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Tamara Conniff

Tamara Conniff

Posted: November 2, 2009 02:09 PM

Otis Redding's Widow Speaks About Respect

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Zelma Redding is fierce. Think twice before sampling any of Otis' music illegally. She will be on the phone in two seconds yelling, "That's my husband's work. You can't steal it!!" No one messes with Otis' music. No one messes with Zelma.

She learned the hard way. She was only 24 years old that fateful day in 1967 when Otis died in a plane crash. With three young children to care for -- Karla, Dexter and Otis III -- Zelma had to find a way to support her family. Music execs tried to steal Otis' publishing (he was one of the few artists at the time who wrote his own songs), racists stole her mail and sent hateful letters to her home, people told her she couldn't take care of herself because she was a black woman. She stood up to all of them, kept ownership of Otis' publishing -- a right he had worked hard for -- and has protected his memory with the force of a bull.

Otis left behind a legacy of recordings and songs mostly made during a four-year period -- from his first sessions for Stax/Volt Records in 1963 until his death. Most only recall Otis' posthumous crossover hit "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of the Bay." He was a prolific songwriter -- most notably he wrote "Respect," which was made famous by Aretha Franklin.

Zelma says fighting for respect was a driving force in Otis' life and in hers. Respect for color, respect for business, respect for family, which is why she and her children continue to celebrate Otis' life and dreams via the "Evening of Respect" -- a musical tribute benefitting his Big "O" Youth Educational Dream Foundation (Otis had a commanding stature at 6'1'' and his nickname was Big O).

Karla becomes emotional when talking about the foundation. "It was his dream to bring music and the arts to kids, that's what we are trying to do with the foundation. I hope one day the Dream Foundation will be international. We want to go big."

And this year, they are taking their first step. Instead of holding this week's annual event in Otis' hometown of Macon, Georgia (where his entire family still resides on the Big O ranch), they have moved the gala to Atlanta.

"We just feel it's time to go a bigger," Karla says. "But Daddy put Macon on the map, so we are taking Macon with us."

And literally, they are. Bus coaches will drive Macon residents attending the soiree on the 70-plus mile trip. Additionally, the City of Macon will be feted during the gala. Also honored will be actor/musician Chris "Ludacris" Bridges for his countless charitable activities under his Ludacris Foundation and Kyle and Pattie Petty of the Petty NASCAR racing family for their work and dedication with the Victory Junction Foundation. Set to appear are Anthony Hamilton, Dexter & Otis III, Musiq Soulchild, Estelle, Avant, Karina Pasian, Kenny Lattimore, Chante' Moore, William Bell, and Eddie Floyd, among others.

Zelma never remarried. In some deep way, her heart will always belong to the towering force of the man who swept her off her feat. Their love was volatile and passionate -- they stuck together through his touring, his cheating, his jealously, and ultimately his deep love for her and his children.

Many of his songs were written in the living room of the Big O ranch. Zelma has a specific memory for each -- a secret knowing that only a wife can have of what each song meant -- to him, to her, to them. These songs still haunt her today. She never knows when one will come on the radio and she will be transported back to him.

She smiles when she recalls "Hard to Handle." "We sure were," she says. "We were both strong-willed."

One of her favorite memories is of "Happy Song," which he wrote at home after coming off of tour. She hums the lyrics:

On a cold rainy windy night
She'd shut all the doors
She cuts off the light

She holds me and squeeze me tight
She tells me Big O
Everything's gonna be all right

He died when he was only 26-years-old. 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.

In death, and in the life of Zelma, Karla, Dexter, and Otis III, they have achieved his dream: respect.

Respect is what I want
Respect is what I need
Respect is what I want
Respect is what I need
Gotta, got to have it
Gotta, got to have it


Follow Tamara Conniff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tamarastar