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IMTF honors Redding during Black History series

Attendees encouraged to dance, sing along at shows at RKF Studios

Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation will host An Ode to Otis Redding on Friday, Feb. 24, and Saturday, Feb. 25, at RKF Studios, 2446 Lake Ave.

Published February 8, 2023

This might be Alex Leavell’s favorite time of year.

When the Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation secured its home, their assistant program director knew exactly what he wanted to do first: a tribute to Sam Cooke. 

Following the success of the Cooke show, the Black History Month concert series returns this year to honor the work of Otis Redding.

“This was like the one thing I was super-excited about,” he said of doing tribute shows. “We have the space to do it and we have the ambition to do it. I love celebrating this music. It’s the stuff I grew up on and what I continue to listen to.”

This year’s performances will be at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24, and Saturday, Feb. 25, at RKF Studios, 2446 Lake Ave. Tickets are currently on sale for $15.

Get to know redding

Most know the name Otis Redding, but a majority might know much about him. This is a major reason for the show, which includes six local singers and a backing band.

“I’m really into awareness, so I like the fact that it’s a little bit obscure,” said Prentis Moore, one of the performers. “There’s not a vast majority of people that know Otis Redding, but there are a majority of people that are familiar with some of the stuff that he has done. People are coming out, and it’s kind of a like a history lesson for them, which is what Black History Month is supposed to be about: learning about some people that we don’t have all the knowledge on. Things that maybe we were not taught in school or you don’t see publicized for Black History Month.”

For example, most people know Redding from his song “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” What they might not know the song was actually released after he was killed in a 1967 plane crash. Folks also might not know that Redding wrote “Respect,” which Aretha Franklin went on to sing, making it hers in the process.

“It’s nice for it to have a purpose,” Moore said of the show. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s go sing some songs,’ or something like that. For this to actually have a purpose, to educate and get a message across, I think that’s the dopest feeling.”

Making impact in short time

For those of you that might not know, Redding was raised in Macon, Georgia, and performed at his Baptist church. As a teenager, his website bio says he began competing in a talent show that awarded a $5 prize, but was no longer allowed to participate after winning 15 straight times. 

Following a stint in Little Richard’s band The Upsetters, Redding joined the Johnny Jenkins Pinetoppers, serving as their driver as well. During a trip Stax Records in Memphis, co-owner Jim Stewart allowed Redding to record a pair of songs with extra studio time. One of those songs was “These Arms of Mine,” which ended up on his 1964 debut record, Pain In My Heart.

Success flooded in and he was a sought-after live performer.

Through starting his own record label, Jotis, and investing wisely, Redding purchased a 300-acre ranch in Wisconsin. He added a pair of private planes, one of which he was in when it crashed into Lake Monona on Dec. 10, 1967.

“He was performing just a short period of time, but he made such an impact given the body and breadth of his work,” said Albert Brownlee, another performer in the show.

Indeed, Redding’s biggest success came after his death, as “Dock of the Bay” reached No. 1 on March 28, 1968, more than three months after his death.

The song’s success led people to discover more from Redding, as “The Happy Song (Dum Dum),” “Amen,” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” entered the charts after his death.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994, and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1999 Grammys.

The players

Not many people have left such an impact in such a short period of time, and IMTF is looking to celebrate it.

“It’s an opportunity to celebrate such historic artists as Otis Redding and others that have made an impact, not only on society, but music in general,” Brownlee said.

Along with Brownlee and Moore, other singers will be Tyler Bennett, Shaneequa Swain, Jordan Weatherbe, and Jake Wilhelm. The singers will be backed by pianist Peter Klopfenstein, bassist Spencer Shoup, drummer Orey Hamrick, saxophonist John Leavell, trumpeter Todd Roth, and guitarist Adam Robison.

“(Redding’s) big thing was Stax Records, and Stax had Booker T. and The MG’s as their house band,” Alex Leavell said. “Listen to any Stax album, and that band is just phenomenal with the Memphis horn playing. Those guys … you have to have a really good rhythm section, a really good horn section to keep up with the energy that was Otis Redding. We’re going to try to match it as well as we can with our band.”

As for the singers, the show’s director is not putting parameters on them.

“He gives you free rein to be yourself,” Moore said of Leavell. “Even with Sam Cooke last year, once he heard me sing one of the songs, he was like, ‘Do it just like Prentis would do it. Don’t do it like Sam Cooke would do it.’ ”

The same goes for Brownlee, who says he does not plan to stray too far from Redding’s versions.

“Anytime you’re doing a tribute show, you want to remain true to the context of the songs,” he said. “You can take some liberties in performance and vocality, but on the same hand, you should remain as close and clear to the artist as possible.”

Not your ordinary performance

Just as Leavell is with the performers, attendees will also be free to do as they please during the show — to an extent.

“What I wanted to do with this series was to not make it a cabaret,” he said. “Fort Wayne has so many cabarets in the theater community, and it’s something that I appreciate, but I wanted to make this more of an actual concert. There’s a dance floor and you’re invited to groove out and sing along and just have a party and make it a celebration.”

And as you grab a drink from the cash bar, sing along, and dance the night away, you just might learn a thing or two.

“In the time that his artistry was developing and coming to forefront of the industry, there was still tremendous social issues going on concerning black and white relations,” Brownlee said of Redding. “Music was not only a bridge to bring people together, but it was also a way to make social commentary. A lot of the songs written and performed during those days had dual meanings.”

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