TWO YEARS ago, a group called Father's Pride was playing the regional circuit around their hometown of Macon, Ga.
Older members of the audience saw something familiar about the band's 18-year-old bass player -- something in the way he looked and the way he sometimes sang in a low tenor. His name was Dexter Redding, oldest son of Otis Redding, the singer who helped reshape the sound of soul music before his death in an airplane crash in 1967.
"He looks like his father, he has ways like him," says Dexter's mother, Zelma Redding, from Macon. "But Dexter never wanted to capitalize on that image. Everybody says, 'Does he sound like Otis?' I'm glad he doesn't, because it's been on his mind: 'I don't want to sound like Daddy.' He wants to be better with his vocals. And that will all come about with experience. He goes after being Dexter Redding."
Now Dexter Redding and his cousin Mark Locket live in Washington, where they wait each day for Dexter's 16-year-old brother to get out of chool. He is a senior cadet ("still a private") at St. John's College School, and every day after he does his homework, he heads downtown to a K Street recording studio to pursue his legacy. His name is Otis Redding III, (the famous father was Otis Jr). The name causes frequent double-takes when fellow classmates -- and especially teachers -- hear it.
The three call themselves the Reddings, and their new album is called "The Awakening." Their single, "Remote Control," is rising on the pop and soul charts, and the album appeared for the first time last week on the black/contemporary charts.
Meanwhile, the songs of the father still gleam occasionally on the air-waves: "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "Respect," Dock of the Bay," "These Arms of Mine," "That's How Strong My Love Is."
"It makes you feel good to know that's your father on the radio," says Otis III, whom his family calls Junior, and who looks like a young and healthy Jimmie Walker. "I pay more attention to them now than I did a long time ago," he says. "I was young then and now I understand a little bit more."
Adds Mark Locket, 24, "We turn them up loud on the radio and blast away as if they were the No. 1 songs." The sound of "Awakening" is much more in the Kool and the Gang/Larry Graham/funk-bottom school of music than their father's classic soul ballads and gritty work songs. But, Locket says, "when we first had the [pride] group together, we were doing a slow medley of some of his songs. The crowds really like it. They did . . . respond to that."
Locket and the Redding brothers have lived in Washington since last fall. They moved here to be with Russell Timmons, who has become their co-manager (with their mother, who comes to Washington twice a month -- "I really miss them a lot," she says). Timmons' seven years as director of artists and repertoire for Epic Records led to numerous gold and platinum records. They now cover the walls of his K Street office, a visible incentive to the Reddings.
Last year Timmons started his own locally based label, Believe in a Dream (distributed by CBS). "The Awakening" is his first album. The company's office and studio at 14th and K streets may seem an unlikely staging area for turning the Reddings into a success, but Timmons feels that the Washington market is "a great one for a record company. I want to explore the talents in my own backyard." (His next group, however, is a quartet from Liverpool, England -- a singing group called Real Thing.)
Although the Reddings only started playing together two years ago, each had had previous experience in the music business.When Dexter was 12, he had an English hit called "Love Is Bigger Than Baseball." "It was my first chance to see what it was like," he says.
"If he'd had the proper tunes and production, we could have had something then," says Zelma Redding. "His voice was young, the kid sound. If we had taken time to mold it, it would have come out very well. He was young and I knew if that's what he wanted, it would arrive again. And it did."
Back in Macon, Dexter had picked up guitar at the age of 4, but Otis III was "never into music," according to his mother. "I think it arrived from Dexter. One Christmas he said, 'I want a guitar.' I said 'I'll buy it, but I know you can't play it.' But he learned. It was just a thing of 'If my brother can do it, I can do it, too.'"
Dexter moved over to electric bass, and cousin Locket eventually came in on drums and keyboards. "They worked real hard, got themselves really tight," says Zelma Redding. The Macon circuit was a rough one: It had already spawned Little Richard and Sam Cooke, as well as the senior Redding. Dexter says that his mother, who for many years has owned and managed the 350-seat New Directions nightclub there, "told us if that's what we wanted to do, she would help us in any way that she could. She gave us time to decide. I mean, she's been in this business, she knows. "
Despite their pedigree, the Reddings didn't find doors swinging open when they shopped their demo tapes around. "When they came to me [at Epic in New York], I didn't think they were ready and we passed," says Timmons. "But when I decided to start my label, I also decided to bring them to Washington to try and develop them." Timmons went down to Macon and developed a close relationship with the Redding family, becoming Otis III's legal guardian; all three Reddings live with him. "Besides being a business partner and friend, he's like a father to the boys," says Zelma Redding. "I don't lose any sleep over 'em, because I know they're well taken care of."
"He did discover us and he's carried us so far," says Dexter of the relationship. "It's a beginning for him as well as for us. We just want to enhance each other, grow together."
For the last year, the Reddings have been in the studio, working out their instrumentation and vocal arrangements, putting together a six-piece band that won't have the horns that graced their father's records ("They won't be missed -- that's just how tight the music will be," says Locket) or much resemblance to his general musical style.
"We were looking for something different," admits Locket. "People will expect a lot. They'll get into it just to see where it's coming from. And they will be surprised to see there's no similarity."
"I feel that my father would like it," adds Otis III. "He would want us to do whatever is appropriate for us to get over in the music business. I don't think that he would try to make us do his style of music in 1980. I also feel he would have changed, would have kept up with the times, the trends. It wouldn't be the '60s -- he'd be here too."
"The boys are right," says Zelma Redding. "He was a forward-looking person, he tried to stay a little bit ahead of his time. You could tell when Otis went in at the end and cut 'Dock of the Bay,' which was very different for him. Before, it was always 'I'm beggin' for' something.'
"When he played me a demo, I said, 'I ain't believin' this, this is too different for you.' He said, 'Well, you know, I got to change. People are tired of the same old thing.'"
Since Otis III is still in school, there could be problems if the group takes off. But Timmons is ready to hire tutors should the Reddings hit the road soon. "We have a plan. We want to build hit acts, not just hit records," says Timmons. "And to build a hit career, you must be selling a solid image -- not just on stage, but overall. It takes a lot more time, but it also affords you consistency."
"Timing plays a very important role," he says. "When the boys are ready and able to win over their audience, the public will not only welcome them with open arms, but they'll keep their arms open because of the performances." After all, says Locket, when Timmons first heard them, "he didn't like what we had. But he liked our potential. He polished us. We plan to come out on top live."
Part of that preparation has been a flood of interviews -- music magazines from as far away as England have sent correspondents. "We'd rather be eating cheeseburgers," laughs Locket, munching away. The Reddings seem willing to let Timmons make all the decisions and don't seem particularly eager to stay in shape on the club circuit. "We didd enough homecomings and proms and back-yard gigs in Macon," Locket says. "You have to crawl before you walk and you might have to crawl again. You don't say, 'I'll never go that way again.'"
"I didn't know what direction they would go in," Zelma Redding admits. "I'm very proud that they chose music.If it was anything else on a professional level, I would have been proud of that, too. I could see that something might happen for them if they kept the ideas that they had. And of course, I was on their side."
Hanging over the group's efforts is the memory of father Otis Redding, who would have been 39 this year. The sons are proud and aware of their heritage, but apparently not overwhelmed by it. "Even when it was Father's Pride, it was based around the father thing -- that he would be proud of what we were doing doing," says Dexter. "I think we're ready. It's coming at us."