Soul singer Otis Redding had acquired his own plane to make touring less hectic, but the twin-engine Beechcraft H18 would prove his fatal undoing. At around 3:30 p.m. on a foggy Sunday afternoon, December 10, 1967, the plane, which encountered a storm en route from Cleveland to a concert in Madison, plunged into the frigid waters of Lake Monona. Redding, 26, and four members of his Bar-Kays band were killed. The musicians were headed to The Factory nightclub and scheduled to perform at 6:30 p.m.
The crash killed six others, everyone on board except for trumpeter Ben Cauley (bassist James Alexander had luckily avoided the flight altogether). On the cusp of achieving pop super-stardom, Redding, best known for his hit “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” recorded just three days earlier and released after his death, was dead. The tune was Otis’ first posthumous release and his biggest-selling single ever, topping both the R&B and pop charts on its way to going gold. Engineers tastefully overdubbed the sound effects, the mournful cries of seagulls, the singer’s lonesome whistling, after Otis’ death.
About 4,500 mourners, including a dazzling array of soul giants, such as James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Wilson Pickett, crowded Macon’s City Auditorium for Redding’s funeral one week later.
On December 3, 1997, thirty years later, hundreds of people showed up at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center to pay their respects to the Georgia-born soul singer and songwriter. They’d never met Otis Redding, but they loved his music and came to express their appreciation of his impact as a soul pioneer, who inexorably altered the rhythm & blues landscape – and, ultimately, all of pop music- with his gritty, lustrous vocal, sexy, slinky lyrics and unforgettable songs.
Ben Cauley, who hadn’t visited Madison since the crash, received a standing ovation. He told his audience how he’d awakened early that Sunday four decades ago and headed to the Cleveland airport for the trip to Madison. That day, he said, Redding told him he’d just finished recording the supremely meditative “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” A few hours later, Cauley was flung out of the plane on impact. As he floated in the icy waters of Lake Monona, clinging to a cushion, he watched the rest of the plane’s passengers — including the man he once described as “…a groovy cat, like an older brother” — drown. When his short speech was finished, Cauley sang some of the songs that might have been on the bill at The Factory, including a trumpet-laced version of Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
Redding was born in Dawson, Georgia, approximately 100 miles south of Macon, on Sept. 9, 1941. His family moved into a Macon housing project when he was five, and he began singing in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church at an early age. Today, the church is now home to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and Macon is arguably the vital center of soul. Little Richard, James Brown and Otis Redding – three men who shaped American blues music from the 1950s to the 1970s and beyond — all launched their careers there. Although he consistently impacted the R&B charts, beginning with the Top Ten appearance of “Mr. Pitiful” in 1965, and he is remembered for producing some of the toughest, sweetest, most enduring soul music ever created, none of Redding’s singles fared better than #21 on the pop Top Forty.
There’s one noteworthy aspect to Redding’s life not often touched upon: No one has anything unflattering to say about him. No scandals lurk in the closet, no unsavory incidents of rampant egotism to shatter his clean image, no shafting of his sidemen on long road jaunts. He was just a sincerely talented soul man who enhanced the lives of everyone associated with him but died much too soon.
Heartbreak never sounded good.
Or happened so abruptly.
A plaque located in the William T. Evjue Rooftop Garden on Monona Terrace commemorates Redding’s death.