On December 7, 1967, Otis Redding, with the help of guitarist-producer Steve Cropper, finished recording “Dock Of The Bay” at Stax Records in Memphis. From Memphis, Redding and his band, the Bar-Kays, departed for performances in Nashville and Cleveland, and, from there, a headliner show booked at the Factory in Madison, Wisconsin.
Redding had just purchased the green and white Beechcraft plane that carried his group on tour. Although he didn’t fly himself, Redding strapped into the co-pilot’s seat on December 10, and he and the seven members of his band bolted down the runway at Cleveland’s Hopkins Field. It was 1 p.m.
There was no sign of trouble at 3:20 when Chicago Federal Aviation Control handed the little twin-engine over to the Madison Tower, ten miles away. Then, as now, Chicago inbound flights travel directly over Monona, a suburb that shares the picturesque shoreline of Lake Monona with the city of Madison. The airplane was cleared for a routine instrument landing at 3:25.
Chris Dickert, then 21, heard the plane from the living room of his parents’ house on Lake Monona. I caught up with Dickert this fall. He now lives on a farm in southern Wisconsin.
“Dad was snoozing in the chair,” Dickert remembered. “We had the Bears game on. In that house we heard planes come over all the time and the engine I heard that afternoon was in distress. The engine cut in and out. The throttle was on and then it was off.”
It was mild for December: 33 degrees and, according to the Wisconsin State Journal for that day, “100% cloudiness.” The relatively warm air created fog over the not-yet-frozen lake.
Dickert and his father dashed to the back yard. “From the sound of it we knew something was wrong with the airplane. Through the haze we saw something break through the cloud and we watched it fall until it hit the water right in the middle of the lake.”
On impact, the Beechcraft split down the center of the fuselage. Dickert’s mother called the police while Dickert and a neighbor hooked up a trailer, ripped out the shoreline snow fence, and backed the neighbor’s motor boat into the icy water.
Dickert’s boat reached the crash site just after a Madison Police boat. “The police were pulling a survivor in the boat and they told us to circle to look for others and gather up any floating debris we could.”
The survivor was Bar-Kays trumpet man Ben Cauley, who at age 60 can still be heard blowing his horn on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee.
The choppy surface of the lake was strewn with articles of all sorts. A wheel from the plane bobbed in the waves. Seat cushions and clothing floated in clumps and tangles. In a hard westerly wind, Dickert set about hauling the sad harvest into the boat.
“I pulled out this partially opened attache case,” Dickert said. “All I can remember was it had the initials ‘O.R.’ I saw little pots of makeup inside. When I got back to shore I put it on the hood of a Monona police car. That’s the last I heard of it.”
The next day divers recovered Redding’s body, still belted into the co-pilot’s seat, along with the body of 17-year-old Bar-Kays member Mathew Kelly. The December 12 Wisconsin State Journal reports that “the search for the three remaining missing will continue.” It goes on to say, “Divers will also search for Redding’s briefcase which Twiggs Lyndon, a representative of his Macon booking agent, said is believed to contain about $4,000.00 cash.”
The show went on that night at the Factory. A band on the bill from Rockford, Illinois, performed; ironically, they were named the Grim Reapers. The group later became known as Cheap Trick.
Within a year of the crash, Otis Redding came alive again, and forever, when “Dock Of The Bay” was released and hit #1 on the R&B and pop charts. The song remains a standard of sincerity, strength, soul and, above all, survival.
From the kitchen window of our house here in Madison, I can see across Lake Monona to the stretch of water where Redding and the Bar-Kays went down 40 years ago. For me, like a lot of people in the place where he died, Otis Redding is part of where we live. A beautiful stone memorial and marble bench sit atop the outdoor roof of our city’s Monona Terrace Convention Center. Those who stop to rest on the bench have the best view of the lake in the city.
Come December 10, our thoughts will be with Zelma Redding, surviving family members of the Bar-Kays, the people in Otis’ hometown of Macon, Georgia, and the folks in Memphis.