The soulful voice of Otis Redding was tragically silenced 50 years ago today, when his plane crashed in a small Wisconsin lake, killing him and all but one of the passengers. His amazing voice and tireless work ethic raised him from humble beginnings to brink of super star status. In fact, just three days prior to that fateful night, he had recorded what would go on to become his first number one hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” though he would not live to see its success.
At age fifteen, Redding was forced to drop out of school to help provide for his family. He did his part by winning talent shows, and working as part of Little Richards‘ backing band. In the early sixties, he found himself playing tiny, African American clubs on what was known as the “Chitlin Circuit,” the only option for most black bands in the still segregated South. He found himself fronting the band Pat T. Cake and The Panthers, and was starting to make a real living wage, but he dreamt of more.
Between his work as a front man and a few small label solo releases, his stirring, emotional voice was starting to get him major label attention. An Atlantic Records executive got him an invitation to join in on a Stax Studios recording session, where he was backed by their legendary house band, Booker T & the M.G.’s. Stax Studios, formerly Satellite Records, had made a name for themselves by signing primarily southern soul, gospel and blues acts, and Redding quickly found a home on the label. He would remain a part of their stable til his untimely end.
His first album for the label, Pain In My Heart, featured a number of sad, soulful songs and earned him his first top twenty hit. He started to see larger and larger venues fill to capacity, and after a run at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, he went in the studio and recorded a follow up album. It wasn’t just DJs and concert goers getting turned on by his heartfelt vocals and song writing, as other artists began to rerecord some of his songs, turning them into massive hits.
Aretha Franklin made her righteous version of Redding’s “Respect” into her signature song, a fiery demand for equal treatment and women’s rights. She would go on to become a dear friend of Redding’s, and his early death hit her hard. “He had so much left to say, and now we won’t get to hear it,” she said through teary eyes at the time of his demise.
As a result of his success, Redding was able to not only take care of his family in style, he was able to start building his own production companies, and try and help other up and coming artists. He began touring internationally, where he was received warmly and without much of the racism he had faced at home.
In this period, Redding also started to see his chart climbing material, such as his career defining rendition of the song “Try A Little Tenderness,” get him bookings in some of the white owned venues. It’s ironic that that song’s success was the catalyst for his new found reception in white America, as the song’s rights holders had tried to block him from recording the standard. They feared his bringing a “Black perspective” to the song, as if somehow he would taint it with the simple act of singing it. Their worries were absurd, and the take on the song is still considered the definitive rendition.
For the next couple of years he steadily rose on the charts, each release surpassing the last. Audiences of all colors were falling in love with him, and, in 1967 he was invited to play the Monterey Pop Festival, in what would sadly be his last full concert performance. The crowd, primarily into the psychedelic rock of the day, was wowed by his Saturday closing performance. He was clearly moved by the reception, and remarked many times about the power of love he was feeling from the crowd. Closing with a heartbreaking rendition of “Tenderness,” Redding added a line to the final chorus that would become a sad omen for the future, singing “I got to go, y’all, I don’t wanna go.”
Later that year, in early December he returned to the studio at Stax to begin preparing songs for a new album. Redding had become enamored by The Beatles, particularly the lush sounds of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and wanted to capture some of that flavor on his new work. He recorded what was to become his first, and only, number one hit, “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay” then, with its layers of effects, and waves gently lapping to shore as his first effort to capture his new sound. As a place holder for a later proposed vocal effect, he cheekily whistled a happy tune for the outro, intending to replace it somewhere down the line. That later recording session would never come.
Three days after that recording session, Redding and his band were in the middle of a short concert run that saw multiple shows booked on single days in the midwest. Redding called his wife for what would be the last time, and got on the plane with his band to make the short flight to the next gig in Madison, WI. The weather was terrible, and the pilot had been advised that he should delay the take off, but the show had to go on, and they departed on a wing and a prayer for the next gig.
Sadly, the flight quickly encountered worsening conditions, and crashed in a small lake, killing seven of the eight passengers. Redding’s funeral had to be delayed so that a larger venue could be found for the thousands wishing to pay their respects. In the end, 4500 people packed into City Auditorium in Macon, GA, and saw numerous tributes and testimonials from friends and family that saw emotional breakdowns and tearful testimonials at a flame snuffed far too soon.
Atlantic Records released three more alums posthumously after using shady business practices to obtain the rights from Stax. The albums did reasonably well, but were just a pale reflection of the surging artists potential. He was honored with a place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989, called “The King Of Soul” by as high an authority as James Brown himself and his home of Macon erected a statue of Redding, forever immortalizing Redding, sitting in the morning sun. His brief life was a testament to hard work, to putting your heart and soul into all you do and the power of love. Rather than curse his loss, however, let’s listen to his most memorable hit, and let its message of hope lift us one more time.