Otis Redding

September 9, 1941

He remembers sitting in the morning sun, watching the ships roll in and then watching them roll away again.

All he ever wanted was a little respect. He had to fight for it most of his life. He wrote a song about it, and he was thinking about it before he died.

He was born on September 9, 1941. He started earning money for his family while he was in high school, performing gospel songs. At age 15, he abandoned school to help his family financially after his father contracted tuberculosis and was often hospitalized, leaving his mother as the family’s primary financial provider. During this time, he also worked as a well digger and a gas station attendant.

He would meet the love of his life, Zelma, when he was 18, and they got married in 1961. By the mid-60s, they had three children and he was working hard not only as a performer, but also as a songwriter, recording artist, businessman and music publisher.

Aretha Franklin may be remembered for the song, “Respect,” but it was Otis Redding who wrote it and first recorded it.

According to his wife and close associates, Redding originally wrote the song as a black man working in a white man’s world in the turbulent 60s, working hard, trying to get a little respect and receiving very little of it, but knowing that the respect he seeks is waiting for him at home in a family that loves him, knows how hard he is working to support his family, and appreciates what he goes through. Zelma Redding says fighting for respect was a driving force in Otis’ life, respect for color, respect for business, respect for family.

When his plane went down on that fateful night, December 9, 1967, he was just being recognized and started receiving the acclaim and respect he strived for. Redding talked to Zelma and his three kids before the flight, he had already decided to fly to Madison, he had three kids to support, he was finally getting good money, he had just finished a song titled “Dock of the Bay,” and most importantly he was receiving respect. He also didn’t want to let down the fans waiting for him.

The plane crashed that night. Zelma, at 24 years old, found herself a widow with three young children to care for. Even in death, Otis Redding did not receive the respect he deserved. There was no investigation of the plane crash. Zelma found herself fighting for the rights to Reddings’ songs as music execs tried to steal Redding’s publishing rights, being one of the few artists at the time who wrote his own songs. Racists stole the family’s mail and sent hateful letters to her home, people told her she couldn’t take care of herself because she was a black woman.

“Sitting at the (Dock of the Bay)” was released and became a major hit, and Otis Redding finally started receiving the respect he deserved. That year, one columnist said, Otis Redding sold more records than Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin combined.”

Zelma still remembers why he wrote “Respect.” She remembers each song, something only a loving wife would know, what each song meant — to him, to her, to them. She never remarried, saying her heart still belongs to “Big O,” as she tenderly calls him.

One of her favorite songs, she said, is “Happy Song,” which he wrote at home after returning from a concert tour. She hums the lyrics:

“On a cold rainy windy night
She’d shut all the doors
She cuts off the light
She holds me and squeeze me tight
She tells me Big O
Everything’s gonna be all right”

That’s the love and respect Otis Redding knew would always be waiting for him at home.

Zelma and her children now work on the Big “O” Youth Educational Dream Foundation, a philanthropic project Otis Redding started. Otis Redding always believed music could be a universal force, bringing together different races and cultures. His foundation gives black youth and disadvantaged children the self-esteem they need and helps them receive the respect early in life.

“Respect.” It’s something Aretha Franklin made famous, but it is also something we all need in life.

Photo credits: Wikimedia

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