Monday, December 7, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Otis Redding and the Bar-Keys, December 10 1967

Otis Redding and the Bar-Keys were taking a daytime flight, headed for Madison, Wisconsin for a performance.  The “King of Soul Singers” and the Bar-Keys were traveling from Cleveland to Madison, the next stop on his winter tour. The aircraft, a Beech H18, carried a pilot and six passengers.  Pilot Richard Frasier of Macon was a 26 year old flight instructor with about 1,300 hours of total flying experience, including 118 hours in the Beech. In addition to Redding, thje crash killed his manager and four of the five members of the Bar-Keys: Jimmy King, 18, Ronnie Caldwell, 18, Phalon Jones, 18, and Carl Cunningham, 17. 
At about 3:30PM, while on final approach, the aircraft crashed into Lake Monona, three miles short of the airport. Weather conditions were foggy.   Of the seven persons on
the aircraft, six died, including Redding and the pilot; initial reports that seven of eight band members died were erroneous; A sixth member of the group, James Alexander, was on a commercial flight.

Two explanations are offered for Alexander not being on the Beech.  One is that Alexander had to return a rental car in Cleveland and missed the flight.  The other is that the Beech didn’t have enough seats for the entire group, so they rotated taking a commercial flight. The only Bar-Key to survive the crash was Ben Cauley, 20.  Cauley, who was sleeping, woke up right before impact due to the exclamation of Phalon Jones, who evidently saw the lake growing large in the window. 

            The Beech was owned by the Otis Redding Revue.  Redding had purchased the craft two months prior to the accident, coincidental to his return to touring after minor vocal surgery and also his being named the “world’s number 1 male vocalist” by the readers of the London-based Melody Maker Readers Pop Poll (marking the first time in ten tears someone had supplanted Elvis Presley.) Redding’s loss was compared to the earlier death of Buddy Holly and also the untimely death of Hank Williams Sr, who “died at the peak of their creative work.” Redding had established himself as the preeminent R & B artist in the world, quickly taking his place along side Ray Charles and James Brown as the leading voices in black music.

  Otis Redding, Jr. was born on September 9, 1941 in Dawson, Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister. He grew up in poverty in the Tindall Heights housing projects of Macon, Georgia, where he started singing in the church choir of Vineville Baptist Church. Redding later attended Ballad Hudson High School and participated in the band. He dropped out of high school in the tenth grade, determined to help his family financially. Redding went to work with Little Richard's former band, the Upsetters, serving as both chauffeur and vocalist as the group played the fraternity-house circuit. He also began to compete in local talent shows for the $5 prize, winning 15 straight times. Redding was discovered while singing with Macon guitarist Johnny Jenkins band, the Pine Toppers, and first recorded as a member of that group for the tiny Confederate label in 1960. He later married Zelma Atwood in August of 1961 and they had three children and one that would later be adopted after his death.

            Redding’s signature tune for many Americans is one he never heard broadcast – “Dock of the Bay.” Released posthumously in January 1968, by April 1968 the single had sold over 1,400,00 copies  and had spent four straight weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  The song earned Redding two Grammy Awards.

            Much like with Buddy Holly, “original” Otis Redding tunes would be released for years to come, as the King of Soul Singers had laid down over 40 tracks for the Atlantic Records label before his untimely death. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.  In 2002 Redding was honored in Macon with a seven-foot statue, which was unveiled at Gateway Park, the trailhead for the city's Ocmulgee Heritage Greenway.