Madison in the Sixties – December 10 1967
Otis Redding was one of the breakout stars at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, blowing minds with powerful performances of songs like Shout!, Try A Little Tenderness, and the song he wrote which Aretha Franklin made a huge hit, Respect.
Afterwards, he had to take some time off to recover from throat surgery. But he’s back on the road in fall, and now he’s coming to Madison for his first Wisconsin appearance – two shows on Sunday, December 10 at The Factory, Ken Adamany’s new nightspot at 315 W. Gorham Street.
The dynamic “King of the Soul Singers” has appearances coming up on the Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson shows, there’s a duet album with Aretha Franklin in the works, and he’s about to take a Christmas trip to Vietnam to entertain the troops. But tonight, two shows in the 1,500-person capacity Factory, Presented by Kaleidoscope Inc, with a light show by the Electrocution Co. The contract is for $3,000 and another 1750 if both shows sell out. The early show doesn’t, but it looks like the 9 o’clock show will. Tickets three bucks at Discount Records, three-fifty at the door. Opening act is a band Adamany manages from Rockford called the Grim Reapers, featuring guitarist Rick Nielsen and Tom Peterson on bass.
Redding plays Cleveland Saturday night and is flying up Sunday in the well-used green-and-white Beechcraft 18 airplane he had just bought for $78,000. Normal capacity is five to six, Redding’s party is eight, with seven fellow Georgians – his five-man backing band, the Bar-Kays; pilot Richard Fraser, and a teenage assistant. The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, had personally told him the twin 450 engines weren’t big enough, but it’s Redding’s pride and joy.
It’s raining so heavily in Cleveland on December 10 that some flights from Hopkins field are grounded, but Otis doesn’t want to disappoint his fans, so it’s wheel’s up.
The weather’s a bit better in south central Wisconsin, but still a damp drizzle and heavy fog, ceiling only about a hundred feet, visibility just a little over a mile. Fraser knows he’ll need to make an instrument landing , so the Georgian sets the plane to autopilot—and doesn’t realize that ice is building up on the frame. Redding is in the copilot’s seat, probably asleep.
Bernard Reese, president of the Gardner Baking Company, is outside at his lakeside house on Monona’s Tonyawatha Trail. He hears the plane, and thinks the motors sound like they’re laboring.
At 3:25 p.m., the plane is four miles south of the airport, about twelve hundred feet above the lake; Fraser gets clearance and lowers the landing gear. Suddenly, with no call of distress, the plane sputters and stalls, and falls into the wintry water, about a half mile out from the 4600 block of Tonyawatha Trail.
Reese watches in horror, and races inside to call police. Then he and neighbor Chris Dickert go out in his boat to help. It’s Dickert who sees something grey and shiny bobbing in the water – Otis’s attache case.
Madison and Monona police divers get there in a hurry, but are only able to make one rescue — trumpeter Ben Cauley, of the backing band Bar-Kays, this week celebrating his 20th birthday, pulled from the 34-degree water just in time. The others are all dead. It’s difficult and dangerous work recovering the bodies – Otis isn’t found until Monday. One of the most dynamic performers of his day died still strapped into his seat. Some magazines actually publish a macabre photo attesting to that tragic irony.
About 4:30, police call Adamany at the Factory and ask him to send someone down to identify the bodies.
Police later report that the attaché case contained about $4,000, part of the payments for the show in Cleveland and a fraternity dance at Vanderbilt, But neither case nor cash are returned to Redding’s widow Zelma or his father when they come to Madison to bring Otis home. Record company executive Phil Walden and road manager Twiggs Lydon are able, however, to get Coroner Clyde Chamberlain to overlook the small bag of marijuana found in Redding’s pocket.
It’s getting close to the 6:30 showtime, and the chilled crowd is waiting impatiently outside. It falls to Gary Karp, keyboard player with the White Trash Blues Band, to go to the club’s second-floor window to announce the show’s been cancelled. At first, many are suspicious, and start to boo; in the era of “music should be free,” they quickly conclude Otis had never really been booked. Karp repeats the awful news, and the terrible reality sets in. A stunned silence falls over the crowd.
It’s not quite two months since the campus riot between police and protesters over recruiting by the Dow chemical company, and the cops worry what might happen; they ask Adamany to open the club, so people can focus on music, rather than grief and anger. Adamany gets a Milwaukee R&B band, Lee Brown and the Cheaters, and lets the crowd in for free.
While Otis was in the Bay area for Monterey, he stayed on a houseboat in Sausalito, and started a song about watching the ships come and go. He brought it back to Memphis, where guitarist and producer Steve Cropper finished the lyrics. It’s a softer, contemplative song, and. Stax Records vice president Al Bell worries about its marketability, but Otis trusts his own artistic instinct: “This is my first million seller, right here,” he says as he finishes recording the vocal on December 7.
Zelma doesn’t really like it, Stax Records president Jim Stewart won’t release it – until Steve Cropper mixes in some waves and sea gulls.
Otis underestimated its potential. Released January 8, 1968, (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay tops both the R&B and pop charts, wins two Grammy Awards, and sells about four million copies.
Grim Reaper musicians Nielsen and Peterson later form the band Cheap Trick, which is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 – 27 years after Otis.
The National Transportation Safety Board lists the cause of the crash as “miscellaneous – undetermined.”
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, soul music-loving listener supported WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
L. Roger Turner photo of Otis Redding’s shattered Beechcraft 18, pulled from Lake Monona on Dec. 11, 1967. Courtesy Capital Newspapers.