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Record executive Phil Walden and Zelma Redding, the widow of R&B legend Otis Redding Jr., have sued an Atlanta writer who published a biography of the late singer last year. The suit, filed Tuesday in Fulton County, Ga., state court, accuses Scott Freeman, a senior editor for Atlanta Magazine, of libeling Walden by including lies and unsubstantiated “street rumors” in his book “Otis! The Otis Redding Story,” including allegations that Walden was a member of the Mafia and had Redding killed. The suit also claims that the book caused Zelma Redding emotional distress by recounting false rumors that her husband had cheated on her and was going to divorce her. Otis Redding died Dec. 10, 1967, in a plane crash that took the lives of five others. The plane had left Cleveland and was on its second approach to the Madison, Wis., airport when it crashed in bad weather into Lake Monona. The singer’s death came only days after he recorded what would become his greatest hit — “(Sittin’) on the Dock of the Bay.” At the time, Walden was Redding’s business manager and both men were shareholders in Redwal Music Co. Redding, Walden says in the suit, was his best friend and the singer’s sudden death devastated him. Walden later founded Capricorn Records and managed and promoted such Southern rock bands as the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band. He and his family now run Velocette Records in Atlanta. A trio of lawyers — Terry D. Jackson of Atlanta, Bobby Lee Cook of Summerville, Ga.’s Cook & Connelly, and Philip M. Walden Jr., the plaintiff’s son, of Atlanta’s Jones & Walden — filed the Fulton suit. It seeks $15 million from Freeman and publishing house St. Martin’s Press for allegedly libelous statements in the book and slanderous comments Freeman allegedly made in interviews about the book. The suit calls those statements “nothing short of lies spun to sell a poorly researched book.” Walden v. Freeman, No. 02VS041147B (Fult. St. Nov. 12, 2002). The book is now out in a paperback edition. Neither Walden nor Zelma Redding gave interviews to or cooperated with Freeman on the book. Cook said the complaint “speaks for itself” and declined further comment. Freeman, who is also the author of “Midnight Riders,” a book on the Allman Brothers, declined to discuss the suit. St. Martin’s legal department didn’t respond by press time to a request for comment. Freeman’s book, according to the suit, has falsely led the public to believe Walden was associated with the mob and conspired to kill Redding by having the plane sabotaged. Among the passages from the book cited in the complaint is this one: “In many circles around Macon, there are unsubstantiated theories floating around that cast an accusatory eye on Phil Walden with no real evidence there are those who believe he hired someone to sabotage the plane. They’ll tell you the logic is simple. Phil had a $1 million insurance policy on Otis’s life. The plane was parked in Cleveland before the crash and Cleveland was a mob outpost; there were people to be hired who could cause a plane to go down. Phil had found out Otis was about to leave him. It would have destroyed him professionally. Did he react to the news in a cold rage getting Otis before Otis got him?” The book goes on to say that “Others scoff at the suggestion that Phil, or anyone else for that matter, sabotaged the plane.” According to the suit, neither Walden nor any business entity he was associated with had a life insurance policy on Redding, nor was Redding about to fire Walden. Moreover, the complaint adds, “Walden did not kill Otis Redding nor any other passenger of that plane, nor is he a member or even had any association with any criminal organization, period.” The plane crash was determined to be an accident, although the exact cause remains unknown, the suit says. The defendants’ “attempt to qualify these libelous statements as ‘rumors’ is nothing more than textbook attempts by lawyers or libel review staff to distance oneself from defamatory and libelous statements once a decision is made to publish them, regardless of the harm the statements will cause,” the suit says. The false allegations that Walden killed his best friend came at a particularly trying time for the music executive because he was undergoing radiation treatments for lung cancer, the suit says, and they caused him emotional distress. The suit also claims Freeman’s book falsely portrays Walden as a coward, a publicity hound and a thief who cheated artists out of royalties. Zelma Redding, who runs a shoe store in Macon, Ga., claims that Freeman falsely, “maliciously and intentionally” inferred that her late husband was a womanizer who cheated on her and was about to divorce her when he died. The book, she alleges, has subjected her to ridicule and humiliation in her hometown. The suit also includes a claim for tortious interference with contractual and business relations. Walden and Zelma Redding have optioned the film rights for a screenplay about Otis Reddings’ life story to Universal Studios. The book, the suit says, has damaged their chances of getting a movie contract. The suit claims that Zelma Redding and Walden are private figures. Zelma Redding has lived a private life in Macon since her husband’s death, the suit says, adding that while Walden has worked in the music industry since the 1950′s, “[t]he average Georgia citizen would not know Phil Walden from Adam.” At most, Walden might be a limited-purpose public figure related to the death of Otis Redding, the suit says, but Redding’s death did not make Walden a public figure.

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