Out From The Shadows
The offspring of five famous artists come together on a Macon stage to swap stories about their musical roots, carrying on the family legacy, and coming into their own as performers.
Though a pounding gullywasher has given way to a light summer sprinkle, I am crossing my fingers and praying to the parking space gods for mercy as I frantically search for a spot within shouting distance of Piedmont Brewery & Kitchen. It’s just past high noon on this drizzly day in downtown Macon – I don’t even own an umbrella, and I’m late, so late, for a very important date.
When I finally rush inside the restaurant and breathlessly ask the hostess to be directed to Otis Redding III’s table, she stares at me sort of blankly for a second. “There’s some guy sitting around the corner,” she says, pointing in to the far right. “Could be him.”
Turns out, the unassuming gentleman in the black tee and jeans waiting quietly at his table is, in fact, the namesake son of one of the greatest musical icons to ever grace the stage or write a song. I have no idea how I thought a bona fide member of music royalty would behave or present himself, but there is no three-piece suited entourage in sight, no dark sunglasses to fend off the prying eyes of other diners, no high-stepping manner or frosty glare to greet the unpunctual, rain-wilted visage appearing before him.
Otis the third is just one helluva nice, down-to-earth guy, from what I can tell. Fresh from his “humbling time” atop a tractor tending to 30 of the 300 or so acres at his parents’ Jones County ranch, he is nonetheless reveling me with stories of being “star-struck” by meeting James Brown and Stanley Clarke – of meeting Phil Collins and thinking what a “regular guy” he was, and then there was that time Tommy of Motley Crue personally introduced him to Angus Young.
While Otis the third is also a person who counts among his life stories once being flown to New York for his birthday by Carly Simon, he is ultimately, at 53, a man who has “learned to accept reality.”
“I’m the son of a legend,” he says, emphasizing the word “son” ever so slightly. A blues guitarist and performer himself, it’s hard to gauge just what that inflection is conveying. Otis the third clears up that unspoken question licketysplit.
As a musician, the Redding name has been “both a blessing and a curse,” he says, quickly adding, “I call it more good than bad. I’d rather them jokers wishing they was me than the other way around.”
It’s that life experience – amazing moments as well as a few hard life lessons learned as a guitarist and singer working in the music industry for nearly 30 years – that Otis plans to bring to his hometown this month. He is one of five performers, each the child or grandchild of a famous musician, scheduled to take the stage at the historic Douglass Theatre on Sept. 9 for American Shadows: Experience the Stories, Music and Legacy.
Other musicians appearing on the bill are: Heather Hayes, daughter of Isaac Hayes; Tre Twitty, grandson of Conway Twitty; Keisha Jackson, daughter of Millie Jackson; and the J.A.M.P. Band, founded by DeAnna Brown-Thomas, daughter of James Brown.
The J.A.M.P. Band is made up of students attending the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils, a grant and gift-funded academy based in Augusta. Educational consultants and music educators from across the country collaborate on giving aspiring young musicians a chance to foster their natural talents.
“My father always talked about how important it was to teach young people music and how to play instruments,” DeAnna says. “Music saved him, and although he was not afforded an education, he knew that it could save a young soul,”
Returning to the city where her father got his start as a musician is especially meaningful, DeAnna adds.
“Macon was the beginning for dad. He always gave Macon credit – even in his song Make it Funky he called Macon ‘The big “M!’” He also recorded his first hit Please, Please, Please at WIBB. So yes, I am very happy to come to Macon and bring our talented students for this awesome show.”
I’m Not an Amazing Singer
Tre Twitty had never even met Otis the third when he accepted the invitation to appear in American Shadows. In fact he still hasn’t – but he was intrigued by the concept, he says.
“I love the fact that he does his own thing when he doesn’t have to do that. He does his own thing because that’s what’s he into,” Tre says, speaking from his family’s home in the Mississippi Delta. “He seems to have a very ambitious vision.”
Otis the third reached out to him through mutual contacts, he says, and asked him to appear on the bill and perform a couple of his late grandfather’s hits. “I’ve got two songs right now – It’s Only Make Believe, which was kind of Conway’s first big hit, and Rainy Night in Georgia – the last thing my he ever did before he passed away.”
Though he lives and works full-time in Nashville, Tre doesn’t describe his music as part of the “Twitty brand.” Calling himself a true Southern Rock musician, Tre counts Metallica and Lynyrd Skynyrd among his musical influences, adding that he is nonetheless a “tremendous admirer” of Conway’s impressive catalogue.
“I got to know him through his music, and from hearing stories from my aunts and uncles and Dad’s, I happen to be a huge admirer of his career and his work ethic and the way he presented himself,” Tre says, adding that though he is “amazingly proud” of his grandfather’s legacy, he isn’t trying to follow in his footsteps.
“I’m not an amazing singer, that’s not my thing. I love all things creative – I work as a photographer, and I’m interested in shooting videos, movies … music is just another form of creativity to me,” he says. “Conway was obsessed with music, he loved it. I don’t have that same burning ambition.”
Take the Bitter With the Sweet
Though diverse in their personal histories and chosen musical genres, the featured performers in American Shadows have one thing in common. Each is privy to an insider’s understanding that the golden apple of fame can be as bitter as it is sweet.
It’s a lesson Keisha Jackson learned early on. A lengthy, congenial and altogether provocative conversation with Keisha from her Atlanta home reveals not only did she inherit her mother’s pipes, she has also fallen heir to R&B singer Millie Jackson’s famously outspoken style.
“To know my mother is to know she is going to say how she feels,” Keisha says, from her Atlanta home. “She’s not going to give you the politically correct answer – she is straight, no chaser.”
Though one of many musicians to play sold-out shows in Apartheid-era South Africa, it was Millie Jackson who drew international ire when she declined to cancel several performances in 1980, responding instead with, “I’m not a politician. And I am not going to mix my career with politics. All I want is the money.”
It was the quote heard round the world, and the fall-out that followed included protests in the U.S. as well as in South Africa, despite the fact the songstress refused to play two shows there – one for white audiences and another for black fans who, under Apartheid curfew laws, couldn’t attend evening performances. “She broke barriers over there,” Keisha says. “She wasn’t the only act that did that, but she was one of them.”
Keisha, who started singing back-up for her mother at 15, recalls years of being hustled into venues and backstage under heavy security, and witnessing her mother’s lambaste from both sides. The daughter of a Georgia sharecropper made good, the elder Jackson defended her decision to let the show go on in a 1982 Rolling Stone article, saying, “American blacks who are forgotten here have the chance to go there and make some money.” The R&B singer nonetheless found herself remaining at the center of global controversy, reviled by activists on two continents.
“The freedom she displayed…I’m so glad she did it – so thankful. Because i know what it looks like to be free,” Keisha says.
With the polarizing events of recent weeks stemming from a white nationalist-led charge on Charlottesville, VA – a deadly spectacle that claimed the lives of three people, shrouded a city in mourning, and left a nation reeling when the President condemned protesters “on both sides,” it’s hard not see a few similarities between then and now. Especially given the venue of the upcoming Macon show – a Jim Crow-era theatre built by a wealthy African-American entrepreneur as a haven for black performers and audiences. A venue that, not for nothing, is located just a few city blocks away from a Confederate monument.
When I ask Keisha if she see saw those same parallels, or if I’m making “something out of nothing,” she laughs (kindly) and tells me “yes, I think you are,” in no uncertain terms.
Soul topics and sore topics aside, what the Sept. 9 show hopefully will offer, she says, is the kind of healing and the “beautiful distraction” that music offers. Not to mention deeply personal, first-hand narratives in an intimate setting of those nearest and dearest to some of the country’s most beloved artists.
“We’re not sending each other scripts of what we’re going to say,” she says, “Otis just asked us to send photos and bios and little histories of what we’ve done in our career. We’re just gonna be telling stories and singing songs.”