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Otis Redding’s widow: “I always thought everything he sang, he sang for me”

It started, as love stories so often do, over an argument. The pair ambled out of Macon, Ga.’s Douglass Theatre on an early Saturday afternoon; her, Zelma Atwood, 16 years old, pretty yet fiery; him, Otis Redding, 19, dashing, charming, a lover with an ambitious streak. He’d just been performing with local star Johnny Jenkins at the town’s hip teenage hangout, the Douglass’ Saturday matinee – he wasn’t the star of the show just yet, although that wouldn’t be too far away – and, at some point during the performance, he caught Zelma’s eye. Zelma doesn’t remember – or won’t say – what the argument was about, but it doesn’t matter. “We met, we fell in love and then we married,” Zelma recalls over 50 years later. “It’s as simple as that.”

To understand Zelma Redding is to understand Otis Redding. The two have been intertwined since they first met on that fateful afternoon in 1960. When Otis was alive, Zelma was the one he would confide in on whispered, late-night phone calls from the road; after his 1967 death, it’s she who has kept a hawkish eye on his legacy, protecting the name of the man she loved so much.

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