Fifty-one years ago this week, a plane crash in Lake Monona causing music lovers around the world to mourn the loss of a soulful singer. Stu Levitan looks back on the death of Otis Redding on this week’s Madison in the Sixties.
Madison, December 10, 1967
Otis Redding was one of the breakout stars at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, and in October he dethroned Elvis Presley as the top male vocalist according to the British music magazine Melody Maker. So there’s a big buzz about his first Wisconsin appearance—two shows at Ken Adamany’s club, The Factory, 315 W. Gorham St. Opening act is a band Adamany manages from Rockford called the Grim Reapers, the nucleus of what will later become the band Cheap Trick.
The dynamic singer is poised to move beyond clubs like the fifteen- hundred- capacity Factory, where his contract is for $3,000 plus 50 percent of the gross revenue over $7,000. He’s got dates scheduled on the Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson shows, there’s a duet album with Aretha Franklin in the works, and he’s just accepted Vice President Humphrey’s invitation for a Christmas trip to entertain American troops in Vietnam.
Redding and his party—pilot Richard Fraser, five members of his backing band, the Bar- Kays, and a teenage assistant—are flying in from Saturday night shows in Cleveland in the well-used green-and-white Beechcraft 18 airplane he had just bought for $78,000. James Brown 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 that some flights are grounded, but Otis doesn’t want to disappoint his Madison fans. Fraser knows he’ll need to make an instrument landing in Madison because of a low ceiling and poor visibility, 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 down by the lake in the backyard of his home on Tonyawatha Trail when he hears the plane. He doesn’t think the motors sound strong enough for an instrument landing.
At 3:25 p.m., the plane is four miles south of the Madison Municipal airport, about twelve hundred feet above the lake. Fraser gets clearance to land and lowers the landing gear. Suddenly, with no call of distress, the plane sputters and stalls, and falls into the wintry water, killing all aboard but Bar- Kays trumpeter Ben Cauley. Reese watches in horror, then races inside to call police.
His Tonyawatha Trail neighbor Mrs. H. R. Dickert also sees the plane hit the choppy surface; she, too, calls police, and Reese heads out in his boat with her son, Chris. As police divers begin the difficult and dangerous job of recovery–Redding’s body isn’t found until Monday—Chris finds grey attaché case with the initials OR bobbing in the water. Although police later report it contains about thirty five hundred dollars—part of the payments for the show in Cleveland and a fraternity dance at Vanderbilt University in Nashville—it’s not returned to Redding’s widow, Zelma, or his father when they come to Madison the next day. Record company Road Manager Twiggs Lydon is successful, however, in getting coroner Clyde Chamberlain to overlook the small bag of marijuana found in Otis’s pocket.
Late Sunday afternoon, as the damp and chilled crowd waits impatiently outside, it falls to Gary Karp, keyboardist with the White Trash Blues Band, to go to the club’s second-floor window to announce that the show’s canceled. At first, many are suspicious and start to boo, but when Karp repeats the awful news, the terrible reality sets in, and a stunned silence falls over the crowd.
It’s not quite two months since the Dow riot, and police worry what might happen; they ask Adamany to open the club so people can focus on music rather than grief and anger. Adamany offers refunds and lets the crowd in for free; while the Grim Reapers play, he quickly books the R&B band Lee Brown and the Cheaters to come over from Milwaukee.
Before leaving his home in Macon, Georgia, for the short tour, Redding had completed the vocal track on a softer, contemplative song, written on a houseboat in Sausalito shortly after the Monterey festival. Stax Records vice president Al Bell worried about its marketability, but Redding trusted his own artistic instinct: “This is my first million seller, right here,” he said on December 6.
Redding underestimated. Released on January 8, 1968, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” soon tops both the R&B and pop charts, wins two Grammy Awards, and sells about four million copies.
The National Transportation Safety Board lists the cause of the crash as “miscellaneous— undetermined.”
Photo: L. Roger Turner, courtesy Capital Newspapers