In just a few short years, Otis Redding became one of the most admired and influential soul musicians, and he is still praised by many as the greatest popular-music vocalist ever to call Georgia home.
Born on September 9, 1941, in Dawson, in Terrell County, Redding moved with his family to Macon when he was three years old. In order to offer financial help to his struggling family, Redding dropped out of Macon’s Ballard Hudson High School in the tenth grade and went to work as a member of Little Richard’s rock-and-roll band, the Upsetters. Redding met his wife, Zelma Atwood, in 1959, and the couple married in 1961. Two of their sons, Dexter and Otis III, would become musicians and music producers.
Influenced by Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and his own Baptist church upbringing, Redding began his musical career in earnest in 1960 as a vocalist with fellow Macon resident Johnny Jenkins and his band, the Pinetoppers, who were favorites on the southern college music circuit. In 1962, during a Pinetoppers recording session in Memphis, Tennessee, for Stax Records, Stax co-owner Jim Stewart allowed Redding to record one of his own compositions, “These Arms of Mine.” It was the first of fifteen songs that became hits for Redding onthe rhythm-and-blues charts.
Redding was also a talented guitar player and music arranger. He would often share or communicate his musical ideas by whistling the part of a particular instrument for fellow musicians. In the early 1960s Redding was recognized as a major rhythm-and-blues talent and earned the admiration of British bands like the Rolling Stones with such songs as “That’s What My Heart Needs” and “Chained and Bound.” Mainstream acclaim eluded him, however.
That changed to a degree in 1965 when Redding released “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” and then in 1967 with Aretha Franklin’s cover of his song “Respect,” which became a major pop hit. Redding’s crossover appeal to white audiences expanded with the release of “Try a Little Tenderness” and his version of the Rolling Stones’ hit song “Satisfaction.” In June 1967 Redding was the only soul act to appear at the Monterey Pop Festival in California. The festival crowd attended to hear performances by such big rock-and-roll acts as Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane but was receptive to Redding’s music.
Later that year, Redding—with the help of Stax Records guitarist Steve Cropper, of Booker T. and the MGs—wrote the ballad for which he is best known, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Unfortunately, Redding would not live to see the song’s success. On December 10, 1967, he was killed in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin. Released three months after his death, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was Redding’s only number-one recording.
In 2002 Redding was honored in Macon with a seven-foot statue, which was unveiled at Gateway Park, the trailhead for the city’s Ocmulgee Heritage Greenway. In December 2003 Rolling Stone magazine included five of Redding’s records among their list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”: Otis Blue (1965), The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966), Live in Europe (1967), The Dock of the Bay (1968), and Dreams to Remember: The Otis Redding Anthology (1998).
He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.