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Image: Otis Redding
Tony Frank  /  Corbis file
Otis Redding sings in Paris in 1962. Dec. 10 marks the 40th anniversary of the soul singer's death.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/10/2007 6:10:42 PM ET 2007-12-10T23:10:42

It was cold in Madison, Wis. on Dec. 3, and the walkways leading to the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center were ice-covered and slippery. But the weather didn’t deter hundreds of people from showing up to pay tribute to Georgia-born soul singer and songwriter Otis Redding. They’d never met the man, but they loved his music, including the unforgettable “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” an anthem of loneliness that still resonates with anyone who has ever felt as if there was no reason to go on with what they’ve been doing.

Some of the people who thronged into Grand Terrace hadn’t even been born when Redding’s twin-engine Beechcraft airplane crashed into Lake Monona on Dec. 10, 1967, killing him and six other men, including four members of the Bar-Kays.

Others claimed to remember exactly where they were 40 years ago on the chilly Sunday he died: They were standing outside The Factory, a local nightclub where Redding and the Bar-Kays were scheduled to perform at 6:30 p.m. Most had purchased their $3 admission tickets in advance.

A few had even stronger ties to Redding’s tragic death. Promoter Ken Adamany, who’d booked Redding and the Bar-Kays at The Factory, sat at a table with old friends and associates. Michael Barr, who as a skinny, blond 20-year-old college student had created the now iconic poster for the concert that never happened, stood unrecognized on the fringes of the crowd, sipping a glass of red wine. Nearby, surrounded by a phalanx of photographers and television cameramen and protected by a vigilant minder, stood the man many people had come to see: Trumpet player Ben Cauley, a founding member of the Bar-Kays and the only survivor of the crash.

When it was his turn to take center stage, Cauley, who hadn’t visited Madison since the crash, received a standing ovation. He told his audience how he’d awakened early that Sunday 40 years ago and headed to the Cleveland airport for the trip to Madison. That day, he said, Redding told him he’d just finishing recording “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” A few hours later, Cauley was flung out of the plane on impact. As he floated in the icy waters of Lake Monona, clinging to a cushion, he watched the rest of the plane’s passengers — including the man he once described as “…a groovy cat, like an older brother” — drowned.

When his short speech was finished, Cauley sang some of the songs that might have been on the bill at The Factory, including a trumpet-laced version of Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

‘The homesick song’
Written after the Monterey Pop Festival, while he was staying on a houseboat in Sausalito, Calif., and posthumously released in Jan. 1968, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” soared to the top of the charts. It became Redding’s first No. 1 single and his first million-seller.

“The song also became important to a lot of guys serving in Vietnam,” says rock music historian Craig Werner, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Werner, who, along with Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley, is writing a book that will weave together the personal stories about how music resonated with veterans, calls “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” with its dark and defiant lyrics, “the homesick song.” It bridged the various demographic groups within the draftees and enlisted men who usually listened to country, soul or rock with very little crossover, he says.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings “As soon as I heard ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,’ I liked it,” remembers SPC 5 Edward Nelson, who served in Vietnam with the United States Army I Corps from 1967 to 1968. “We were absolutely stuck in our situation and lyrics from ‘Dock of the Bay’ such as ‘Looks like nothing’s gonna’ change’ evoked the misery and homesickness we felt.” 

Only a few months before the release of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” lots of things had begun to change for Redding. On June 17, 1967, he electrified the audience at the Monterey Pop Festival, transforming the California psychedelic music fest into a rhythm and blues revue with a 20-minute set that included “Respect,” “Satisfaction” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” After that performance, Redding was finally on the way to achieving the crossover success that had eluded him since the release of his first single.

The ‘chitlin circuit’ and beyond
Born in Dawson, Ga., on Sept. 9, 1941, Redding began singing in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church after his family moved to Macon, Ga. in 1944

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Now home to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, Macon is arguably the epicenter of soul. Little Richard, James Brown and Otis Redding — three men who shaped African-American music in from the 1950s to the 1970s and beyond — all launched their careers here. Redding, who dropped out of high school to help support his family, started his career as a Little Richard-style rock ’n’ roll shouter. In 1960, he met the man who became his agent, Phil Walden. In 1961, he married the woman who would become his widow, Zelma Atwood.

In 1962, Redding cut two of his own songs — “These Arms of Mine” and “Hey Hey Baby” — at the Stax Records studio in Memphis, Tenn. After signing a contract with Stax Records subsidiary Volt, he completed more than 30 recording sessions between June 1963 and Nov. 1967.

Until 1966, however, most of Redding’s performances were in the “chitlin’ circuit” theaters and nightclubs throughout the eastern and southern states that had begun catering primarily to African-Americans during the time when Jim Crow and segregation were prominent in the United States. Although his singles sold well in R&B markets, and he had been well-received at 1966 concerts at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in Los Angeles and the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, for most of his short life Redding was not considered a commercially viable player in the mainstream white American market.

His first successes with predominately white audiences came from abroad. In 1966, Redding appeared on the British television show “Ready, Steady, Go!” and by the following spring, the popularity of what the British press began calling “Memphis Music” was very clear. In March and April of 1967, he topped the bill of a Stax/Volt European tour that also included Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, the Mar-Key Horns, Carla Thomas, Arthur Conley and Eddie Floyd.

‘You could feel all the energy’
Then came the Monterey Pop Festival. The majority of the audience members were white and there were only three African-American front men on the three-day festival bill: Lou Rawls, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. “Redding was an anomaly there,” says Craig Inciardi, an associate curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, who spoke at the Madison tribute. “He was also one of the only people playing at Monterey who wore a suit.”

It was late and starting to rain and the audience was starting to leave when Redding strode onto the stage wearing a green suit and black sweater. He and Booker T. and the MGs, along with the Mar-Key Horns, were the closing act. “On stage was just one of those times when you could feel all the energy and electricity,” recalled keyboard player Booker T. Jones, during a conversation with Redding biographer Geoff Brown. “I think we did one of our best shows, Otis and the MGs.”

Redding took pride in not missing an engagement. The weather was bad on the day he climbed into the co-pilot’s seat for the flight from Cleveland to Madison, but he didn’t want to disappoint his fans. Phil Walden’s brother, Alan, remembers that Redding’s final words were “Gotta make that dollar.”

Thirty years after Redding’s death, Alan Walden penned a remembrance of the “man who never let it go to his head” and concluded it with a wish that, “Perhaps one day I might walk by the first statue of a black man in Macon and you know who I think it should be.”

Five years later, on Sept. 15, 2002, hundreds of people gathered in Macon to witness the unveiling of a bronze statue of Otis Redding sitting on a dock and playing his guitar.

Nadine Goff is a writer and former theater critic who lives in Madison, Wis.

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