Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Stax Museum showcases powerful, emotional exhibit on soul legend Redding

By Bob Mehr

"Otis Redding -- From Macon to Memphis: An Exhibit from the Private Collection of Zelma Redding," opened quietly last month at The Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Its launch was timed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Redding's death, the result of a plane crash that claimed the life of the Georgia-born singer and Stax hitmaker, and nearly all the members of his backing band, The Bar-Kays, en route to a concert in Wisconsin in December 1967.

Unusually, there was no formal opening celebration for "From Macon to Memphis," and little attention was given to it amid the distractions of the holiday season. But the relative lack of fanfare surrounding it belies its status as a major historical exhibit -- one that's as powerful, emotional and evocative as the music of the man it celebrates.

"From Macon to Memphis" -- which will be on display at Stax's Studio A through April 30 -- is being hosted at Stax, in conjunction with the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and The Big "O" Youth Educational Dream Foundation, an arts and education organization founded by the Redding family last year.

The exhibit is somewhat misnamed, as it also includes a handful of pieces from the archive of music collector Bob Grady and several items from the Stax Museum itself. Still, the bulk of the items do come from Zelma Redding's trove of personal artifacts, many of which have never seen the light of day until now. Though it's not an incredibly large collection -- less than 100 pieces in all -- its impact is profound in several ways.

So much of what music fans hold dear about Redding has passed into the realm of myth: the
story of his unlikely discovery at Stax, arriving initially as the chauffeur of singer Johnny Jenkins; the sweat-soaked performances on the epochal Stax-Volt European tour; his embrace by the "love crowd" at the Monterey Pop Festival; and the bittersweet valediction of "(Sitting on) the Dock of the Bay." "From Macon to Memphis" certainly touches on all those triumphs, but it also adds a new depth and dimension to our understanding of Redding as a husband, father and friend.

Remarkably, it achieves this tricky task with an understated grace and a true economy of effort. The story is told in spare black-and-white photographs, documents, and brief personal correspondence -- the pieces exploring both the big tableau themes about Redding's art as well as the most trivial details of his life.

And without being overwrought, or playing up the mordant aspects of his death, "From Macon to Memphis" allows us to truly understand how Redding's tragic passing both defines and haunts our collective memory of him.

The first section of the exhibit is a brilliant burst: a mix of live and backstage photos, autographed records and show posters -- including one from a 1966 "homecoming" concert in Georgia. Taken together, they replicate the compressed feel of Redding's rise to fame, a thrilling five-year run that had him positioned, not just as the king of soul music, but an artist on the cusp of some kind of transcendent success at the end of his life.

Another aspect of the collection concerns the little-seen private Redding. The flip side of the dynamic entertainer was a reflective family man who preferred the solitude of the country to the buzz of the stage. Much of that is represented in the photos here, including shots of Redding enjoying the spoils of his success, a 300-acre farm he purchased outside of Macon. There's a real warmth in the images that find him playing the role of dedicated farmhand or frolicking poolside with his young sons, Otis III and Dexter.

Not all the photos are so happy, of course. There is an undeniably eerie quality to a pair of shots of Redding taken on his land sometime in early 1967, which find him hovering around an old Revolutionary War grave. In one, he leans up against a tombstone, smoking stoically; in another, he stands arms folded, gazing mysteriously at some unseen and, it seems, spectral presence. It's hard to view these photos and not feel a kind of chill -- perhaps that's part of the reason Redding's widow has kept the images private until now.

Though it would've been easy to skip over them, the final days of Redding's life are not given short shrift. A separate section is devoted to a series of items documenting his last trip to Memphis -- the starting point of a weekend tour that would prove fateful. They seem at first like unimportant pieces -- a car rental agreement, a hotel bill, aviation receipts -- but as you follow the paper trail, you almost feel a sense of dread. It's an emotion that's fueled, in part, because the artifacts are in such pristine condition; they look as if the ink has just dried. (Redding's widow kept the items in sealed plastic sheets for four decades).

The final portion of the exhibit, dealing with the aftermath of Redding's death, offers the saddest and most heart-rending moments. It includes a copy of Redding's death certificate, Zelma's handwritten logbook of condolence calls, and scores of telegrams from fellow soul music stars expressing their sympathy: The Temptations, Booker T. & the MGs, Patti LaBelle, The Staple Singers. Their words are moving, but often, it's the smallest, strangest details that stand out -- seeing a famous name like Nina Simone misspelled by an anonymous and unknowing Western Union clerk, for instance.

"From Macon to Memphis" concludes on a poignant note, focusing on the family Redding left behind. A shot of Zelma and her children gazing out on the family farm in 1970 is a sad echo of the image of Redding tending to his place a few years before.

The last piece in the collection, a family Christmas card, also from 1970, pictures the three Redding children alone. It's a rich color image taken against the wooded backdrop of the ranch. But there's something missing. There's a gaping empty space on the right side of the image, a place where their father might have stood.

Tremendous credit should be given to Stax curator Carol Drake for the subtle, but deliberate, way in which the exhibit flows from start to finish. But the strongest praise should be reserved for Zelma Redding herself, who understandably had a hard time parting with these pieces. To someone on the outside, the artifacts are just that. But for her they are talismans, or maybe just tangible pieces of the husband she lost and the legend whose legacy she's cared for unfailingly.
Her willingness to share these most private and personal possessions allows us to feel it all, too -- the happy memories of his life, the sharp pain of his death -- and to share a little bit more of a man we've all been loving too long to stop.

Exhibition review
"Otis Redding -- From Macon to Memphis: An Exhibit from the Private Collection of Zelma Redding" is on view at Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 926 E. McLemore Ave., through April 30.

Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults; $9 seniors 62 +, active military and students with valid ID; $7 children 9-12. Free to children 8 and younger and to museum members.

Call (901) 946-2535. Online:



Anonymous said...

Excellent review of the exhibit.
Now I just have to get down to Memphis to actually see it in person.

Bob Davis

Anonymous said...

what's an artcile?

busbob said...

I spoke with someone in charge of the museum a few years ago about Otis's plane. The seat is on Ebay now. It would be a great piece of history to go along with your beautiful place. If I can help with this please call. Bobby at 615-294-0440

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