MACON, Ga. — Young Bernice Jones was in Fort Lauderdale when she first heard “The Cotton Brothers of Macon, Georgia” sing “Remember Me” on gospel radio.
“Who are they?” she remembers asking.
The brothers’ 45 single, recorded on their independent “Blue Top Records” label, might not have reached her ears if it weren’t for Otis Redding.
The tall Tommy Cotton, who later took Bernice for his bride, played basketball at Ballard Hudson High with Sylvester “Vessy” Huckaby, Redding’s bodyguard.
When Redding was home from touring, pickup games at Bellevue’s Minnie Butler school forged a friendship with the famous singer and the gospel crooners.
Redding began sharing the Cotton Brothers’ “Remember Me” single as he made his way performing across the country.
“Otis, he was such a giving person,” Bernice Cotton told the Center for Collaborative Journalism in a recent interview at her Macon home. “God lifted them with the grace and help of Otis Redding, and I always would say that because I’ve witnessed so very much.”
When Swain sent it to major independent recording companies, Don Robey signed the group to the Song Birds label of Peacock Records.
Atlantic Records made the brothers an offer to sing soul, but they turned it down, Nations reported.
Now just as Otis Redding did, his son, Otis Redding III, is promoting the Cottons’ music in a “Tribute to the Cotton Brothers featuring First Lady of Gospel Shirley Caesar.”
The concert, Sat. Sept. 18 at 4 p.m. at the Macon City Auditorium also features Le’Andria Johnson, Canton Spirituals, Katina Cabiness and Terrance Cotton.
“I had this vision maybe 10 years ago,” Otis Redding III said. “We had the show booked for June 2020 but we had to cancel it.”
Not only did the coronavirus halt last year’s booking, but since then the Cotton family of 16 children lost four siblings to COVID-19: Lewis, A.C., Jessie and Eddie, Bernice Cotton said.
“I know that God kept us because every time we at least tried to hold our head up, you come up on another phone call. And through it all, God brought us and we’re still standing,” said Bernice Cotton, now 77.
The first 50 people at the concert to present identification and proof of COVID-19 vaccination between Sept. 5 – 18 will receive a free ticket.
Tommy Cotton passed away four years ago before “COVID reared its ugly head,” Bernice Cotton said.
She had 51 years of marriage with Tommy, whom she met while visiting her aunt who lived down the street from the Cottons. The large family sang together in multiple groupings over the years that included the Cotton Brothers Juniors and 100% Cotton.
Tommy was one of the lead singers of the original recording group along with A.C., Willie and Bishop John L., owner of St. Cotton Southern Cafeteria who pastored Greater Overcoming Church for 46 years until his death.
Tommy was a prolific songwriter who penned “Remember Me,” the hit that brought the family to fame.
Redding even recorded a tweaked version of “Remember Me” that appeared as the title track on Redding’s posthumous collection of unissued songs that Stax Records released in 1992.
The Cottons’ “Another New Year” is a heavily requested favorite on gospel radio every Jan. 1.
It debuted on the 1985 live album “Having Church in Georgia” that was recorded at Bishop’s church.
In his review, Nations wrote: “Rarely does a live quartet album light up with solid conviction these days, now that choirs and divas pretty much rule the bestsellers charts.”
Bernice rose to local fame herself as “Queen Bee,” a gospel deejay on Macon radio stations WIBB, WDDO and WBML. She was the brothers’ public relations person and “worst critic,” she said with a laugh.
They would look to her for a “thumbs up” during performances, she said.
In 2009, she helped organize a reunion concert at the church that Otis Redding III recorded. That concert featured Tommy’s “Rock Me Jesus,” a song he released with the younger generation of Cottons in 1985.
When reflecting back on her husband’s family legacy, God gets the glory, she said.
Her father-in-law, “Pop” Cotton, was a quiet, humble man who loved to pray.
“When he prayed, something happened. God moved,” she said.
The brothers weren’t schooled in music, but their “gift kept making room for them,” a biblical reference Bernice Cotton made to Proverbs 18:16.
“We just had a lot of fun and doing God’s will… we can say by their anointing of the Holy Spirit,” she said. “They are and was a Spirit-filled family and I thank God for that because it helped us grow to spread God’s word through song.”
Her favorite remains “Remember Me” which launched the family’s success as a professional touring troupe.
“I loved that song,” she said. “It had such a beautiful message.”
She has the master copies of every song and a myriad of memories to carry her through.
Willie Cotton, the only remaining brother of the original group, is excited about the concert, she said.
For her, it’s bittersweet as the “final chapter” that God brought us to.
“This chapter is closed, not to be opened anymore,” she said with a tinge of sadness.
But she knows the music will live on and continue to bless people.
“We never know who we’re helping or who we’re not. It was a fantastic journey and I’m grateful to be a part of this journey.”
Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 478-301-2976.