Encore

The Death of a Soul Star

Folk and soul singer inspired dozens of artists to follow his lead

I've had nothin' to live for, and looks like nothin's gonna come my way,'' sang Otis Redding in ''(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay.'' Those lyrics — recorded three days prior to Redding's Dec. 10, 1967, death at age 26 in a plane crash near Madison, Wis. — are poignantly ironic: After its release in January of 1968, the singer-songwriter's haunting blend of folk and soul became his only No. 1 pop hit — a melancholy swan song.

Well before ''Dock of the Bay'' launched him into the mainstream, however, Redding had earned a reputation as R&B's premier vocalist. Born on Sept. 9, 1941, in Dawson, Ga., Redding began singing in the choir of Macon's Mount Ivy Baptist Church, where his father, Otis Sr., was the minister. Inspired by fellow Maconite Little Richard, he set out to pursue a secular singing career, gigging locally and winning 15 talent shows in a row. His big break came in '62, when, after driving bluesman Johnny Jenkins to a recording session at Memphis' Stax Records, Redding used some leftover studio time to record an original song, ''These Arms of Mine,'' which became an R&B hit and gained him a following.

Rock & rollers picked up on Redding's fusion of blues, gospel, and pop: Soon the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead began covering his songs. The Bee Gees 1967 hit ''To Love Somebody'' was written in homage to Redding. That same year, Aretha Franklin cut the definitive version of his 1965 ''Respect'' (''This girl, she just took this song,'' Redding joked just before performing it at 1967's Monterey International Pop Festival).

''He was the No. 1 soul performer in the world, but he was also an incredible human being,'' says his manager Phil Walden. Redding's widow, Zelma, 55, still lives near Macon on ''The Big O'' ranch where her husband is buried. His daughter Karla, 35, owns a Macon shoe store. Sons Dexter, 37, and Otis III, 34, formed an R&B group, the Reddings, which folded in '88; both now own recording studios.

Meanwhile, Redding's blazing talent lives on through his music — and may light up the big screen as well: Cuba Gooding Jr. is angling to play the lead in Blaze of Glory, a nascent biopic scripted by Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls). Three decades after his death, Hollywood may show Redding some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Time Capsule / Dec. 10, 1967

Wrapped 10 days before star Spencer Tracy's death, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner opens this week. The drama about a racially mixed couple (Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton) garners 10 Oscar nods; Dinner's Katharine Hepburn wins her first Academy Award in more than 30 years. The Beatles say ''Hello Goodbye'' in song as they launch London's short-lived Apple clothing boutique. In October 1997, the McCartneys are back in fashion as daughter Stella debuts her designs in Paris. The Andy Griffith Show knocks No. 1 Bonanza out of the saddle — but goes off the air the next year. NBC's 1986 Return to Mayberry reunion becomes the season's best-rated telepic. AND IN THE REAL WORLD, First Daughter Lynda Bird Johnson weds Capt. Charles S. Robb in the White House. Robb is elected Virginia's governor in 1981 and a U.S. senator in 1988.

Originally posted Dec 05, 1997 Published in issue #408 Dec 05, 1997 Order article reprints
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