- by Joe Nolan
Born on September 9, 1941 in Dawson, Ga., Otis Redding and family moved 300 miles north to Macon when he was three years old. Unlike many cities in the Peachtree state, Macon had been spared the ravages of Sherman’s march to the sea during the Civil War. By ‘44, Macon showed the scars of the quieter cruelty of stalled urban renewal and the impact of 30 years of the Great Migration, in which large sectors of the South’s African American population left their homes for economic opportunities in cities like Detroit and Chicago. The decaying downtown facades, and the old men sitting on the steps of the abandoned railway station, spoke the forlorn whispers of a city where “progress” had simply marched passed.
Upon their arrival in Macon, the Redding’s made a new home for themselves in the Tindall Heights Housing Project in West Macon. Officially known as Bellview, the residents at the Project all referred to their neglected neighborhood as “Hellview.” Otis’ father, Otis senior, like many black men in the neighborhood, worked at the nearby Robbins Air Force Base. However, due to a chronic battle with tuberculosis, Otis senior was an inconsistent provider. During one prosperous period, the family – including Otis’ mother, Fanny, his baby brother, Rodgers, and four sisters - was able to purchase a humble home of their own. However, after a devastating fire, the family found themselves moving back to into the Projects at “Hellview.”
By the time Otis reached the tenth grade, the pressure on the family had become so great that he decided to drop out of high school in hopes of helping to support his siblings.
“My father was ill, he had TB, and he was in the hospital more than he was home; my mother was working, and it was just a burden. I can remember when Otis left school he went out on the road with Little Richard’s old band, the Upsetters, and he would send home twenty-five dollars a week. That was a lot of money in those days. - Rodgers Redding, from Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick
However, Otis soon found that the path of a musical artist is strewn with many stones, and he had to find other means of making a living when he couldn’t find a club gig or a road job. As a teenage dropout, he took whatever work he could find. He spent a stretch working around rural Georgia with a well-digger. He also ground out a paycheck as an attendant at various gas stations. But no matter how he busied his body earning his daily bread, Redding’s mind was always restless and preoccupied with thoughts about music.
Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, Harper and Row, 1986
James Dickerson’s Goin’ Back to Memphis, Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996
Michael Haralambos’ Right on: From Blues to Soul in Black America, Drake Publishers, 1975
Respect Yourself: The Stax Story, documentary film, produced by Tremolo Productions,
Concord Music Group and Thirteen/WNET New York, for PBS’ Great Performances, 2007
The Otis Redding biography at African Genesis
Otis Redding at Wikipedia
Otis Redding Biography at History of Rock
Otis Redding Biography at the Otis Redding official website
Joe Nolan is a poet, musician and freelance journalist in Nashville, TN. Nolan writes about visual art for the journal, Number, published by the University of Memphis. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.