Otis Redding was one of the breakout stars at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, and in October dethroned Elvis Presley as the year’s top male vocalist in a poll by the British music magazine Melody Maker. Now he’s coming to Madison for his first Wisconsin appearance – two shows at Ken Adamany’s The Factory, 315 W. Gorham Street, on Sunday, December 10.
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, where his 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 is flying up from Saturday night shows in Cleveland in the well-used green-and-white Beechcraft 18 airplane he had just bought for $78,000. The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, had told him the twin 450 engines weren’t big enough to carry Redding and his party of seven fellow Georgians — his five-man backing band, the Bar-Kays; pilot Richard Fraser, and a teenage assistant. But it’s Redding’s pride and joy.
It’s raining so heavily in Cleveland on December 10 that some flights 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. Fraser knows he’ll need to make an instrument landing 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 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.
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.
Police divers get there in a hurry, but are only able to make one rescue — trumpeter Ben Cauley, of the backing band Bar-Kays. 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 attache 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.
Before leaving his home in Macon, Georgia on the short tour, Redding had completed the vocal on a softer, contemplative song, written on a houseboat in Sausalito, shortly after Monterey. 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 on December 6.
Otis underestimated. 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.
The National Transportation Safety Board lists the cause as “miscellaneous – undetermined.”
Grim Reaper musicians Nielsen and Peterson later form the band Cheap Trick, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 – 27 years after Otis.