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Soul man
40 years after his plane crash in Lake Monona, Otis Redding still matters
Redding embodied a moment when a new world seemed possible.
Redding embodied a moment when a new world seemed possible.

On Dec. 10, 1967, the small plane carrying 26-year-old Otis Redding and his road band, the Bar-Kays, crashed into Lake Monona, thus ending the life of one of American music's most uniquely promising artists. The 40th anniversary of this occasion seems an appropriate time to reflect on Redding's life and legacy, since the Georgia native left an indelible mark during his brief moment in the spotlight. Though the icy water took his life, his memory - like his music - remains powerful.

Redding's journey to stardom began when he accompanied bandleader Johnny Jenkins to Memphis' Stax Studios in 1963. Ironically, he came not as a singer, but as the roadie. Redding was already a seasoned musician, however, and he wasted no time in grabbing the spotlight. After bothering guitarist Steve Cropper all day, Redding finally got a chance to perform his song "These Arms of Mine." Cropper was floored from the first heartbreaking phrase, and Redding recorded the ballad, backed by legendary Stax house band Booker T. & the MGs.

This star-making moment won Redding a central place in the ascendancy of Stax Records, arguably the most important Southern soul label. Redding's albums for Stax showcase the multifaceted talent that established him as an archetypal "soul man." At his best, as on his original version of "Respect," he sounds both assertive and vulnerable, suffusing songs of commitment and struggle with a hard-won honesty that resonated in the context of the civil rights movement. Beyond Redding's originals, the singer proved a versatile interpreter; his version of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" was distinctive enough to create a rumor that Redding was the song's actual composer.

Redding's collaborators remember "The Big O" as a veritable force of nature, whose energy inspired (and often exhausted) the hardened professionals of Stax's creative team. As his performance schedule grew hectic, Redding visited the studio less frequently, making his writing and recording sessions in Memphis even more intense. In his brief career, he released 13 albums.

Redding's recording résumé was matched by his reputation in live performance. Although black crowds knew about the singer's electrifying stage act for years, he attracted increasing attention from white audiences before his death. He headlined the Stax-Volt Revue tour of Europe early in 1967, and the adulation of European fans bolstered the label's belief that Memphis soul could please a wider (whiter) audience.

It was in this spirit that Redding, with Booker T. & the MGs, appeared at that summer's Monterey Pop Festival, a concert high point that gave many in the large crowd of rock fans their first taste of live soul. Redding's success at Monterey persuaded him to book a series of shows at rock venues, the tour that ultimately led him to Madison.

It also affected his music. Long a fan of rock and folk, Redding started developing songs that more fully integrated the sounds of the burgeoning counterculture. The culmination was "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," Redding's only number-one hit, released months after his death. The meditative track proves a strangely appropriate epitaph in the way it both contemplates new horizons and - especially for soldiers in Vietnam, who adopted the song as a favorite - points the way back home.

For Redding, home was the Georgia farm near the offices of Jotis, his publishing and production company. Here, Redding followed his fallen hero Sam Cooke, who, before his 1965 death, opened the independent label SAR. The label allowed Cooke to mentor new artists, record side projects and, importantly, control his own economic destiny.

With Jotis, Redding could expand his interests even beyond the walls of Stax. He took his first protégé, the decidedly Redding-esque Arthur Conley, to record at Muscle Shoals, Alabama's Fame Studios, which rivaled Stax as a Southern soul center. Working with Fame's all-white staff, Redding and Conley hit with the joyous "Sweet Soul Music," which became one of soul's defining anthems. Film footage from the sessions reveals that Redding's enthusiasm had the same effect on Fame as it had on Stax, and a posthumously released demo of "You Left the Water Running" suggests that Redding would've found Muscle Shoals an equally fruitful recording home.

But that potential was unrealized, as was that of Redding's restless creative energy. Despite much speculation, a few things are certain: a family lost a treasured member, American culture lost an artist coming fully into his powers, and Stax Records lost its spiritual center. No longer would his presence inspire such creativity or sustain the company in the tumultuous days ahead.

The mourning was palpable. Stax's William Bell recorded the weeping "A Tribute to a King," and a newly constituted Bar-Kays - soon to become funk stars - included Redding tributes in every live performance.

Thus, when Redding's plane crashed, the world lost more than one of its greatest R&B singers. It lost a brilliant performer, songwriter, arranger and businessman, whose influence can be heard in several decades of R&B, rock and even country. Redding is a reminder of the promise of soul music, a form so connected to the civil rights and black power movements, and with such deep roots in American musical traditions.

His legacy is a testament to a moment in American history when a new world seemed possible, when - in the words of the Sam Cooke song that Redding memorably covered - it truly seemed that "a change was gonna come." For those who believe in that change, and in the spirit that motivates it, Redding's music remains a constant companion. By remembering him, we remember something about ourselves that should never be forgotten.

Dec. 10 1967

On the morning of Dec. 10, 1967, Otis Redding called his wife, Zelma, to check in on his family and give a report on the progress of the northern tour that was about to take him to a show in Madison, Wis. Although Redding's fortunes were at a relative peak, his wife told historian Rob Bowman that he seemed "depressed about something," and asked to speak to his youngest son - Otis Jr. - before getting ready for the flight to Madison. Although the weather was not particularly bad when the party approached Dane County on a typically cold and foggy December day, the twin-engine Beechcraft carrying Redding and all but one of the Bar-Kays (bassist James Alexander was ill and didn't make the trip) crashed into Lake Monona.

Only trumpeter Ben Cauley survived the impact. When the small plane collided with the turbulent waters, Cauley had been sleeping, with his seatbelt unbuckled and his arms across the seat cushion. Cauley and his cushion were ejected through a hole in the plane's fuselage, and Cauley (grasping the cushion as a flotation device) floated on the lake until making it to shore. As he waited to be rescued, Cauley told Rob Bowman that he "could hear his friends and bandmates calling out for help until one by one their cries stopped." The cause of the crash has never been determined.

Redding's body wasn't found until the next day, when his frozen remains were pulled from the lake after an extensive search. Photos of this exhumation landed on the front page of many publications around the country, particularly African American newspapers, for whom Redding's death was a major story.

It wasn't until 20 years later that the city of Madison honored Redding with a plaque and bench, now located on the Monona Terrace rooftop. Sitting on the bench, you can gaze at the lake and meditate on the event that changed American cultural history in 1967.

A dream to remember

To mark the 40th anniversary of Otis Redding's plane crash, Dec. 10 will be declared "Otis Redding Day" in the city of Madison. There will also be two Redding tributes, each offering a unique opportunity to remember the life of the legendary artist.

Monday, Dec. 3, Monona Terrace, 5:30-8 p.m.: The evening will kick off with a tribute from Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, followed by a series of remembrances from Redding fans and associates, including Ben Cauley, the lone surviving member of Redding's road band, the Bar-Kays. Craig Inciardi, curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will present a fascintating collection of memorabilia donated by Redding's widow, Zelma. The evening culminates with the recent documentary Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding, which features a staggering variety of interviews and Redding performance clips. The event is free. See for more details.

Thursday, Dec. 6, Wisconsin Veterans Museum, 7 p.m.: A memorial program called "Echoes From Vietnam: '(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay'" will focus on the overwhelming popularity of "Dock of the Bay," Redding's only number-one pop hit, among soldiers during and after the Vietnam War. The evening features comments from UW professor Craig Werner and Vietnam veteran and journalist Doug Bradley, and a performance of Redding's songs by local duo Radio Sweetheart (which includes yours truly). Bradley will discuss "Dock of the Bay," while Werner puts it in the context of other home-related songs - like "Sloop John B" and "Detroit City" - that were so important for Vietnam-era soldiers. The event is free. See for more information.

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