Saturday, December 10, 2005

Sittin' When the Evening Comes

A couple of years ago, our ABC-TV affiliate here in Madison celebrated its 50th anniversary with a special on its history, featuring lots of clips and stories from people who worked both in front of the cameras and behind it. Among the many news clips was footage of debris from Otis Redding's airplane being removed from Lake Monona following the crash that killed him and all but one member of his band. What the cameraman remembered most was what the station couldn't show, then or now: He filmed crews pulling up Redding's seat, with Otis' body still strapped into it.

It happened thirty-eight years ago today. It was a foggy and miserable Sunday in the Madison area. Commercial flights were grounded because the weather was so bad, but that's why Redding had his own plane--an up-and-coming star couldn't stay on the rise if he was going to miss gigs. He and his band, the Bar-Kays, were coming into town from Cleveland for a show at the Factory, a downtown club on Gorham Street, where the Canterbury Inn is located today. (Many stories about Redding's death erronesously claim the crash happened after the concert, a la Buddy Holly.) The twin-engine Beechcraft was on final approach to Truax Field around 3:00 in the afternoon. Due to the weather, it apparently had to make a second approach, and circled out over Lake Monona. Nobody's quite sure what happened next--not even the National Transportation Safety Board--but just before 3:30, the plane crashed into Lake Monona, not far from where the Monona Terrace Convention Center stands today. Redding and all but one member of his band died in the crash.

Three days before the Madison crash, Redding had recorded a new song. The recording wasn't finished yet--Otis had whistled one part of the song and intended to write another verse later. The song was "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," and it became a classic almost instantly upon its release, but it's also had the effect of skewing the way people think about Otis. It was quiet and introspective, and made it easy to picture a wistful troubadour strumming a guitar at the edge of the water. (Ironic, given how he died.) "The Dock of the Bay" was utterly unlike anything he'd recorded before--far different than the deep Southern soul tunes for which he was known at the time (and so different that record company officials didn't want to release it). But because it's one of the few Otis tunes that endures in the oldies-radio pantheon, it's all many folks know about him.

Redding wasn't a major star on December 10, 1967--that would come only after "The Dock of the Bay." And because he'd be only 64 years old today if he'd lived, the direction his career might have taken after 1967 is one of music's most intriguing what-ifs.


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