In the music world, it’s not just the touring industry and summer festivals that have been impacted by the coronavirus: On a community level, the pandemic has hijacked countless music camps and education workshops nationwide. However, some organizations like the Otis Redding Foundation — which hosts the annual Otis Music Camp in Georgia — adapted to not only weather the pandemic, but flourish.
Established in 2007 to celebrate what would have been Redding’s 70th birthday — the legendary soul singer died in a plane crash in 1967 — the Otis Music Camp brought campers nationwide to its base in Georgia to educate musically inclined teenagers on all facets of the music industry, from performing and producing to songwriting and publishing.
The camp itself is modeled after a 1966 gathering Redding hosted in the last year of his life. “He was always thinking about how to better his community and was just so adamant about education,” Karla Redding-Andrews, Redding’s daughter, the vice president and executive director of the foundation, tells Rolling Stone.
“He was a strong proponent of that. Even going as far as to create a campaign with other Stax artists promoting the responsibility to stay in school. And that was the name of the campaign. These jingles were heard all over the all over the country to encourage that education is important.”
Nearly 40 years later, the foundation started the camp to further Redding’s vision. “We started with probably seven kids, and the kids had to be age 11 to 18, focused on songwriting and engineering and music production. It was a weeklong [event]. We didn’t know how far it would go,” Redding-Andrews said. “The Georgia Music Hall of Fame staff ran that with the local musicians and educators to teach that program. And it has just continued to grow and grow.”
Among the foundation’s success stories is former camper Roderick Cox, who’s now a world renowned conductor and one of first African Americans to lead a European orchestra; Redding-Andrews recalls how her mother, Otis’ widow Zelma, “nurtured” Cox’s path. “This student needed a French horn to go to Columbus State University to major in music, and so she provided him with the French horn. As he finished his undergraduate studies, he needed to do abroad studies, and she sent him to the Czech Republic, Spain, to Prague,” Redding-Andrews said, adding that Cox remains connected with the foundation and the camp. “He comes back and teaches the kids about what it is to be in his field and encourages them on what they need to do and never to give up on their dream.”
The Otis Music Camp was so successful that the program expanded to create a curriculum for younger students of music, Camp Dream. In 2019, the foundation welcomed 75 students to their Georgia summer camp, which routinely brings in guest artists, studio experts, and industry pros to teach the kids about both the creation and business of music.
However, the pandemic hit before the 2020 camp session. While weighing postponement, Redding-Andrews was instead encouraged by her Otis Music Camp team to make this year’s program virtual, and with help from some key tech partners, “It has not stopped us one beat.”
“The camp this year was the most impressive thing I have ever seen,” Redding-Andrews says. “And we’ve been doing camp for a long time in a physical sense. And I was in the mindset of thinking we should probably just put this on hold this year and let’s pray for the best for next year. And my whole team was like, ‘No, no, Karla we can do this. We can do this.’”
For the successful jump to virtual, Redding-Andrews cites partners Reverb, Soundtrap, and BlueJeans powered by Verizon with “allowing us to bring the programs to the kids,” as well as Black Pumas, the Best New Artist Grammy-nominated band — who, with Fender, donated 30 guitars to this year’s Otis Music Camp, which were then given to campers via curbside pickup. Black Pumas singer Eric Burton also led a masterclass on indie music during this year’s sessions.
“It was such a sweet experience to chat with campers at the Otis Music Camp, even in a virtual setting,” Burton said in a statement. “I remember getting my first guitar from my brother, who bought it for me, and it was so nice to show some love and support to those kids who are pursuing music by giving them the tools they need.”
The 2020 Otis Music Camp ended with one more surprise for attendees: “The final day we had this vision of, ‘We’ve gotten through camp, can we have a quarantine dance party with D-Nice?’ And all we did was ask, and he said, ‘Absolutely,'” Redding-Andrews says. “I think with the pandemic happening, people were so ready to try to inspire and make the kids feel good.”
In addition to the performance side of the Otis Music Camp, attendees are also schooled on the intricacies of the music business, which Otis Redding himself took great care in learning. His daughter notes how the singer protected his music in 1962 by aligning with music publishers BMI (In 2020, the estate is still with the performance-rights organization.) “We grew up knowing all of this stuff,” Redding-Andrews says. “My mom made sure that we knew the business dealings that my dad put in place to maintain his legacy.
“I think that people really pay attention to all of the efforts that the team and the coaches and the kids put into every single program,” she continued. “Whatever we set out to do, we know it had to be done right. My mom’s always in our ear saying, ‘If you’re going to do something in Otis’ legacy, you got to do it perfect or don’t do at all.’ That’s her word. ‘If you’re not going to do it perfect, then don’t do it.'”