When my buddy Dwayne Ballen was a radio disc jockey in Myrtle Beach during the late 1970s, he said, he knew one particular date without even looking at a calendar.
Every Oct. 20th, he said, he could count on the station’s phone ringing incessantly with one request.
Caller: Say man. Play “The Bird.”
Caller: Skynryd, man. We sittin’ around rememberin’ when The Bird went down.
He knew, of course, that Oct. 20th was when the airplane carrying members of Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed, and he’d be deluged with requests for the band’s anthemic Free Bird, a song, the Charlotte Observer’s Tommy Tomlinson once wrote, that you couldn’t listen to without lifting your cigarette lighter heavenward. (He was right.)
Anyone who’s been around me doesn’t need a calendar to know when Dec. 10 arrives: every year, that's my own personal Otis-palooza – because that’s the date Otis Redding’s plane went down, killing everyone aboard except one member of his backup band. On that date, I play just about every record Otis even thought about recording and tell everyone I meet "You know this is the anniversary of Otis' plane crash, right?"
Earlier this year, I wrote a tribute to Wadesboro native Richard Spencer upon learning of his death. Spencer was best known for his own anthemic song, Color Him Father, but he had also served as Otis’s musical director.
So close were they, he told me during one of our many interviews, that his family and friends all thought he, too, was on the plane that went down in that icy Wisconsin lake on Oct. 10, 1967.
He wasn’t – and he has Georgia’s governor, Lester Maddox to thank for saving his life.
Yes, you read that right.
Ol' Lester, the late rabid segregationist mayor of Atlanta and governor of Georgia, didn't mean to save Richard Spencer's life, but he did - indirectly.
You see, Spencer was serving as Otis's Master of Ceremonies, introducing him before his shows.
Even though Redding had given a now-iconic performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, his national popularity hadn't actually caught up with his talent.
"We were playing in little bitty clubs, clubs that you wouldn't think somebody like Otis Redding would be playing," Spencer told me.
One of those clubs, he said, was the Cheshire Cat club in Atlanta.
One night "after one Jack Daniels too many," Spencer said, he - as M.C. - refused to provide a VIP introduction when Gov. Maddox and his entourage swept in to see Otis perform. "I wasn't thinking about no Lester Maddox," he told me.
In the dressing room after the show, Spencer said, an enraged Otis pushed him into a locker for not officially recognizing the governor. Emboldened by that Jack & Coke, Spencer said, he pushed his boss back. That's something you should never do, especially when your boss is as big and strong as Otis was. He laughed while recalling how Otis then "threw me all over that dressing room."
Spencer said the one-sided fight didn't last long - just a few seconds.
That, he said, was long enough to let him know it was time to split. He quit Otis's band for good, even refusing to return when Otis personally called and asked him to accompany him on what proved to be his fateful final tour.
Maddox, politically, was an avowed and violent segregationist. His segregationist tendencies didn't extend to music, though, because he was apparently a big fan of Otis, a fellow Georgia native.
In the book Atlanta Pop in the 50s, 60s and 70s: The Magic of Bill Lowery, the author recounts another incident - also in 1967 - in which Otis, again enraged, whomped somebody on behalf of ol' Lester:
Later in 1967, Bee had (Otis) booked at the Whisk 'A Go-Go in Atlanta... They were walking in the backstage area on a break when they heard some arguing and then - WHACK!!! - a guy came flying out the door, hit the wall and slid down.
Otis, a big man who took zero crap from anybody, had cold-cocked him. Bee later found out the man on the receiving end of Otis's fist had made a negative remark about the fact that Lester Maddox was in the audience and that Redding had recognized him.
(Now, I don't know if having one's entourage recognized is an Atlanta nightclub "thing" or not, but I remember a decade or so after that incident, I was at Atlanta's Mr. V's Figure 8 discotheque when the DJ interrupted the groove to proudly intone "Now entering Mr. V's - LeVar Burton and his entourage.")
So, how did Lester Maddox save Richard Spencer's life?
Circuitously and unintentionally, but unmistakably. Spencer said he felt that had Maddox and his entourage not come to the Cheshire Cat, and had Spencer not refused to introduce him, he might have never gotten into a fight with The Big O. He would then, in all likelihood, have been on the plane with Otis the fateful night of Dec. 10, 1967.
And the world would have lost a great Tar Heel decades earlier and would never have heard Color Him Father, the greatest musical tribute to dads.