Otis Redding’s widow protects soul man’s legacy
By Tamara Conniff
MACON, Georgia (Billboard) – You can taste the air in
Macon, Ga. — a mix of fresh-cut grass, humidity and barbecue.
On a recent hot summer afternoon, Zelma Redding was keeping
busy at Dreams, a boutique she and her daughter Karla operate
just off Macon’s main drag. The mother-daughter team also owns
Karla’s Shoes, one block away.
“I gotta do something,” Zelma says, shaking her head. “I’m
sure as hell not just gonna sit on my ass.”
Zelma is Otis Redding’s widow. In 2007, it will be 40 years
since the world lost this man of pure soul and his band in a
tragic plane crash.
Otis left behind a legacy of recordings mostly made during
a four-year period — from his first sessions for Stax/Volt
Records in 1963 until his death in 1967. As a songwriter,
Redding penned such timeless songs as “I’ve Been Loving You Too
Long,” “Respect,” “Mr. Pitiful” and the posthumous hit
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
He also left behind a woman who loved him and three young
children — Karla, Dexter and Otis III — who needed him.
It must feel like a strange, cruel dream for Zelma. She
found the love of her life, only to lose him and live with his
ghost. When turning on the radio, she never knows if she’s
going to hear his voice — singing a song he wrote for her.
But Zelma doesn’t want to get lost in that kind of
emotional maze. She’s not the type of person to wallow or feel
sorry for herself. She has to focus on what is concrete. She
owns Otis’ publishing, and she runs it like a military
sergeant. It’s her way to keep him alive. She says, over the
years, people have tried to cheat her out of the publishing,
buy it from her or just generally swindle her.
She will have none of it. If she hears one of Otis’ songs
sampled in a hip-hop tune and knows she didn’t give clearance,
she’ll call the artist herself and say, “Where the hell is our
money? That’s my husband’s work. You can’t steal it.”
Zelma lives at the Big O ranch (Otis had a commanding
stature and his nickname was Big O). He bought the sprawling
house and property, just outside Macon, for his family as soon
as he had enough money. Tourists and music fans come from all
over the world just to look at the gate: big, white and
electric with the Big O moniker. Behind the tightly locked
iron, down the long driveway, is Otis’ grave. He wanted to be
put to rest at home.
Karla walks into the house’s living room. She says it
doesn’t look much different than when her dad was there. This
was the room where he played with the kids, where he was a
When she thinks no one is watching, Zelma gently wipes a
spec of dust off an old photograph of her and Otis. Karla says
to me, “They loved each other desperately.” And they stuck
together through the bad stuff, too — his touring, his
cheating, the heartache. He always came back to Zelma. “His
heart was in this house and with us,” Karla adds. She is
currently working on the first official biography of Otis and
the love story of her mom and dad.
Otis was a renaissance man — a songwriter, recording
artist, performer, businessman and music publisher. He believed
music could be a universal force, bringing together different
races and cultures. Otis had a white manager, Phil Walden, and
a racially mixed band — unprecedented moves for a black artist
in the ’60s. With no intention, Otis became a role model for
generations to come.
Zelma was never a big fan of flying, even though Otis loved
it. He once had to literally drag her on a plane, Zelma
recalls. He said, “Zelma, stop being afraid. We’ll die when
it’s time for us to die. But it’s not going to be in this plane