The world of popular music changed forever in the summer of 1967. Onshore breezes at Monterey wafted with patchouli and good Mexican herb in remembrance of the remarkable pop festival that happened at the fairgrounds earlier that year. You know, that little three-day Summer of Love get-together just down the road apiece from Haight-Ashbury that flung the careers of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix into orbit. The selfsame event that crowned a Georgia-born R&B singer the worldwide Crown Prince of Soul. Otis Redding made the scene at Monterey what it was– a dynamic turn of the wheel that changed everything teenyboppers, hippies, hepcats, jazz lovers and folk singers thought they knew about music.
Six months later, Otis Redding was dead.
Columnist Doug Moe readily admits that he may not have all the answers regarding the plane crash that killed Otis Redding. Nonetheless, he’s more informed than most about what really happened on a particularly foggy Wisconsin afternoon nearly half a century ago. Moe himself was not on the scene, and he didn’t start writing for the Wisconsin State Journal until 1997 –thirty years after the Otis’ demise– yet he is regularly recognized as the guy with the answers about what really happened to Otis Redding and his band, the Bar-Kays. Moe notes that it’s rare for a month to pass without at least one call from a fellow journalist, biographer, academic type or soul music fan with a question to ask about the almost-famous soul singer who perished on December 10, 1967.
Almost famous? That’s right. The name Otis Redding is instantly recognizable now, and any well-schooled R&B aficionado can guess “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” in five notes, but the handsome, style-savvy soul singer who died at age 26 in icy Lake Monona just four miles shy of the Madison Municipal Airport was not a household name during his lifetime. Not globally, anyway. Redding’s superstardom was yet to come, but he wouldn’t live to see it for himself.
Otis Redding’s first taste of celebrity and the perks that come with it occurred in Macon, Georgia where he entered and won more than a dozen consecutive talent shows. Enthused by his rapid local success, Redding made a road trip to Memphis where he recorded two songs, or “sides.” Redding recorded the song that would ultimately (and posthumously) seal his place in the R&B pantheon of soul gods forever a mere ten days before taking his final breath.
Only one person survived the water crash that took the lives of Otis Redding and teenage backup singers Carl Cunningham, Jimmy King, Phalon Jones, and Ronnie Caldwell, reports Portal Wisconsin. The sole survivor’s name was Ben Cauley. The young harmonizer was 20-years-old when Redding’s privately owned twin-engine Beechcraft H18 went down in frigid waters while en route from Cleveland to Madison.
Another Bar-Kay, James Alexander, survived the accident by missing the flight. Redding’s bandmate spoke with WREG Memphis in 2012, regaling listeners as he explained that he was actually scheduled to be on the doomed Beechcraft but took another flight to Madison so as not to be so cramped in the air. Some time after his bandmates failed to arrive at the Madison Municipal Airport, authorities knocked on his hotel room door and asked him to accompany them to the crash site. Alexander recounted the personal devastation he felt as he identified the corpses of his friends and bandmates.
“Man, it’s a very numb, empty feeling. It’s a very empty feeling just to wake up and guys earlier in that day you were laughing and talking with, and all of a sudden those guys aren’t around.”
Had the unthinkable not happened that oh-so long-ago Wisconsin afternoon, Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays would have performed at a venue on Gorham Street called The Factory.
[Featured Image by Sam Howzit|Wikimedia Commons|Cropped and resized|CC BY 2.0]