Otis Redding was proud to be a country boy.
“You know what, Otis? You’re country,” lashes Carla Thomas in her 1967 duet with Redding, “Tramp.”
“That’s all right,” Redding quickly responds.
“You’re straight from the Georgia woods.”
“That’s good,” Redding says.
He meant it.
He was born in Dawson, in southwest Georgia, and raised in the central Georgia city of Macon.
But it was on his 300-acre Big O Ranch in this town, about 25 miles north of Macon, that he was most at home. He raised cattle and rode horses and worked in his barn, and he played with his children and welcomed others to his residence.
“He always wanted a ranch,” says his widow, Zelma, recalling the “freedom I could see him have when he came home off the road.” They bought the place in 1965 and moved in the next year.
But he was sharp, Otis Redding. He had to be. Black men didn’t own 300-acre ranches in mid-’60s Georgia; Zelma Redding, who has since grown the property to almost 500 acres, remembers having to acquire some of the land quietly — and some landowners refused to sell, though by 1965 Otis Redding was one of the biggest names in R&B.
He was also a businessman, sometimes flashy. In “Tramp” he reels off a list of cars, and his publicity claimed 200 suits and 400 pairs of shoes, according to Peter Guralnick’s indispensable history “Sweet Soul Music.” But more often he was painstaking. He wrote for others, developed talent with manager Phil Walden and pulled down thousands in concert fees.
A “natural prince,” Atlantic Records producer and creative force Jerry Wexler called him.
And, man, could he sing.
“Redding was a marvel,” wrote rock critic Dave Marsh, “one of the great live showmen … a masterful ballad singer and a true rocker in the spirit of his boyhood hero, Little Richard.”
It was that way from the beginning. At 17, he was winning talent shows at Macon’s Douglass Theater, where he met 15-year-old Zelma with a “Hey, baby” (“He was a little out of line,” she recalls with a smile). By the next year, he’d gained a manager in Walden, a college kid who would use Redding as the foundation to build a Southern R&B and rock empire.
As Guralnick recounts, Redding woodshedded with Little Richard’s old band, the Upsetters, then guitarist Johnny Jenkins and his Pinetoppers, using some time during a Jenkins recording session at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, to lay down “These Arms of Mine.” It became his first hit in 1963.
“Pain in My Heart” became his first R&B No. 1 later that year, and from then on Otis Redding was a sensation. Soon backed by the Stax house band, Booker T. and the MGs, his voice had the fervor of church and the yearning of a romantic; Marsh describes “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now)” as “the ultimate slow dance. … [Redding sounds] as if in the grip of an undeniably exquisite passion that must be consummated — now!”
The road was a constant — Redding co-wrote “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” in a Buffalo, New York, hotel room — but once he had his ranch he became more of a homebody, Zelma Redding recalls.
Once Otis was offered a concert in Detroit, Michigan, with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The promoter was offering $10,000. “He said, ‘I ain’t goin’,” she says. He was home and had just gone hunting. “It was the first time I saw him flat refuse.”
Nineteen-sixty-seven had become Redding’s biggest year. “Tramp” and “Knock on Wood,” both duets with Thomas, hit the Top 40; in June, Aretha Franklin took the Redding-penned “Respect” to No. 1.
That same month Redding was a sensation at the Monterey Pop Festival in northern California, breaking through to what he called “the love crowd.” In August he hosted a huge barbecue for 300 industry guests at the ranch, where people cavorted in its pond and sampled pork and beef.
“We had our own Woodstock,” recalls Zelma Redding.
He was ready to try new things. Among them was a song he’d written with MGs guitarist Steve Cropper in California, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” a departure from his previous work. He recorded it in two sessions, the latter December 8, 1967.
Two days later, 42 years ago Thursday, he died when his chartered plane crashed into Lake Monona near Madison, Wisconsin. He was 26.
“I called the pilot’s wife,” Zelma remembers. “She said, ‘Otis is gone and Dick is, too.’ “
The ranch offers testament to his glory. There are plaques for his best-selling songs. Grammy Awards. Gold records. A trophy for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A U.S. postage stamp bearing his portrait.
His songs — “Dock of the Bay,” “Respect,” “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” “Mr. Pitiful” — have been much-covered, his style influential, his talent undeniable. But Zelma Redding remembers the man, someone who welcomed busloads of kids to his property, who “never saw race,” who “believed in life,” who “loved people.”
“I loved Otis Redding,” she says. “That’s the key reason for keeping the legacy alive. The music is first to some, but it’s not the first thing to me.”