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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Big "O"

Otis Redding is generally regarded as the single most influential male soul artist of the '60s. As one of the first artists to broaden his appeal to white audiences with a raw, spontaneous style that bore a stark contrast to the smooth, sophisticated music of Motown, Otis is often called "The King of Soul." Widely renowned for an ability to convey strong emotion through his voice, he virtually defined the genre of soul. Otis Redding was a singer of such commanding stature that, to this day, he embodies the essence of soul music in its purist form. His music remains as fresh and vital as it was in the mid-sixties.

This entry defines Otis Redding, the man and influence, with less specific focus on his musical and artistic contributions. Very seldom is a singer so faithful in image to his real life. On December 10, 1967, in Lake Monona, Madison, Wisconsin, Otis Redding along with six others were killed at the peak of his career at the age of 26. A  plane crash during a storm en route to a concert in Madison ended his life. One month later his biggest hit, "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," was released. His brief musical career had lasted only seven years.

The Musician

Otis Redding was born in Dawson, Georgia, on September 9, 1941 into a family of six. When Otis was five, the family moved to the Tindal Heights Housing Project in Macon, Georgia. After a short stay in a shotgun house in west Macon known as Bellevue (local residents called it "Hellview"), the family was forced to move back into the project after it burnt down.

Redding's father, Otis Sr., worked at the Robbins Air Force Base, one of the local places of employment for blacks, and preached on the weekends as a Baptist minister. Otis Sr. was sick during most of Otis's childhood. 

Otis Redding’s love for music found deep expression after his family moved to Macon when he began singing in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church. He quickly developed a special affinity for music. Besides gospel, Otis discovered Jump Blues and R&B.

His earliest influence was Little Richard, Richard Penniman, who was also a Macon resident. Redding said, "If it hadn't been for Little Richard, I would not be here. I entered the music business because of Richard - he is my inspiration. I used to sing like Little Richard, his Rock 'n' Roll stuff, you know. Richard has soul, too. My present music has a lot of him in it." (Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorized Biography,

Otis participated as a drummer in the band at Ballard Hudson High School in Macon, sang in gospel groups, and performed piano in local talent contests. One contest offered a five-dollar prize, but after winning fifteen times straight, Otis was no longer allowed to compete!

By the time Redding entered Ballard High School, his father was frequently hospitalized from the effects of tuberculosis.To help support the family, he dropped out of school in the tenth grade and worked as a well-digger and gas station attendant. His passion for music, however, led him to land a better paying job with Little Richard's former backing band, the Upsetters. The Upsetters played at local venues such as the Grand Duke Club, and Otis’ first recording session took place in July 1960 with the group.The music was produced on the tiny Confederate label.

Within months, an eighteen-year old Otis joined another Macon-based band, (guitarist) Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers as a sometime singer and occasional driver. Redding also began recording for sundry local independents, and his debut single, "She’s Alright," credited to The Shooters Featuring Otis, was quickly followed by "Shout Bamalama," both done in the style of Little Richard. (Colin Larkin,  The Encyclopedia of Popular Music,

He married Zelma Atwood, whom he had met in 1959, in August of 1961. This was the beginning of Otis' great legacy as a wonderful family man.

Otis left with Johnny Jenkins for Memphis in October, 1962, to record at the then newly-established Stax studios. 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.” "These Arms of Mine" was picked up by the Stax Records subsidiary Volt.  This aching ballad crept into the American Hot 100 in May 1963.

Music history was made the night Otis signed with Volt Records. He returned 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 Stax/Volt Revue stormed Europe with Redding leading the brigade. With his own earthiness and candor in  every performance, Otis converted hippiedom to soul music at the 1967 Monterey (California) Pop Festival and was just entering a new phase of popularity when tragedy struck.

“Otis wore his heart on his sleeve,” said Jerry Wexler, whose Atlantic label handled Stax's distribution, thus bringing Redding to a national market. The hits came fast and furiously.

"As a composer, especially with his frequent partner Steve Cropper, he introduced a new sort of rhythm-and-blues line—lean, clean, and steely strong. He arranged his songs as he wrote them, singing horn and rhythm parts to the musicians and, in general, sculpting his total sound. That sound, the Stax signature, would resonate for decades to come. Redding became a de facto leader presiding over a band that would prove as influential as the great rhythm-and-blues aggregations that preceded it, units associated with Ray Charles and James Brown." (,, Encyclopedia Britannica)

Rolling Stone rated Redding #8 in their issue of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time." Booker T. Jones said Otis' appeal rested with the intent with which he sang. Jones remembers, "He was all emotion. It was like, 'This guy is definitely not singing for the money.' I don't think he ever did." ("100 Greatest Singers of All Time,", 2009)

Jones continues, "Range was not a factor in his singing. His range was somewhat limited. He had no really low notes and no really high notes. But Otis would do anything that implied emotion, and that's where his physicality came in, because he was such a strong, powerful man. Backstage, he would be like a prizefighter waiting to get out there. Playing 'Respect' live with him was just energy and relentless joy."

His recording sessions were galvanic, impassioned and intense. Donald “Duck” Dunn, legendary bassist with the M.G.s, recalls: “Otis would come in, and he’d just bring everybody up. You wanted to play with Otis. He brought out the best in you.”

The Business Man

As president of his own publishing firm, Redwal Music Co., Inc., Otis was very active in the company's operation and directly responsible for the company's leadership in the music publishing field. "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." (, Music Atlas, 2008)

At a time when it may not have been considered politically correct, Redding had a white manager, Phil Walden, and a racially mixed band. In reference to his prowess as a business man, he set up his own publishing and record label, Jotis Records, making unprecedented moves for a black music artist in the '60s. Otis was also engaged in other business interests in his native state such as real estate, investments, stocks, and bonds.

Also, Otis Redding was seen as a role model by blacks. He was someone who got paid and paid well without the usual horror stories of being ripped off by promoters, agents, managers, or record company executives. Otis knew how to earn and invest money. In fact, Otis was even slated to have his own national TV special in 1968.

  Left to right: Otis Redding III, Demetria Redding, Zelma Redding, Karla Redding-Andrews, & Dexter Redding.

The Family Man

Otis and Zelma had three children: Dexter, Karla, Otis III, and a fourth, Demetria, 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.

His sons, Dexter and Otis III are active music producers and songwriters, both traveling internationally. Karla is a successful and influential entrepreneur having found and jointly managing the day to day operations of Karla's Shoe Boutique with her mother and partner, in downtown Macon, Georgia. Zelma, of course, is the executrix over the Redding Estate where she manages the daily requests for songs in commercials and music sampling; the use of his name and image; the Otis Redding Memorial Fund; and the Scholarship Foundation. Demetria is a public relations director for the American Cancer Society in Macon, Georgia. (, Music Atlas, 2008)

Today, The Big "O" Youth Educational Dream Foundation is founded on the mission statement "Progress Through Education/Enlightenment Through Music." Established in 2007 by Mrs. Zelma Redding, the foundation honors Otis' life by fulfilling his dream of improving the quality of life for the community through the education and empowerment of its youth.

With its roots in music, the foundation has created educational awareness programs in the arts and humanities. These programs encourage individual and team participation, build self-esteem and instill discipline.They offer
opportunities for youth to improve their academic performance by helping them make choices in life that enrich rather than endanger. These opportunities are a catalyst for education, health, fitness and other youth oriented initiatives.

The Big “O” Youth Educational Dream Foundation is supportive of foundations and educational initiatives from all across the globe; particularly those in Otis’ home state of Georgia where the high-school dropout rate is among the nation’s highest. In 2009, The Big “O” Youth Educational Dream Foundation was fortunate to work with the following programs:

  • The annual Otis Redding Singer/Songwriter Camp – held in Macon, GA in conjunction with The Georgia Music Hall of Fame
  • The Mentor’s Project, Macon , GA – programs focusing on youth and teens; ages 10-18
  • Ft. Valley State University F.A.M.E Camp – Scholarship and Endowment programs for high school sophomores, juniors and seniors
  • Hutchings Career Center Academic Support Programs
  • Roger Jackson’s “Motivating Youth Foundation, Inc.”
  • Boys and Girls Clubs of Central GA

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