“He was bigger than life,” guitarist Steve Cropper says of his late friend, legendary soul singer Otis Redding. “I don’t think anybody I’ve ever worked with had the impact that Otis Redding did. Of all the great artists that came through the doors of Stax we recorded, I think Otis Redding was the only artist on the label that everybody, all the musicians, all the secretaries, all the employees looked forward to Otis coming to the studio. Otis was your best friend when he was with you and he made you feel wanted, needed and all that.”
Forty-nine years after his death in a place crash, December 10, 1967, Redding is proving Cropper’s claim that the singer was bigger than life is truer than ever. From actress Olivia Wilde, who named her son Otis after the singer, to Seal, Kelly Clarkson, White Stripes, Florence + The Machine, the Rolling Stones and dozens more who’ve covered Redding, his influence has grown and spread throughout pop culture.
So, for his 75th birthday — which would have been this Friday, September 9 — Redding’s family, which oversees his foundation and legacy, are throwing a weekend-long celebration in his hometown of Macon, Georgia, culminating in a tribute concert Sunday night featuring St. Paul & The Broken Bones, a reunion of the Reddings and headlined by two-time Grammy nominee Andra Day.
“Otis Redding is a legend whose career has transcended decades of music and influenced so many genres,” Day tells Billboard. “As an artist rooted in soul, it is an honor to pay tribute to the legacy of one of my forefathers.”
Redding’s daughter Karla sees Day as one of several artists carrying on the tradition of her father and his legendary songs such as “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “These Arms of Mine,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Respect” and “Mr. Pitiful.”
“There are a number of artists — Bruno Mars, Seal, Alicia, Adele — that’s what’s in my stereo when I’m not listening to my Otis Redding,” Karla Redding says. “I’m going to them because they have that passion, they have that drive and know how to vocally arrange a song to make you feel every lyric, and that’s what Otis Redding does. I see that in those individuals. I think that’s how you know you can maintain a legacy, when you get artists like that to even say, ‘He influenced me.'”
Redding and her three siblings, brothers Dexter and Otis III and adopted daughter Demetria, are in charge now of maintaining the legacy, though Karla was initially reluctant.
“I vowed never to be in the music business, and then all of a sudden you get to a point where you think, ‘Why are you not working here and doing the same thing that your mama’s been doing for 50 years to maintain your father’s legacy?'” she says. “So that’s when it dawned on me, this is the easiest thing to do. The easiest thing in the world to do is sell a legacy that sells itself. We know how fortunate we are to be the children of Otis Redding because it’s a big deal.”
The group has teamed with Jeff Jampol’s JAM Inc., which also manages the estates of Muddy Waters, the Doors, Janis Joplin, the Ramones and more. And together they have a lot of plans on how to continue to expand the legacy of Redding. One thing that interests Karla is doing this tribute concert in places beyond Macon. “I certainly would love to do it in a New York or Chicago or California and make it certainly easier to get some of those hot name artists I’d love to see be a part of the tribute,” she says. “We want to take Otis Redding around the world if we get the opportunity.”
Taking Otis Redding around the world and expanding the legacy is easier when you have a signature song such as “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Cropper says he and Redding knew the song was special as soon as they wrote it.
“Otis and I knew it was a hit. When we recorded that song, which was recorded about two weeks before his death, we just knew we had it,” he says. “Otis and I both agreed we thought it might need some embellishment, some backgrounds. I said, ‘Otis, rather than call somebody in, when you leave here week after next I’m gonna be recording with Staple Singers, I know they’d be more than happy to sing on this song.’ He said, ‘Man, that’s a great idea, let’s do that.’ So we left it alone. It was my idea to put the seagulls and the ocean waves on and the electric guitar, so Otis never did hear any of that stuff. He just heard the raw track. A lot of people say it wouldn’t have made it had Otis not passed away — well, maybe might not have made it as big, but we knew it was a hit. But we couldn’t know the song would last — I didn’t, Otis didn’t either — and we didn’t really realize the impact the lyrics would have on people’s lives because more people related to that song. The song is about Otis. You couldn’t say enough great things about Otis.”