Widow of Otis Redding Reflects on Husband's Legacy Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of soul singer Otis Redding, and his legacy continues to live on after his premature passing. Zelma Redding, Otis Redding's widow, talks about her late husband and how she's working to keep his legacy alive.

Widow of Otis Redding Reflects on Husband's Legacy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17075938/17075921" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's time for Wisdom Watch, our conversation with leaders who've gone before us, those with experience and knowledge - not just smart, but wise.

Today, we want to mark the 40th anniversary of the tragic death of Otis Redding, one of the most influential soul singers of the 1960s. His songs include such hits as "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay."

(Soundbite of song "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay")

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) Sittin' in the morning sun, I'll be sittin' when the evening come. Watching the ships roll in, and I'll watch 'em roll away again, yeah. I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away.

MARTIN: He was only 26 when he died in a plane crash, 40 years ago today. His widow Zelma is here with us to talk about the music, the man and his legacy.

Mrs. Redding, welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ZELMA REDDING: Thank you for inviting me. I really appreciate it. And, you know, this is a very important day for me. It's always been important, but, of course, you know, this marks the 40th anniversary of the death of my late husband.

MARTIN: And I wanted to say I am sorry for your loss. Is it - is this a hard time of year for you, even though it's so many years later?

Ms. REDDING: Every December the 10th is really a hard time for me. I thought it would get better, but, I mean, you know, Christmas have never been the same since the loss of my husband, which was in 1967. Of course, then I had to bear along because I had small kids. My youngest son was just four the year that my husband passed. But, you know, you had to manage to make it through that time.

MARTIN: You were so young when he passed, I mean three…

Ms. REDDING: Twenty-four years old.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Twenty-four, with three little babies to raise. That must have been very hard.

Ms. REDDING: They were hard. And he was just only 26. And a lot of people thought Otis Redding was a lot older than 26 years old, because he was a big guy. You know, he was like, 6'1" and, you know, as he say 210. He would grow up, you know, in size. But he was a young man with a strong mind, knew what he wanted to do and how he was going to get there. And, I mean, he was just, just a phenomenal person.

MARTIN: How did you two meet?

Ms. REDDING: We met at a teenage party at the Douglas Theater, which there was always been hold on Saturday morning in Macon, Georgia. We just got into just a little disagreement, you know. He called me baby and I was like, I'm not your baby, and you don't even know me. And, you know, it was just avertable disagreement. And…

MARTIN: But he was kind of fresh.

Ms. REDDING: …we met…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REDDING: I have always been very defensive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REDDING: So that's how we met. And I saw him several times after that and said that's that same boy, and we kind of fell in love.

MARTIN: What did you like about him?

Ms. REDDING: Oh, you know, his eyes. He - and it wasn't about his talent. It was about him as a person. You know, if you really knew Otis Redding, you knew he was a genuine person. And, you know, it was just something about him himself that just made me just say, you know, this guy is just about to steal my heart away from me.

MARTIN: What did he like about you?

Ms. REDDING: You know, I never knew. He - I think he just - he saw that Zelma Atwood at that time was just a little bitty girl, like I'm just about 5'1" and I weighed about a hundred pounds. You know, I think we kind of grew together and it was, you know, I think he thought I was very cute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I'm sure you were and are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know, you've mentioned that it wasn't just - it wasn't the talent, really, that you liked - you just liked him as a person. But if you say soul music, his is really the first name I think most people think of.

Well, here's a song, and I bet a lot of people don't even know he wrote it.

(Soundbite of song "Respect")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) What you want…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hoo.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) …baby, I got it. What you need, you know I got it.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hoo.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) All I'm asking…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hoo.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) …is for a little respect when you come home.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Just a little bit.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Hey, baby.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Just a little bit.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) When you come home.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Just a little bit.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Mister.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Just a little bit.

MARTIN: And that is, of course, the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin. But now here is the song that Otis Redding wrote and recorded.

(Soundbite of song, "Respect")

Mr. REDDING: (Singing) All I'm askin' is for a little respect when I come home. Yeah, now. Baby, when you come home, yeah now. Ooh, ain't no girl, you are sweeter than, honey. I'm about give you more of my money. All I want you to do for me is give me some respect when you get home. Yeah, baby. Yeah.

MARTIN: Now how about that?

Ms. REDDING: Yeah.

MARTIN: Now I know he wasn't talking about you.

Ms. REDDING: No. He was going to always get respect from me.

MARTIN: But it sounds different. It sounds different when a man sings it, don't you think?

Ms. REDDING: Right. You know, if you would listen to "The Monterey Pop," either you see the film from the Monterey Pop - "Live at the Monterey Pop" - Otis Redding made the statement that he was going to try to do this song that a little girl just took the song away from him. And I think Miss Franklin did a great job with that song, but yet, it's still the roots are there and Otis - you know, everything that Otis Redding sang or talked about in any of his music, there always a story behind it.

MARTIN: When he sings it, it makes me think a little bit more about politics than more about the personal. And I wondered about that. I mean, here you guys, you know, growing up in Georgia in the '40s, a lot going on there, and I wondered it - was that - I mean, I don't think - it doesn't necessarily have to be about a man/woman situation.

Ms. REDDING: Well, you know, "Respect," leave you open to think about a lot of things, you know. But there's a story behind that song, you know. I know what it was about.

MARTIN: Oh, come one, now. Don't tease us like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REDDING: It's been that, you know, it's just that something was happening in one his friend's life, and, you know, they talked about it. And the friend made a statement that basically, that's what he wanted when, you know, some respect when he come - Otis Redding would take any idea and make it something that would blow your mind.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE in NPR News.

If you've just joined us, I'm speaking with Zelma Redding. She is the widow of the late, great soul singer, Otis Redding.

Here's another song that - another one of hid hits was "I've Been Loving You Too Long." We'll play a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of song, "I've Been Loving You Too Long")

Mr. REDDING: (Singing) There were time and you want to be free. My love is growing stronger, as you become a habit to me. Oh, I've been loving you too long. I don't wanna stop now.

MARTIN: That's lovely.

Ms. REDDING: Oh, that's a lovely song. And Jerry Butler and Otis Redding wrote that song together. And, you know, when I first heard that, I just couldn't believe my ears. And, you know, at that time, being young and raising a family and, you know, it just take time over the years to understand the message in everything that Otis Redding did.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. You kept your husband's legacy alive through the "Big O" Youth Educational Dream Foundation.

Ms. REDDING: Dream Foundation.

MARTIN: Yeah. Talk to me about that.

Ms. REDDING: We had an anniversary this year, September the 9th. We always celebrate his birthday. And we're trying to work with kids, in which Otis was a very strong believer, which I am very strong believer of having kids with their education and, you know, just helping them in life with music and the arts. And so we have been that - I have over the last 20 years, we had our own fun. And we turned into something a little bigger, into a foundation. So my daughter and my family and I, we're all working on that, and we're working with the summer programs this - for '08, and we're looking forward to having the kids in music and the arts. And that was one his dreams.

MARTIN: Well, what's your dream now? And how would you like him to be remembered?

Ms. REDDING: My dream is to carry on his legacy, which I've done for the last 40 years. To appreciate all of his fans that loved him and that has been shown to me in 40 years. You know, we have young kids that love Otis Redding, that was not even born when he was alive, to help our people to grow and be strong and to let them know that if you want to do something with your life, you cannot let anybody say that you can't do it. I just think that's what I - I know that's what I want to do, and I'm 65 years old, and I'm just getting started.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know that's right.

(Soundbite of song, "Dreams")

MARTIN: This is "Dreams," performed by Otis Redding, written by Zelma Redding, his widow. We talked to her from her store, Dreams, in Macon, Georgia.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.