They say behind every great man is a great woman, and that certainly holds true for Zelma Redding, the widow of iconic soul singer/songwriter Otis Redding. The world lost a legend in 1967 when Mr. Redding tragically passed away, and since then Zelma Redding has made it her mission, along with their daughter, Karla Redding-Andrews, to protect and promote his timeless music, while preserving his immeasurable legacy.
Known as the King of Soul, Otis Redding was one of the most influential artists in the genre, and his impact on popular music has touched audiences around the world. His renowned 1968 song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” made history as the first posthumous release to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. The poignant song also garnered two GRAMMYs, which Mrs. Redding accepted on his behalf. Known for his stirring voice and electrifying performances, Mr. Redding was also a prolific songwriter. In addition to co-writing “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” he wrote the megahit “Respect,” famously recorded by Aretha Franklin, as well as “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” and co-wrote classics such as “These Arms of Mine,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” the latter of which was co-written with Mrs. Redding.
Mr. Redding has left an indelible mark on American music and has been recognized by the industry with many posthumous accolades, including the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, among others. His creative work has also earned 14 BMI Awards, including Song of the Year for “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” in 1968.
Just last week, BMI was honored to present four “Million-Air” certificates to the Redding family during the company’s Trailblazers of Gospel Music Awards. This accolade is given for songs that have surpassed the milestone of one million broadcast performances. The awarded songs at the Trailblazers ceremony included Mr. Redding’s iconic hits “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (12 million performances), “Respect” (7 million performances), “Hard to Handle” (7 million performances), and “Sweet Soul Music” (4 million performances).
Beyond his passion for music, Mr. Redding was dedicated to empowering young people to fulfill their dreams. Prior to his untimely passing, he provided scholarships to young students to continue their education. Both Mrs. Redding and Mrs. Redding-Andrews have since championed his philanthropic commitment, forming the Otis Redding Foundation in his honor. Mrs. Redding is the President & Founder, while Mrs. Redding-Andrews serves as its Vice President & Executive Director. The Foundation offers various music and arts education programs for young people in Macon, GA, the family’s hometown. One of its notable programs is the Otis Music Camp, where key leaders in the global music industry across genres come together to help develop the voices and instrumental abilities of the talented student campers.
BMI has had the privilege of representing Mr. Redding’s incomparable catalog for sixty years. In celebrating this milestone anniversary, BMI is thrilled to be partnering with the Otis Redding Foundation to create the Otis Redding Internship at BMI. Each summer, BMI will offer a meaningful internship experience to an alumnus of the Otis Music Camp who is selected by the Foundation. BMI is very proud to support the Redding family’s dedication to music education.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Mrs. Redding and Mrs. Redding-Andrews about Mr. Redding’s renowned music, his philanthropic efforts that they continue to carry out today, and the newly established internship.
BMI: Mrs. Redding, can you tell us when you first knew that your husband was going to do great things with his music?
Mrs. Redding: Well, when I first met him, I knew he was going to do great, but I didn’t know whether it was going to be with his music. I just knew he was a great person, he was very ambitious, and he was very serious about what he was doing. He was not the big Otis Redding at that time. We got married before the music really took off.
BMI: Some people might not realize that he wrote the massive hit “Respect.” Is there a story behind that song?
Mrs. Redding: Yes, it goes way back to when one of his employees was kind of unhappy with some of his problems he was having with his life. He said all he wanted was to have his wife give him some respect when he came home. And that’s how the song started.
BMI: His last song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” made history and went to #1 after he tragically passed. What does that song mean to you?
Mrs. Redding: When he first brought it home, I just thought it was different for him. And he said he was going to kind of change his style and do something a little different. And I said, well, it is different. [laughs] He said, well, I’m just tired of begging and pleading. So that’s how he came up with “Dock of the Bay.” I went to Memphis with him when he recorded it.
And some time after he passed, I used to wonder would this song be as big as it is if he had lived? It sounded like he was trying to tell a story in a different direction. He wanted to start getting over to a different audience, which he was already doing. He was already so big in Europe. Everybody knows “Dock of the Bay,” but he had more than that. It’s a wonderful song. It tells a strong story.
BMI: Why do you think that Mr. Redding’s music has resonated so deeply over the decades, throughout the world, with all different audiences?
Mrs. Redding: He left so much special music for everybody. But I really have to commend my family and myself to continue this legacy because you cannot have a legacy if you don’t work it. We have everything we need for Otis Redding and that’s why we work so hard to preserve and protect his legacy. We wouldn’t know any way to do it without it.
BMI: How did you find yourself in that role of being such an advocate and a protector of his music?
Mrs. Redding: You know, it’s the strength and the love that you have. It’s not always about the money. The money is good, but it’s always to know that that person built something so strong, and if you let that go, you’ll fail him. My family works real hard to protect his legacy, we’re here every day. It’s what we do.
BMI: Can you tell me why supporting children through music education was so important to your husband?
Mrs. Redding: Otis was doing this in ’65, ’66. He was a drop out, I’m a drop out, but we always knew education was going to be very important. He didn’t get a chance. He learned on the road because he had to work. So, he had that gift. We just had to work. He believed in everything that he was doing - for the kids to stay in school, scholarships, underprivileged children coming out to the ranch in ’65. And that was just part of his heart. He really felt like he could do something great. And if he had lived, he would still be doing something great, probably greater than what we’re doing right now.
BMI: What an amazing person.
Mrs. Redding: Yes, and just full of life. Loved people. Real strong about what he was going to do, how he was going to do it, and when he was going to get there. And he was trying to get there, but you never know what’s going to happen in the run of the day.
BMI: You started the Otis Redding Foundation in 2007 in his honor. How did that come about?
Mrs. Redding: I started a fund long before I started a Foundation. And I started that through the community, where I would try to save a little money and give kids a scholarship. After many years, we started the Foundation. I started with Roderick Cox, who was in the Boys & Girls Club, and I worked with him, gave him scholarships, and sent him to different schools. And he now is one of the biggest symphony directors in the United States. I just saw what Otis was building and I wanted to take it further. That’s why I started, and I just had a love for everything that he was doing because it was positive.
BMI: I’d like to ask Mrs. Redding-Andrews a few questions now about the Foundation. Can you tell us how it has evolved over the years?
Mrs. Redding-Andrews: The Foundation has grown so much. And we are fortunate to have such a brand to fall under, the name of Otis Redding, who was so adamant about making sure kids got an education and also had the opportunity to experience music and the arts. In 2007, we unveiled a wonderful exhibit at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Dad’s honor. Then we wanted to tie it to a program that we could continue forever. And so, we started with our first Otis Music Camp with about seven kids and now it has grown to over 50 plus kids, every year for two weeks. And we have added additional programs - Camp Dream for ages five to 11 - so we see the growth and support under the brand of Otis Redding.
We teach so the kids, and all of our coaches, understand that Otis Redding was not only passionate about music and arts education, but he was also very passionate about business and making sure that his business supported underserved kids and everyone in his community. To see the Foundation grow from seven kids now to serving thousands of kids in the run of a year just means the world to us.
BMI: Could you talk a little bit about the Center for the Arts?
Mrs. Redding-Andrews: Absolutely. We’ve been toying with the idea for a new Otis Redding Center of the Arts for ten years. We knew that with our small center space, where we are only able to serve about 20 kids every afternoon after school, with a demand for 40 to 50 more every afternoon after school and in the summer, we knew that we needed to start our process. Our goal is to move towards a new 15,000 square foot Otis Redding Center for the Arts, a state of the art facility that will not only focus on music technology, but will also focus on the visual arts, the digital arts, dance, film, photography. We would love to even hopefully one day incorporate a radio station into that, which would be great to have BMI fit right into!
Our summer camp kids come from all over to participate in these programs. And the most important thing is they come back. As they go through and they age out, they come back as junior coaches and coaches. So, we continually are keeping them engaged and involved in our program. Once you are in it, you’re in it for life.
BMI: The Foundation released an incredible song called “Show Love” earlier this year and that was through the Camp.
Mrs. Redding-Andrews: That was done during a time when we were right in the middle of Covid and so we had to do virtual Camp. We were trying to figure out how exactly do we continue to keep our kids engaged, not let them get overshadowed and down by not being able to physically be together. We found an incredible platform called Soundtrap, the kids were able to write and record “Show Love,” and we released it in honor of Dr. King’s birthday this year. We are getting good coverage and streams from around the world. So, it means a lot to us.
The kids’ message is so appropriate and so right for right now. Covid is dying down, but we still have a world that’s in turmoil somewhat. And the kids write these amazing songs. So, we plan to continue to release their music and hopefully partner with other entities, charities we want to support. We want to showcase the great talent that these kids have.
BMI: Speaking of the young people at Otis Music Camp, we are very delighted to be partnering with the Foundation to create the Otis Redding Internship at BMI. Talk a bit about what you will be looking for in those students that you would recommend for this internship.
Mrs. Redding-Andrews: The one thing about our programs is that we teach them every facet of the industry and even require them to sign up to be a BMI songwriter. We want the kids that are chosen for the Otis Redding Internship to experience what it is like to work in that corporate world of BMI, how BMI oversees the airplay performances and what it has done for Otis Redding all of these years, since 1963, when Dad first contracted with BMI. And just to think that we are still in partnership with you all. So, we hope that they will get to experience what we’ve been teaching and then they can come back and teach the kids that are coming along exactly what they learned in the day-to-day of being at BMI.
BMI: How important do you think it is to teach young people not just the creative side but about business and protecting your rights? Does that speak to you?
Mrs. Redding-Andrews: That speaks to us one hundred percent because that’s what we start with. We make them fill out split sheets, what percentage of the song did you write, who is your producer. They have all of that squared away because we don’t want them to go away knowing that they have this wonderful piece of work that they have created and then not have ownership of it.
So, we make sure that they know you are a BMI songwriter, your song is registered at BMI. If 20 years from now, someone hears your song and decides that they want to cover it, they know how to get in touch with you to use your song. So that part of it, my Dad, I know, would be right in the middle of teaching them to protect their work. The business of it is important because that’s what has been able to keep us balanced for years since Dad has been gone. Mom didn’t know much about the business, but she learned. She surrounded herself with people who she trusted and would teach her, and she went back to business school to learn about the corporate world and how to be involved in business every day. That’s what we teach - - If you’re going be in this business, you’ve got to know the business.
BMI: What do you hope people take away from your father’s legacy?
Mrs. Redding-Andrews: I hope people take away that Otis Redding was more than just an amazing songwriter. He was a philanthropist, he was an amazing husband, he was an amazing father, and that his legacy still impacts so many people today. As we operate the Otis Redding Museum every day, there are people that come from around the world and share stories that it is his whole aura that makes their day better, just listening to one song or learning how he helped his community, how engaged he was with young people, how he wanted to make sure that kids knew the importance of an education. That’s what I want people to know about Dad’s legacy.
That’s why through the Otis Redding Foundation and the estate with Mom, we focus on those things because that is what is important. It’s not about the money he made, or the material things that he had, it’s more about the kind of man, the kind of genuine human being that he was in his life, and he still remains.
BMI: Mrs. Redding, we have been so fortunate to represent your husband’s music for 60 years. Can you speak to that long-term relationship between the Redding estate and BMI?
Mrs. Redding: Well, it’s been great. I started working with Frances [Preston] years and years ago. And you know, I can always pick up the phone and somebody will give me an answer whenever I call there. Sometimes I would call, and they really didn’t know what I was talking about, but they gave me an answer and helped me get to my point. It’s been really good working with BMI. And I think if Otis had lived, he would still be there. And we are going to be there. We enjoy working with you guys.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.