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Otis Redding Exhibit Shares Singer's Legacy with New Generation

  • Philip Graitcer

Otis Redding was an African-American singer, whose name is synonymous with soul music. The style – a combination of gospel music and rhythm and blues rose out of the Southern black experience in America and became popular in the 1960s. Although Redding had a short career he died at age 26 his music is still popular 40 years after his death. In his hometown of Macon, Georgia, a new exhibit celebrates his life and music. Philip Graitcer reports.

Otis Redding grew up in Macon, Georgia, and began performing in his father's church choir when he was 7. By the time he was 15, he was a local star, and by 1963, the 22-year-old soul singer was a national celebrity.

And for anyone – black or white – growing up in America in the 1960s, Otis Redding's music told the truth about love, happiness and heartbreak.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Redding's death in 1967, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame a museum about the state's musicians – planned a modest exhibit of photographs.

But when Redding's widow, Zelma, lent a couple of boxes of memorabilia to the museum, curator Ellen Fleurov quickly realized that she had the makings of something more than a photo show. "There were documents and artifacts and material that had not been seen, ever. It was a 'Eureka moment' for me as a curator," she recalls.

So she expanded the exhibit to become a definitive look at the life and career of Otis Redding.

There are more than 175 artifacts: pictures, oral histories, recordings, performance footage and scrapbooks. Some, according to Fleurov, shed new light on the singer's career. They dispel the myth that Redding was a complete unknown when he recorded his first national hit, "These Arms of Mine," in 1962.

In fact, Fleurov says, Redding already was a local star in his hometown of Macon. "The artifacts that are important in the show are those that speak to the people who really worked with him, who really helped make him a star, and who are often quite overlooked when the story of Otis Redding and Stax are told."

She points to photos and interviews highlighting two local men who were actively promoting Redding's career in the 1950s.

One of them was Hamp Swain, a Macon radio show host nicknamed The Kingbee. He organized a weekly talent show at the segregated, blacks-only Douglass Theater, and played Redding's music on the air.

"Every Saturday morning," he recalls, "we would have the talent show and broadcast it live on our radio station. And Otis, of course, was the star. He came in and every Saturday morning he would walk away with the big first prize."

Aspiring music promoter, Phil Walden, who was just a college kid at the time, stayed outside the Douglass Theater and waited for Redding. Swain explains that he couldn't come in the theater, because he was white, "but he rode around in his convertible with his radio up, loud as it would go, listening to all of the acts, and Otis caught his ear, so to speak."

Walden became Redding's first manager.

In 1962, after that first recording session at the legendary Stax Records studios in Memphis, Redding's music caught a lot of ears, and his popularity rose.

He began touring nationally, writing one hit after another. Songs like "Respect" and "Mr. Pitiful" were heard across the nation and around the world. By the time he launched a European tour in 1966, he had become an international star.

Redding's meteoric career is traced in the multimedia displays at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

One display tells of the writing and production of "Dock of the Bay," Redding's final – and some say his best – song.

Although Redding was at the peak of his stardom, it had a different and sad sound, very unlike his other songs. Curator Ellen Fleurov says the performer's worries were evident. "There was also a sense of weariness, of being tired, of having people come at him from all directions. And I think, some of that finds its way into the song."

Redding worked on "Dock of the Bay" throughout the summer and fall of 1967, but when he died in a plane crash on Dec. 10, he had only recorded the vocal tracks. The record producers had to guess at the mix as they produced it posthumously.

"Dock of the Bay" became Otis Redding's first and only number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It is one of three of his hits on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.

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