Her name is Karla, and her dad was Otis.
I’m praying she won’t recognize me — my hair was longer then; a few more grays in my beard. The whole “me camping outside their house thing” happened years ago. Surely they’d forgotten, right? I couldn’t have been the only slightly deranged fan to show up on their doorstep.
As we sit down to talk, I’m afraid she’ll see the tattoo on my arm, do a double take at my face, and ask me to leave. But she doesn’t.
“Everyone knows ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,’ and that’s a sad song to them,” Karla says, speaking of her father’s only number-one hit — released posthumously after he died in a plane crash two weeks shy of Christmas in 1967. “But that’s not who he was. He was ‘Shout Bamalama,’ he was ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,’ he was ‘Respect,’ he was ‘Hard to Handle.'”
“He seemed to know he wasn’t going to be around for long,” she says, sitting under a large poster of her father during one of his famously charismatic live performances, “so he packed as much into his life as he could.”
We talk more and more. I’m asking the best questions any writer has ever asked. She mentions their friend, Steve, and I know she’s talking about Steve Cropper, the guitarist in the house band at Stax, where Redding recorded most of his hits. She talks about how much more famous her dad is in Europe, and I’m able to recall the sound of the crowd from that album I have at home. She talks about his wanting to help local kids in Georgia with their education and I can sing the lesser-known “Stay In School” song he did to promote that.
Just then, Zelma, Otis’s widow, walks by and says “hello.” She extends her hand and I think I may have grabbed it too tightly. I wanted to say I’m sorry, but if I explained why, they’d have kicked me out.
Otis Redding. The man who helped break the color barrier at the Monterey Pop Festival back in ’67. The line up consisted of artists that appealed to a predominately white audience — The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Mamas and the Papas. But when Otis took the stage, something magical happened. Even the ever-humble “Mr. Pitiful” had to admit what went on.
“You know, dad never thought he was that good” Karla says, still not noticing my tattoo. “But when he got home that night [after Monterey], he looked at mom and said ‘Zelma… I killed it. I really killed it.'”
He was more than all of that, though — more than music. He had two businesses, a family, a 300-acre ranch he called The Big O. He was a farmer, a dad who spoiled his kids, a husband who loved his wife.
He was also passionate about his community. Before his death, he had told his family that he wanted to start some sort of camp for young musicians. He would bring in agents, deejays, managers, A&R reps — the works — to show the kids that being a musician was about more than just singing. You had to learn how to be a star — and he wanted to show them how.
Zelma started The Big O Foundation almost immediately after her husband’s tragic and untimely death (he was only 26) — but in true Redding form, kept it out of the spotlight. Even now, the family shies away from saying too much about it — but Karla will admit to sponsoring scholarships and buying instruments for less-fortunate kids. “We don’t do this for the papers,” she says. “We do this because daddy was passionate about it.”
We talk a few minutes more – I ask her her favorite song of Otis’ and she tells me it’s “Love Man.” “It’s just him, you know? ‘Six-feet-one, weigh two hundred and ten.'”
She asks me mine and I tell her it’s “For Your Precious Love.”
Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I thanked her and walked out to the car. It’s a blistering day in Macon and I’m happy to be able to roll up my sleeves as far as they can go.
I couldn’t have done that before, you see, or Karla would have seen those three little words that have gotten me through many a day.
“Go ask Otis.”
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