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Otis Redding Still Drawing Fans

December 6, 1997

ROUND OAK, Ga. (AP) _ Sitting in the morning sun, in a marble tomb cooled by shade trees, Otis Redding rests about a hundred paces from the ranch house he built before death and a posthumous hit made him a legend.

It’s approaching 30 years since Redding’s plane crashed into an icy Wisconsin lake on Dec. 10, 1967 _ three days after he recorded ``(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.″

The soul singer’s music now reaches a second generation of fans, and his widow, Zelma Redding, meets them at her front door. Somehow, they find the unmarked road leading to the Redding family’s 440-acre ranch. They show up every month or so, asking permission to pay their respects.

``This is not Graceland. This is my home,″ Mrs. Redding noted.

But when visitors mind their manners, she escorts them to the grave.

``These are kids 24, 25 years old, who weren’t even born when Otis was alive,″ Mrs. Redding said. ``They’ll just stand there and they just cry and cry.″

Crying, begging and pleading _ those words are often used to describe Redding’s voice, which touched on emotions and experiences far beyond his brief 26 years.

Blazing a trail from Macon, Ga., to Memphis, Tenn., he created a sound that reached across the color line, winning over a large white audience without diluting his rural, black roots.

It hasn’t stopped. ``The Very Best of Otis Redding,″ a CD issued in 1992, went gold last year after selling more than 500,000 copies.

``That’s incredible, to find his music as influential as it’s ever been,″ said Phil Walden, Redding’s manager who went on to found Capricorn Records, now based in Atlanta. ``His legend is really ‘sans hype.’ It has made it to this point purely on the magnificence of his music.″

Perhaps his death played a part, too. Redding never had a crossover hit until ``Dock of the Bay,″ which was released a month after the crash. It vaulted to No. 1 on the pop and rhythm and blues charts.

Mrs. Redding insists the song succeeded because it was equal parts omen and epitaph.

``It seems as though the song was letting you know, `I won’t be here a long, long time,‴ she said. ``That song connects so well with Otis’ death. It’s like, it tells a story. If you know about Otis Redding and you listen to `(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,′ it just puts this ball of sadness in your heart.″

A diminutive woman with closely cropped hair and funky wire-framed glasses, Mrs. Redding, 55, took over management of her husband’s estate shortly after he died. Though she says the estate is worth ``over millions,″ Mrs. Redding and her daughter, Karla, work daily at a shoe boutique they own in downtown Macon.

In an interview at the Big O Ranch, 20 miles north of Macon, Mrs. Redding sat surrounded by framed photos, paintings and drawings of her husband. It was the room where he would gaze out the window and write songs, strumming an acoustic guitar tuned to a chord.

A long, black leather coat lay draped over a chair. ``This jacket is so special to me,″ she said. ``He was killed in this jacket.″

Fresh flowers, in two vases on a table, had been arranged to replace those at the grave. Mrs. Redding likely will change them again on the Dec. 10 anniversary.

She also planned to rearrange her husband’s display at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, near the Otis Redding Memorial Bridge in Macon. And she plans to donate $10,000 to the hall to pay student volunteers.

She intends to do it quietly, nothing public. ``You don’t celebrate people’s death. That’s so stupid.″

Redding met both his future wife and Walden, his future manager, in Macon in the 1950s, when all three were teen-agers. Walden’s passion for black music made him ``the little white boy who everybody was wanting to beat up on,″ Mrs. Redding recalled.

If Redding and Walden’s close friendship made them outcasts in the segregated South, they found refuge at the Stax studio in Memphis. Booker T. and the MGs, the studio’s integrated house band, became an integral part of Redding’s sound.

Now a vacant lot with a Tennessee historical marker, Stax produced some of the biggest soul hits of the ’60s by acts like Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett.

Redding became Stax’s biggest star soon after recording his first single, ``These Arms of Mine,″ in 1962. In doing so, he stole the show from Johnny Jenkins, a Macon guitarist whom he’d accompanied to Stax for a demo session.

When Jenkins finished recording, Redding persuaded the band to let him sing one of his own songs.

``He started singing, `Theeese Ah-rums Uh-of My-eye-ine,‴ recalled MGs guitarist Steve Cropper. ``And we said, `Whoa!′ That’s all we needed.″

Redding repeatedly cracked the R&B charts with Top 10 hits like ``Mr. Pitiful,″ ``I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now)″ and ``Try a Little Tenderness.″ But crossover success on the white-dominated pop charts eluded him.

Still, he reached white audiences on the college circuit, where fraternity parties had become popular stops for touring soul singers.

By reaching out to both whites and blacks, Redding and other soul singers have been credited with producing the soundtrack to the civil rights movement.

``It’s simplistic, but it was awfully difficult for people to hate when they loved the music so much,″ Walden said.

Constant touring and strong record sales in Europe made Redding successful enough in 1965 to settle on the sprawling estate in Round Oak.

By 1967, he was at the brink of superstardom. He toured Europe and wowed the love crowd at San Francisco’s Monterey Pop Festival. Meanwhile, Aretha Franklin hit gold with ``Respect,″ which Redding had written and recorded.

Redding returned to Memphis to record some new songs, one of which was a solemn, acoustic ballad he’d begun writing while staying in a boathouse in San Francisco.

His wife wasn’t sure about the song. Others flat out hated it. But Redding was steadfast. ``He said, `This is my first million seller, right here,‴ Walden recalled.

Three days after he finished recording ``(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,″ Redding and his young touring band, the Bar-Kays, left Cleveland in his twin-engine plane. A storm brought them down in Lake Monona, about four miles from the Madison airport. Redding and six others were killed.

About 4,500 mourners crowded Macon’s City Auditorium for Redding’s funeral a week later. And ``Dock of the Bay″ was released in January 1968.

Widowed at 25, Mrs. Redding never remarried. ``I’m still married. I just don’t see him here with me,″ she said.

``When it seems like a long time, I just put me on Otis Redding, and I just listen to him and it seems like yesterday. It’s like he’s talking to me. It’s conversation.″

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