Susan Dalgety: Embrace legacy of Otis and Elvis in the name of freedom

Otis Redding III performs at a celebration of what would have been his father's 75 birthday
Otis Redding III performs at a celebration of what would have been his father's 75 birthday
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Otis Redding’s wife Zelma is to open a charter school in his birthplace to help create leaders with soul, writes Susan Dalgety.

People drop names with charming regularity in the Mississippi Delta.

The bluesman who entertained us over breakfast in Clarksdale, birthplace of the blues, is friends with John Lennon’s sister.

“I got a lovely note from Paul McCartney congratulating me on my album of Beatles’ songs, he loved our version of Lady Madonna,” he smiled, before sliding into another three-minute classic.

“I drive Carla Thomas a lot,” said Rufus (no relation), our cheerful cab driver in Memphis, “and if you’re around on Sunday, go down to Al Green’s church, he is still singing as well as preachin’.”

Al Green, the man whose soulful voice has spread love and happiness across the world, is clearly very popular. “I spent five hours with Reverend Green yesterday,” said Gordon, the man we bumped into in BB King’s club on Beale Street.

“And I was with Zelma earlier this week, talkin’ about her music academy. That’s Zelma Redding,” he added quickly, just in case we hadn’t worked out she was the widow of the legendary Otis Redding.

There is music in the air in this sultry corner of the United States.

It was here, in the cotton fields of the south, that African American sharecroppers sang ancient rhythms in the blistering heat to ease their breaking souls, while their poor, white neighbours plucked country tunes on cheap guitars.

It was in Clarksdale where one Robert Johnson, so the story goes, met the devil at a crossroads, and the blues was born. Muddy Waters was raised in the same small town, as was Ike Turner, the man credited with writing the first rock’n’roll song, ‘Rocket 88’.

And it was in Memphis that an introverted, rather strange 19-year-old man picked up his battered guitar one summer’s night in 1954, sang an old blues number ‘That’s all right (Mama)’, and changed the world forever.

They say all roads lead to Memphis, and in Memphis all roads lead to Graceland, the home of that young man, Elvis Aron Presley.

Elvis bought the modest mansion in 1957, and he lived there until his sad, lonely death only 20 years later at the age of 42. It is now one of most visited historical houses in America, second only to the White House.

It is unexpectedly poignant. He had clearly tried to create a haven of peace here, a home where he and his family and friends could hide from the suffocating fame that eventually killed him. Even the vicious green shag-pile carpet in his infamous den seemed comforting.

READ MORE: Susan Dalgety: The party city where only musicians keep time

Growing up with the Beatles, then Bowie, I used to think Elvis Presley was an old-fashioned crooner, someone your auntie liked, a hillbilly rocker with greasy hair who starred in cheesy films.

I had no idea that before Elvis, blues music was played by black people, country by their white neighbours, and gospel by both, but never together.

I was blind to the fact that, before Elvis, radio stations and record labels, like everything in the south, were divided by colour.

It was Elvis, guided by the effervescent record producer Sam Phillips, who, as if by magic, merged the blues, country and gospel and created the soundtrack to the modern world.

He didn’t “steal” black music, as some have accused him. He absorbed it from an early age, growing up in poor neighbourhoods in Tupelo, then Memphis.

He lived and breathed rhythm and blues. He had soul. And a voice that Placido Domingo yearned for: “His was the one voice I wish to have had,” said the tenor.

Memphis is also home to Stax Records, the label that produced some of the best soul music of the 20th century.

Stax was home to legends like Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas and her father Rufus, Booker T and the MGs, and the almost mythical Otis Redding.

Otis died aged only 26 years old, when his plane crashed into a lake in Wisconsin. He had yet to finish his biggest hit, ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of a Bay’, but listening now the whistled verse seems an integral part of the classic record.

And his legacy lives on, even beyond the beautiful music he made. The annual Otis Music Camps provide young people with soul and music education, and his wife, Zelma is opening a charter school in his birthplace of Macon, Georgia, later this year.

READ MORE: Susan Dalgety: USA – a land born of racism and slavery returns to its roots

It aims to “empower students to maximise their full potential through integration of arts and academics”. Just as the Soulsville Charter school does in South Memphis. It is the legacy of Stax Records, which folded in 1975, and is now considered the best public school in the state.

These schools may never produce another Elvis or Otis, but that is not their aim. They want to create “well-rounded and well-prepared leaders for a world of tomorrow” – leaders with soul.

The man currently in charge of the country is creating a cacophony all of his own. Since Trump’s controversial meeting with Vladimir Putin on Monday, the airwaves here have been jumping. Words like treason and traitor are being used by respected, usually measured, commentators to describe the President of the United States.

The former director of the CIA, John Brennan, was apoplectic at what he saw as his commander-in-chief’s betrayal, tweeting that Trump’s press conference with Putin was “nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”

The country is in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Not even the soothing tones of the Reverend Al Green could calm it down just now.

But a few thousand miles away in sunny South Africa, a middle-aged, grey-haired African American got to his feet, and a familiar voice resonated across the oceans.

“Keep believing. Keep marching. Keep building. Keep raising your voice. Every generation has the opportunity to remake the world,” said President Barack Obama, in his speech to mark Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday.

“We don’t just need one leader ... what we badly need is that collective spirit.

“Mandela said young people are capable when aroused of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom. Now is a good time to be aroused.”

Amen brother, amen.