I started writing a daily newspaper column in Madison in 1997, the 30th anniversary year of the Otis Redding plane crash.
It was a big story then — I did a front-page piece around the Dec. 10 anniversary — and it remains a big story today, the 45th anniversary of the Lake Monona crash that killed Redding and six others.
The soul singer and his band, the Bar-Kays, were flying into Madison from Cleveland for a performance at The Factory on Gorham Street. One band member, 20-year-old Ben Cauley, survived the crash.
Few events loom as large in Madison lore. It’s rare for a month to pass without me hearing from a journalist, academic or fan with a question about what really happened on the chilly and misty afternoon of Dec. 10, 1967.
The crash at the time received detailed coverage in the Madison media, but there was no national feeding frenzy. Saturation coverage of celebrities was still some years away. And it’s important to note that Redding, who was 26 when he died, had yet to launch into superstardom. That happened posthumously, with the release of his biggest hit, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” recorded in Memphis just three days before the crash.
I still don’t have all the answers surrounding the crash — nobody does — but today, on the 45th anniversary, it may be worth noting a few things that have surfaced since I wrote that first column in 1997.
In that 30th anniversary piece, I noted that the earliest police reports mentioned “a small dark gray attache case” that was recovered from the lake. The case — believed to contain cash — was absent from later reports, and some doubted its existence, although Zelma Redding, the singer’s widow, said her husband took it on the plane.
After my piece was published, I heard from an Evansville farmer named Chris Dickert who was living on Tonyawatha Trail at the time of the crash. He and a neighbor, Bernie Reese, heard it happen. They hurried out in Reese’s boat to help. Dickert told me he pulled a gray attache case with the initials “O.R.” out of the water. “At first I wondered who O.R. might be,” Dickert said.
So the case existed. What happened to it and its contents remains unknown.
In June 1998, I got a call from Atlanta journalist Scott Freeman, who said he intended to write the definitive Otis Redding biography and get to the bottom of the crash that killed him. Freeman said the big rumor in Macon — Redding’s Georgia home town — was that Otis was murdered.
Freeman’s book came out in 2001. He unearthed nothing new on the crash. “Repeated requests for the crash investigation file” from government aviation officials, Freeman wrote, “yielded one single page of paperwork” that said “Cause: Undetermined.”
At the time of my 1997 article I knew that two pieces of the doomed airplane — one with “Otis” written on it and another with “Redding” — were in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, donated by Zelma Redding. Madison historian Stu Levitan snapped a photo of them in 1995.
But in 2004 I learned a piece of the plane with “Otis” written on it was on display at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Obviously the singer’s name was etched on both sides of the plane.
How did a piece of the plane get to Vegas? I spoke with a Madison disc jockey from that era, Charlie “Rock ’n’ Roll” Simon — real name, Larry Goodman — who was given the plane piece by members of a local band. They had “liberated” it from storage shortly after the crash. Goodman took it with him when he moved to California and eventually traded it to the Vegas Hard Rock in exchange for a signed Paul McCartney guitar. The second piece with “Redding” on it has never surfaced publicly.
In 2006, I spoke with Gary Sohmers, who once published a music newspaper in Madison and by then was working with “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS. Sohmers had just facilitated an Internet sale of the original poster advertising the 1967 Redding Madison show. The poster sold for $7,300. Ken Adamany — the show’s promoter — told me “around 100” of the posters were printed.
The most significant development since 1997 — probably since the crash itself — happened five years ago, on the 40th anniversary. There was a tribute to Redding at Monona Terrace. Five hundred people showed up. Zelma Redding sent best wishes. Ben Cauley, the sole survivor, was there in person. He thanked everyone for coming, and he sang “Dock of the Bay.”
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or email@example.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.