At first blush, Athens isn't a town that's readily connected to '60s soul music sensation Otis Redding, a member of both the Rock and Roll and Georgia Music halls of fame.
Redding is most closely identified with Macon, where he was raised and where his family lives to this day; Memphis, Tenn., where he recorded most of his smash hits under the auspices of the seminal Stax/Volt record label; and even Madison, Wis., where his life ended in a plane crash on Dec. 10, 1967.
Yet in the days before he became known the world over for hits like "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," "Mr. Pitiful," "These Arms of Mine," "Respect" and "Try a Little Tenderness," Redding did in fact put the Classic City on his personal map, joining with his band mates from the Pinetoppers to record his kinetic composition "Shout Bamalama" at the old WGTV studios on the University of Georgia campus.
Although the details of that 1960 recording date have been lost to history, the song remains the same, and has been covered by artists as diverse as Macon's own Wet Willie and the Detroit Cobras. On Feb. 17, UGA and the city of Athens honored Redding with a musical tribute, co-sponsored by UGA's Music Business Program, WUGA-FM and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education.
More than 300 music lovers joined Redding's widow Zelma, his daughter Karla Redding Andrews, his sister Christine Redding Lauder and other family members and friends in Mahler Auditorium for the tribute, which included performances by Randall Bramblett, Wet Willie's Jimmy Hall, John Berry, Bryan Howard and T. Graham Brown.
"I emulated Otis' vocal style in some of the things I did, and I was always really touched when people recognized his influence in what I did," said Hall, who performed "Shout Bamalama" at the tribute. "He's definitely one of my main influences. When I get interviewed about my influences, he's No. 1 for me."
"I grew up listening to soul music, but I knew I couldn't sing like Otis," added Bramblett, who played "That's How Strong My Love Is." "I don't really remember the first time I heard an Otis Redding song, but I remember 'Shout Bamalama' was the first one to grab me. Otis Redding has always been a big part of my life."
In addition to the performances, Redding received recognition from Athens-Clarke County Mayor Heidi Davison, who declared Feb. 17 as "Otis Redding Day" in Athens. Davison was followed by Michele Caplinger from the Atlanta Chapter of the Recording Academy, Lisa Love from the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and Clay Bradley from the Atlanta office of music publisher BMI.
Bradley quantified Redding's historic musical influence with some staggering statistics about his radio play, album sales, jukebox cuts and new media presentations. In awarding the Redding family with multiple "Million-Air" certificates, Bradley pointed out that his songs "Sweet Soul Music" and "Hard to Handle" have had 3 million airplays, "Respect" has enjoyed 6 million, and "Dock of the Bay" has had a phenomenal 9 million airplays. To put it in perspective, Bradley pointed out that a million plays of a three-minute song roughly equates to 5.7 years.
"'(Sittin" on) The Dock of the Bay" is one of the 10 most-performed songs in the BMI repertoire," Bradley said. "At 9 million plays, that represents 54 years of continuous airplay."
"Otis was an amazing artist and businessman," added Michael Mauldin, who manages Redding's considerable estate. "He was always thinking way ahead and his drive was strong. Everything moves so fast that it's important to have strong people around you. We do what we do from our hearts, but at the end of the day it's still a business."
Although the Dawson, Ga., native dropped out of high school to help his family's finances, Redding held a deep appreciation for education, and his widow established the Big "O" Youth Educational Dream Foundation to help young people develop an awareness of the arts, humanities and the need for a good education.
"My father had a passion for education and in 1966 participated in a 'Stay in School' campaign and even wrote and recorded a jingle for it," said Karla Redding Andrews. "His dreams of completing his education weren't fulfilled, but to help realize his dream, we started the foundation."
Redding's vision provides a good example for students of UGA's Music Business Certificate Program.
"This event couldn't have been any better," said Bruce Burch, director of the Music Business Program. "Otis' music holds up, and when you've got great singers like that and great songs, that's what it's all about. Anytime we can spread the music of Otis Redding, we want to."
Putting a cap on the tribute, Andrews said, "When we can reintroduce Otis Redding to a whole new realm of fans that makes me feel so proud, particularly here at the University of Georgia, where there are so many opportunities."