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Journey through music: Madison remembers crash of Otis Redding 50 years ago

Plane crash in Lake Monona December 10, 1967

Journey through music: Madison...

MADISON, Wis. - Lake Monona was ice cold on the afternoon of Dec. 10, 1967.

A dismal fog shrouded Madison when residents living on the lake saw a twin-engine plane plunge from the sky. 

They and the rest of the country would come to find out the plane was filled with promising musicians.

Otis Redding and his band the Bar-Kays had played shows in Nashville and Cleveland, their star rising in the music industry.  Instead of playing shows that December night in Madison, their plane crashed into the water just off Tonyawatha Trail in Monona.  A search for the eight band members and the wreckage of the plane spanned the next two days. 

For Madison writer Doug Moe, the memories live on in black and white.  His first piece in Madison Magazine in 1983 looked at the original police reports from the crash and the mystery of what happened.  He also has written a piece running in Isthmus this week. 

“They were coming to Madison that Sunday to play two shows at The Factory, which was a club on Gorham Street just off State,” Moe said.

Moe has followed all the twists and turns of this story, from parts of Redding’s plane ending up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and another in the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas, to the tale of James Alexander, a member of the Bar-Kays who was on a different flight from Cleveland that day. 

“To hear him tell that story of essentially waiting in the Milwaukee airport to come be picked up and instead having the police come and, as he said, ‘scoop me up and take me down to identify the bodies’ was pretty chilling,” Moe said. 

What’s also been chilling over the years is that the cause of the plane crash was officially deemed “unknown.”  Moe interviewed New York author Jonathan Gould, whose book “Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life” is the only biography to involve Redding’s family.  Gould’s work has a theory that ice on the aircraft caused it to crash.

“They were told ‘it's low ceiling here, put it on autopilot’ and, according to Gould’s analysis, the fact it was on autopilot would have masked the fact this ice buildup was happening until it didn’t and at that point it was too late,” Moe said. 

Redding's performance was scheduled at The Factory, a Gorham Street building that is now Avol’s books.  

Tickets for the show, which was to be opened by the Grim Reapers, a band that would later become known as Cheap Trick, were available for $3.  

The show was promoted by Ken Adamany a music producer who still lives in the Madison area. 

Here’s how Adamany remembered it in an email to News 3: 

“Keep in mind that back then the only way to communicate with Artists, managers and agents was by telephone, telegram or U.S. mail.  We were told the performers were traveling by tour bus and were not aware they had recently purchased a twin engine Beechcraft to travel by air.  We received three calls from The Madison Police Department that day:

 

  • The first one came in around three hours before the first show (there were two shows scheduled for 6:30 and 9pm) I was asked if we were expecting and ORCHESTRA. We were waiting for the arrival of a Rhythm  and Blues Band and not expecting an “Orchestra”, thinking an Orchestra would be playing a ballroom somewhere in the area.
  • The second call basically asked the same question.
  • The third call from a Police Officer around 4:45pm, when we were getting ready to open the doors for the 6:30 show, asked if we would 'come down and identify the bodies'.
  • Of course, what followed was disbelief and much sadness, also dismay and confusion. Police officers arrived and suggested (due to the increased student unrest on campus) we not turn people away who were standing in line. I decided we would open the doors for a free concert and to immediately start refunding ticket purchases, and to that end, asked Gary Karp from the locally popular White Trash Blues Band to go upstairs and open a window over the front entrance to inform every one of the tragedy. During all of the confusion and incoming calls from around the country regarding the shocking news, I was able to book Lee Brown and The Cheaters, an exceptional eight piece R & B Band, to come to The Factory to perform two sets, after The Grim Reapers played.

40 years after the crash, Madison welcomed back the only band member to survive the icy Mendota waters, trumpet player Ben Cauley. 

Cauley played trumpet that day as a crowd gathered at the Monona Terrace to dedicate a memorial on the roof to Redding and his band. The memorial notes that Redding’s most famous song “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” had been recorded only days before the crash and became a number one hit after his death. 

Cauley performed the song for the crowd in 2007.  He passed away in 2015.  

Now 50 years after the tragedy that’s been remembered over the years in black and white, a local band is bringing Redding’s music back in living color. 

Kevin Willmott says he started the cover band “Don’t Mess with Cupid” after being asked to create a band for a show at the High Noon Saloon.

“It seemed like a void that was missing and we had such a good time that we kept it rolling,” Willmott said. “He’s influenced so much music throughout the years that the fact that his legacy ended here in Madison just really sparked a journey through his music.”

Organ player Todd Phipps says they aim to bring the spirit of Redding’s music to life. 

“It’s fun music, it’s feel-good music, it’s uplifting, it’s positive,” Phipps said.  “It’s got the life force in it.”
They also want to remind generations who may know songs by more modern artists of the soul-singer connection. 

“A lot of people of my generation kind of know it from  Kanye West song or the Black Crowes,” Willmott said. 

They're paying tribute to Redding in a concert at the Majestic Thursday night with a nine-piece band living history through their music.

 

“It’s hard not to feel the connection,” Willmott said.  “I feel like the community shows up for Otis and I feel like that’s one of those things where we’re lucky but it’s just so tragic that he died here and at such a young age.”

So they’ll bring to life the memory of then 26-year-old Redding, sitting only blocks from the bay.


 


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