The soul singer has been gone for more than half a century. Zelma Redding’s love affair with him — and his with Macon, Ga. — has never ended.
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MACON, Ga. — Zelma Redding is involved in one of those complicated long-term relationships — fueled by passion, pain and habit — that her husband, Otis Redding Jr., once sang about with the singular mix of combustibility and tenderness that made him a global star.
Mrs. Redding, 79, still lives on the sprawling ranch outside of Macon, Ga., that Mr. Redding bought for his family in 1965, two years before his small private plane nose-dived into a Wisconsin lake on the way to a concert. She had him laid to rest next to her driveway by a stand of tall pine trees. Her name is carved into the empty tomb next to his.
She likes the fact that she can see the graves from her living room window. In the 54 years since his death, she has not remarried.
“Never will,” she said. “I love being Mrs. Otis Redding. I’m the only one.”
Such are the contours of Macon’s greatest contemporary love story. But for decades, it has also fallen to Mrs. Redding to manage another love story, this one involving her husband and Macon itself. Beset by poverty and bedeviled by the ghosts of segregation, Mr. Redding’s hometown, an old cotton hub 85 miles southeast of Atlanta, has long looked to the soul singer as a symbol of unity, holding up his tale of African American success as the best of what the city might be. For years, a portrait of the musician has been prominently displayed at Macon City Hall, as if the singer of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” were a founding father.
Today, Mrs. Redding is preparing what is likely to be her life’s crowning project: a 9,000-square-foot educational complex that the family nonprofit, the Otis Redding Foundation, is planning to build downtown. Mrs. Redding has donated $1 million to buy the property. The new home of the Otis Redding Center for the Arts will be a place for children to learn, practice and perform, with scholarships for poor students — a machine, if such a thing is even possible, for turning out more Otis Reddings.
After her husband’s death in December 1967, Mrs. Redding found herself, at age 25, terrified and grieving, without a high school diploma and responsible for raising the couple’s three small children. These days, locals refer to her as the Queen. The honorific suits her in many ways — not least because of her calculation, over the decades, that the Redding family should be deeply involved in Macon’s civic life yet somehow float above its politics and petty grievances, in keeping with her husband’s music, which was both apolitical and universally beloved.
In a recent interview, Mrs. Redding, a diminutive woman with a quick wit and occasionally salty tongue, noted with pride that the new arts center would be on Cotton Avenue, in the heart of the city’s historic Black business district. A bronze statue of Mr. Redding at the center will stand three blocks from a towering Confederate statue.
If Mrs. Redding sees her husband’s statue as a rejoinder to the Confederate monument, she does not let on. She can also be evasive when asked what it is like to miss him. To hold the grief at bay, she said, she keeps his memory close with a sea of mementos — at the couple’s old ranch house, and at the Otis Redding Foundation offices — though sometimes she imagines him alive and growing old with her.
“I tell my daughter all the time, I say, ‘Oh, Karla, I just wonder what Otis would look like. I’m almost 80. I got gray hair. I wonder would he have gray hair?’
“Karla says, ‘Mama, what are you talking about?’”
Mrs. Redding can still talk about him almost as if he were still alive, recreating their verbal sparring, the old push-pull tension of men and women bound together — the arguing, loving and working things out that was at the heart of so many songs in the blues and R&B canon.
Their relationship was not perfect. According to a 2017 biography by Jonathan Gould, Mrs. Redding endured her husband’s infidelities as he ground out an incessant touring schedule. She knew what it was like to miss him long before he died; she once expressed her longing with a poem she gave him after he returned from a tour of Europe.
“You ain’t no songwriter,” she recalled Mr. Redding saying as he took the poem. Eventually, he used it as the basis for “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” one of his most stirring ballads.
Mrs. Redding noted that she received a writing credit for the song, which she did not know he had recorded until after he died. “Oh yeah,” she said, chuckling. “And I get paid.”
Mr. Redding’s posthumous release “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1968. The next year, Mrs. Redding flew to Los Angeles and accepted two Grammy Awards on his behalf, self-conscious all the while about her Southern accent.
But her vulnerability had always come with an independent streak: “I’m not your baby,” she told Mr. Redding when they first met, after he had dared to call her baby.
Soon after his death, Mrs. Redding earned a high school equivalency degree, enrolled in business classes and went to work at a booking agency owned by Phil Walden, Mr. Redding’s former manager. She eventually opened her own booking business, then a record store, then a nightclub. Making sure her family was receiving the royalties and other payments due to them became a major preoccupation. She studied the sharks of the music business, and learned to swim with them.
Racial tensions, meanwhile, flared in Macon in the late 1960s and early ’70s, exacerbated at times by Mayor Ronnie Thompson. A flamboyant white gospel singer, Mr. Thompson once issued “shoot to kill” orders against Black activists and earned the nickname “Machine Gun” after firing on a suspected sniper during a particularly tense moment in July 1971, after declaring a state of emergency. But by 1974, on the seventh anniversary of Mr. Redding’s death, Mr. Thompson had invited Mrs. Redding to a ceremony in which he renamed a bridge across the Ocmulgee River in her husband’s honor.
“Mayor Ronnie Thompson, according to most people in the community, was a stout racist,” said Karla Redding-Andrews, Mrs. Redding’s daughter. “But he loved Otis Redding.”
After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, protesters in Macon demanded the removal of their city’s Confederate statuary. Mayor Lester Miller raised the possibility of having the Otis Redding statue replace the Confederate statue on Cotton Avenue, which was once the site of a major slave market.
The family, which owns the Redding statue, said that was not its decision to make. Mrs. Redding said she did not want people in Macon to think the family “was pushing everything on them.”
The Macon-Bibb County Commission voted to relocate the Confederate monument, although that plan has been postponed by a lawsuit filed by a group called the Military Order of the Stars and Bars.
But it is the Otis Redding Foundation, and Mrs. Redding’s family, that has been more influential in setting the tone in modern Macon. Mrs. Redding’s children and her grandson Justin Andrews have been regulars on boards and commissions, addressing issues from downtown redevelopment to food insecurity. Since 2007, the foundation has offered music classes and arts camps to thousands of children.
Mrs. Redding sees this as an extension of her husband’s loyalty to Macon, a sentiment that puzzled his pop-music contemporaries: In the 1960s there were certainly easier places for a famous Black man to settle down and raise a family. Mr. Gould, the biographer, noted that another hometown hero, Little Richard, was banned from the city stemming from a 1955 arrest on a “lewd conduct” charge. But Mr. Redding, who died at age 26, had co-founded a record label in the city and had dreamed of it becoming a hub of Southern musical creativity, a mini-Memphis in the heart of middle Georgia.
The dream flourished, for a while, though in a curious way. In 1969, Mr. Walden co-founded Capricorn Records, promoting the Allman Brothers and a number of mostly white “Southern Rock” acts that were influenced by Black performers like Mr. Redding, but were sometimes marketed with Old South imagery like the Confederate battle flag. Today, a small downtown museum dedicated to Capricorn notes, in a wall display, that such imagery “complicates the legacy of an otherwise progressive label.”
In addition to Mr. Redding’s commercial ambitions, Mrs. Redding said, her husband — who was, like her, a high school dropout — had also begun thinking hard before his death about philanthropic efforts geared toward children and education. In his absence, Mrs. Redding and her family have allowed themselves to to be creative about what it might mean to produce the next Otis Redding.
In 2005, they learned that a local high school student of modest means named Roderick Cox was dreaming of studying French horn in college but did not own an instrument. Word got to Mrs. Redding. Mr. Cox got his horn. In November 2018, the Redding family was at Walt Disney Concert Hall to watch Mr. Cox, the recipient of that year’s Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic as it performed Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3.
“I knew his mind, the way he thought,” Mrs. Redding said of her husband. “And if you love somebody, you’re going to always keep that in your mind — you know, ‘Otis did it this way, and I’m going to do it this way.’ And it worked.”