Feb. 3, 1959 is often referred to, somewhat hyperbolically, as “The Day that Music Died.”
Yes, we lost three major early rock and roll stars in a light plane crash; two of them, Buddy Holley and Ritchie Valens, likely would have developed into even more significant artists. But rock music lived on.
No one ever calls Dec. 9, 1967, “The Day that Soul Music Died.” But 50 years ago last weekend, rhythm and blues, rock, soul and popular music in general lost an immense talent who was just hitting his stride.
That late fall afternoon, a twin-engined private plane owned by Otis Redding crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, Wis. Redding and his band, the Bar-Kays, were en route from Cleveland, Ohio, to Madison, where they were scheduled to play at The Factory, a nightclub on State Street.
One member of the band survived the crash; two others had taken a commercial flight to Milwaukee, because there wasn’t room in the Beechcraft H18. The weather was bad when Redding’s plane left Ohio, and conditions weren’t good in Wisconsin, either; Little Richard later claimed he warned Redding not to get on the plane.
Redding was on a roll in 1967. He had had six charting singles in the first 11 months of that year — three of them Top 40 hits — topped by the No. 25 (on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 4 on the R&B chart) “Try a Little Tenderness.” His duet with Carla Thomas, “Tramp,” had reached No. 26 on the pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B.
Melody Maker, the U.K. music magazine, earlier in 1967 had named Redding the world’s top male vocalist, dethroning Elvis Presley, who had held the title since 1957. In June, he had electrified the crowd attending the iconic Monterrey Pop Festival — the unofficial start of the Summer of Love — eclipsing acts like the Animals, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane and the Who.
Redding was one of the highest-paid entertainers in the world, earning more than $1 million in music publishing revenues and royalties in 1967 alone. He was said to have sold more records that year than Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin combined, and he owned a 300-acre ranch back in his home state of Georgia and 200 suits and 400 pairs of shoes.
That success was pretty impressive, considering that Redding had dropped out of school at age 15 to help support his family, after his father had contracted tuberculosis. He first made money in the music business at talent contests, winning one of those 15 weeks straight, at $5 a pop.
Redding had the kind of natural talent that he undoubtedly would have made it big anyway, but his recording breakthrough was serendipitous. He gave another up-and-coming musician, who didn’t have a driver’s license, a ride to the Stax Records studios in 1962; that session didn’t go well, but Redding was invited to sing on two cuts, and ended up with a recording contract.
Redding recorded 13 Hot 100 singles between then and 1967, but he hadn’t had a No. 1 single at the time he died. Only a week before the fatal plane crash, though, he went into the studios of Stax — his label since his breakthrough in 1962 — and recorded several cuts.
One of those, co-written with Stax studio band guitarist Steve Cropper on a houseboat in California, was “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” It wasn’t released until a month after Redding’s death, but became a huge hit — his first No. 1, and the first posthumous chart-topper on both the Billboard pop and R&B lists.
It also gave an indication where Redding might have been going. Said to be influenced by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Dock of the Bay” was not to the liking of Cropper, Redding’s wife and Stax executives.
But Redding was looking to broaden his artistry; that and the Sgt. Pepper’s influence make you wonder where he was going, and where he would have ended up musically. Interestingly, though, when Dylan offered him “Just Like a Woman,” Redding opted not to cover it; it was too wordy for a songwriter who had been penning tunes with simple, direct lyrics.
Redding delivered those lyrics with raw emotion and stagecraft that had been influenced by Little Richard and Sam Cooke. After Monterrey Pop, he and soul music in general had started to break out and reach a larger audience; he was booked to appear on two big television shows in 1968, Ed Sullivan’s and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have gotten even better; a family man with a wife and three kids, he didn’t seem to be prey to the dysfunctional star syndrome that ruined so many other musicians. He owned the rights to his music, a problem that has damaged many artists.
I only own one Redding album, the 1986 compilation CD The Ultimate Otis Redding. The 20 cuts pretty much hit all the high points, including most if not all of his charting singles.
It’s a great listen, just about every song a winner; my favorite is “Try a Little Tenderness,” with “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” right up there. The Carla Thomas duet “Tramp” is great, and fun, too: “And you need a haircut, tramp!” she sings.
Back in the day, I’m sure I listened to some of those songs on the AM radio, along with a lot of other soul and Motown artists’ hits. But that was Top 40 Time, Redding’s songs mostly weren’t Top 20, and it probably wasn’t until “Dock of the Bay” that he really registered on my consciousness.
Unlike Don McLean’s to Holley’s passing, I don’t remember my reaction to Redding’s death 30 or so miles from where I lived at the time. His plane might have flown over or near my home in rural Janesville, southeast of Madison.
(My excuse is that there was a lot going on in my life at that time, my freshman year in college. I played basketball with my junior college team the night Redding died — scored seven points, which was a big deal for me — and then went to see the high school girl who would become my wife six months later.)
But from my perspective 50 years later, and with what I’ve learned since, I have to say that that day probably changed The Music every bit as much as that night nearly eight years earlier, when another plane took off when it shouldn’t have.