stone magazine readers ranked him the all-time best rhythm and blues/soul singer.
Redding will be the center of attention once again during a virtual tribute marking what would have been his 80th birthday. It starts September 9 and continues through that weekend. More information will be available at otisreddingfoundation.org.
It's the latest in a string of local remembrances and honors that have come over the decades: Two bridges are named for him, one in Macon, where he spent the first part of his life in a segregated housing project, and one on the outskirts of the city in Jones County, where he bought a sprawling ranch to live with his wife and children. A life-size statue was erected on the banks of the Ocmulgee River. Commemorations have marked his passing and milestone birthdays.
The Otis Redding Foundation, run by his family, operates a mini-museum dedicated to Redding on Cotton Avenue in what was once Macon's Black business district. It draws roughly 5,000 visitors annually. Several weeks ago, actor, director, and screenwriter Tyler Perry stopped in to pay his respects.
"We appreciate when artists or musicians who are in town come to the museum," said Redding's daughter, Karla Redding-Andrews. "It's small, but it tells a great story."
Redding began developing his talent in his youth by singing in the church. He went on to enter teen talent competitions at the African-American owned Douglass Theatre, winning 15 times, said Redding-Andrews. "He was politely asked not to enter again," she said.
He got a big break when he recorded a song he had written, "These Arms of Mine," using leftover studio time meant for another musician.
"He was always great, but he got even greater as the years went on," said Alan Walden, whose late brother, Phil, became Redding's manager in 1959. Walden said he later shared those duties with his brother.
With his success, Redding could have left the area, which wasn't known for its progressive attitude toward Black people and civil rights. But he chose to stay. The Waldens grew up in Macon and were based there too. Two years after Redding's death, Phil Walden and Frank Fenter would establish Capricorn Records, a label that became synonymous with Southern Rock.
"He loved Georgia," said Redding-Andrews, referring to her father. "He knew he had to work outside of Georgia some, but knew he always needed a connection to come back home."
Performing on the road, Redding often allowed people from his hometown to come backstage for a quick hello, Alan Walden recalled.
But it's not only memories that are keeping Redding's presence felt in Macon. His family, through the foundation, is continuing the investment in young talent that Redding started in 1967 with a music camp for 300 children. Since 2008, for two weeks each summer, the Otis Music Camp has brought together 50 to 75 youths, ages 12 to 18, to hone their skills at singing, songwriting and playing instruments and to learn other aspects of the music industry, from producing and audio engineering to how to legally protect what they create.
There's the separate, four-day Camp Dream for "the littles," ages 5 to 11.
"That's how Otis Redding still makes an impact," said his grandson, Justin Andrews, whose mother, Redding-Andrews, was just 5 years old when her father died.
It's a family affair, involving Andrews, who serves as administrator of the Otis Music Camp and Camp Dream, his mother and the music legend's wife Zelma, and his sons Dexter and Otis Redding III, who had some success with their own band, The Reddings.
The foundation enlists the help of two dozen coaches from Georgia and around the country. Some industry heavy hitters also have given their time, including Eric Burton, a member of the Grammy-nominated Black Pumas, a psychedelic soul band based in Austin, Texas. Last year, after leading a virtual session during the pandemic, he teamed up with Fender to donate acoustic guitars to all of the campers.
In addition, the foundation offers private music lessons, with director Kimberly Kelsey Epps recruiting instructors from Mercer University, Middle Georgia State University, and Kennesaw State University and other outlets.
Right now, the lessons and the camps take place at different locations. But, long term, the foundation hopes to house all of its programs at a facility in downtown Macon.
One day, another building in the heart of the city also might bear his name. Talk of adding it to the Macon City Auditorium has bandied about for years.
"If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, we're still great supporters of this community and always will be," said Redding-Andrews. "The whole community has been so welcoming and so open armed to Otis Redding."