Otis Redding's last week: The tragic story of "Dock of the Bay" and a fateful final flight

The soul icon recorded the song he might be best known for -- then left Nashville on the plane that'd take his life

Published June 21, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

Otis Redding     (Wikimedia/Volt Records)
Otis Redding (Wikimedia/Volt Records)

Excerpted from "Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records and the Transformation of Southern Soul"

Back at East McLemore Street on December 7, 1967, most of the session players had dispersed for the day. After Cropper told Jim Stewart that Otis Redding was headed over to cut another song he was sure was “a hit,” Stewart rang up most of the usual core of sidemen. To his everlasting regret, Floyd Newman wasn’t called. “That was the only Otis session that I didn’t play on. Jim didn’t book me for it, and I’ll never forgive him for that. Nobody knew it would be Otis’s last session, of course. But I should have been there.”

There is a disagreement in the Redding literature about the date of the session; some have it as happening on December 6 or 7, or both, and Rob Bowman in Soulsville U.S.A. somehow places it on November 22. But the ultimate source, the massive archive of Atlantic session logs, confirms the December 7 date, and that the working quorum for the session was Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T. Washington, Al Jackson, Wayne Jackson, and Joe Arnold, all of whom were perplexed about the song Otis came in with. It was simple, spare, just a couple of lines, and, unlike most of his other works, had no horn line. Indeed, it was in no way near complete. As Cropper would recall, “When Otis walked in, he said, ‘Crop, get your guttar.’ I always kept a Gibson B-29 around. . . . Otis played and sang a verse he had written.” That, of course, was the woebegone yarn of him lounging in the morning sun, and not moving from that spot until the evening came, the hours consumed watching the ships in the bay come and go.

Cropper, as always, induced him to think of similar thoughts, in this case ones he’d had on that dock, where he landed after roaming two thousand miles from home, which became another line, as did the not wanting to do what ten people advised him to do. The backing track was done totally off-the-cuff, shrouded in melancholy tones and tempo that matched the mood of what Otis was singing, and Cropper suggested a bridge sung at a higher key and slightly faster pace, taken from the Association’s “Windy”—an R&B/pop group Cropper thought was a gold mine of riffs and hooks. Booker T. called the song “beautifully simplistic—all major chords. Otis’s lyrics touched me—about leaving home and watching the bay, trying to figure things out as everyone’s pulling at you. My notes on the piano fed into that. I wanted to capture a maritime feel—the sound of a boat on the Mississippi River, and the sounds of gospel and New Orleans. I put those flourishes around Otis’s voice.”Dave Porter also made a key contribution. When Otis thought there should be a better first verse than the one that had him bathed in the morning sun, Porter thought otherwise, and the immortal opening stayed where it should have.

Wayne Jackson called the song “simple and funky—like a call and response in church.” There was also something no one had done, with the possible exception of Guy Mitchell on his fifties hit “Singing the Blues”—whistling as a riff. That’s how Otis ran out this song, with a surprisingly mellow warble fused with Cropper’s guitar and Dunn’s bass. “Otis always liked to ad-lib at the end of songs,” said Cropper, “so I added in about ten measures of instrumental background for him to do so. But when the time came, Otis couldn’t think of anything and started whistling.” The consensus has always been that he did this only as a placeholder, to be replaced later either by horns or some kind of lyrical stream. As Cropper once told it, the song itself was an example of a Redding who was now “much more conscious of the importance of lyrics,” and that “we had worked out this little fadeout rap he was gonna do, an ad-lib thing. He forgot what it was so he started whistling.”But Al Bell insisted it was no accident. “Without a question, Otis had it in his head before recording. The whistle was intentional.”

Indeed, he would do it on each of the three takes of the song that day, which makes the Cropper story hard to believe. And, in retrospect, it was a perfect instinct, exactly what a daydreamer would do while wasting time. So perfect that it too was melancholic, not carefree. Nothing else about the session was remarkable or eventful. As always, the rehearsal started out as chaos, then scattershot chords gradually fell into a cohesive arrangement, at which time the tape was turned on and Al Jackson banged his sticks together and gave the “one-two-a-one-two-three” downbeat. However, on the first two takes—which can be heard on the 1992 Remember Me album of Redding outtakes and alternate versions—his voice is scabrous and the whistling part so terrible that engineer Ron Capone said through the intercom, “Well, he won’t make it as a whistler.” He got it right on take three, but it was still an anomaly, a whole different side of Redding, the general tone a bit too dark and against the grain for most, including Bell.

“I happened to hear the song being completed and I stopped in my tracks because I didn’t know if it was Otis in there. It sure didn’t sound like him. The song definitely had the folk thing, but as far as being a potential hit song, with Otis a record would always come out screaming, like the song says, ‘please release me!’ This one, we didn’t really know what it was.”

What it was, as it happened, was a sonata of loneliness and regret, two elements previously not alloyed in a Redding oeuvre, in which even the self-denoted “sad songs” had the cool breeze or hot lick of uplift and optimism that everything was going to be all right. One could construe “Dock of the Bay” as a breeze of liberation, of striking out on one’s own according to deep convictions of belief. But any way one can look at the lyrics, there is foreboding and resignation. The loneliness that “won’t leave [him] alone” merges on the same long, long road to nowhere, all the way to a splintery dock on a bay, where the realization blowing on the wind is that it “looks like nothing’s gonna change” and “everything remains the same.” In other words, even if he knows he can’t do what ten people are telling him to do, what is he to do? In his voice, it sounded like the hardest dilemma a man could have.

Bell put it this way: “The brother was hurting. And when we hear it, we hurt.”

At Stax, however, the early soundings were not encouraging. Bell wondered about its practicality. When he had broached with Otis combining folk with soul, he didn’t intend for the soul element to disappear, as Duck Dunn believed it had. “It had no R&B whatsoever,” was his initial reaction. Certainly, anything Redding sang was by nature soulful. But this was the first song he’d ever written expressly for the studio and not the stage, perhaps a sign that when he looked at his future, live performing would take a back seat to production—again, a Beatles precedent. But how in the world would he sing the song in front of a hyped-up audience, with no run-out, no tied-in-knots, “got-ta got-ta” convulsions, just . . . whistling?

Stewart, Dunn said, “thought it was too far over the border,” and Duck himself admitted, “It didn’t impress me. I thought it might even be detrimental.” Cropper begged to differ. He had become not only the song’s co-writer but its biggest defender. Obsessively, he kept the musicians’ overtime, making up more horn parts, dubbing different parts, playing tape over and over at ear-splitting levels.

Still, Otis didn’t know if it was quite right. Capone kept saying notes were clashing. Booker T., for his part, was sure it was right.

“That’s a mother,” he said.

* * *

Otis hung around in Memphis until the next morning. He was hoping he could work on the song more, or at the very least decide what the heck he would do to run out the song in place of the whistling. As for the opinion that he needed to “soul” it up, there was the possibility that background singers, maybe the Staple Singers, who had been signed to Stax to do gospel harmonies, could step in. Nothing was resolved, however, and he headed out again for the airport, saying he’d be back on Friday morning—crowing that he would be arriving in his private plane—to pick up the Bar-Kays and go to Nashville.

Cropper didn’t wait. Otis, also by instinct, had on the first take thrown in some seagull-like caw noises, which some took as a joke. But Cropper didn’t. “I went over to a local jingle company there, Pepper-Tanner, and got into their sound library and come up with some sea gulls and some waves and I made the tape loop of that, brought them in and out of the holes, you know. Whenever the song took a little breather, I just kind of filled it with a sea gull or a wave.” But he also had to stop, since he, Booker, Dunn, Al Jackson, and Dave Porter had to prepare for a Saturday gig at Indiana State University.

Even without the embellishments, Otis was sure he nailed it. “This is my first million seller, right here,” he told Alan Walden when he got back on Wednesday night to the Big O Ranch, where Walden was living in a log cabin. Phil Walden had left for an industry convention in Las Vegas, but the plans for the weekend Midwest swing were set. He tiptoed out the door the next morning, met his pilot Richard Fraser at the airport, and all but skipped into the plane for its maiden flight. Fraser, a twenty-six year-old former Air Force pilot, had also become a close friend, and Otis sat in the co-pilot’s seat as the plane flew to Memphis.

Once there, he spent a little more time in the studio listening to the tapes of the “Dock of the Bay,” and schmoozed with William Bell and Dave Porter in the latter’s office over fried chicken and Cherry Kijofa wine. Then, intending to finish his hit song, he said he’d see them after the weekend gigs. He walked out the door in his impeccable shirt and slacks, exiting the theater that he’d first walked into wearing hospital scrubs. It was, of course, for the last time, but that might have been the case anyway. According to Wexler, two weeks before, Otis had called him and asked if he would produce his next record, perhaps in New York with Tom Dowd.

“He wanted to move from the Stax sound to the more polished and bigger sonorities of, let’s say, Ray Charles,” Wexler said in his memoirs. “I was flattered out of my mind—but worried about the political implications with Jim Stewart.”

“No sweat, Jerry,” he said Otis assured him, “I’ll take care of that part of it.”

* * *

There was a kind of Russian roulette aspect to Redding’s prized Beechcraft. The plane had eight seats in the cabin, and because there were two other members of the troupe on this journey to Nashville—Carl Simms, the Bar-Kays’ vocalist who would sing harmonies, and seventeen-year-old Matthew Kelly, who was their valet—it was agreed that, among the band and Kelly, two of them would have to fly commercial on each flight, according to a rotation.

To Otis’s relief, the Nashville gig, at Vanderbilt University, betrayed no trace of vocal fatigue after the intense sessions. The troupe landed in Cleveland early the next morning, and Otis and the Bar-Kays appeared on a dance party show called Upbeat, on which, clad in a leisure top and slacks, he performed one of his songs—“Respect”—before singing a closing-credit duet with Mitch Ryder. That night, they played two sold-out shows at Leo’s Casino, a venerable soul club on Euclid Avenue, where a reviewer called him and the band “a well-oiled machine.” Two more shows remained, at the Factory, a club on West Gorham Street in Madison, on Sunday night.

Otis knew he was hot again. Appearances had been scheduled on Ed Sullivan, American Bandstand, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, another Where the Action Is. A duet album with Aretha Franklin was in the works and a sequel album with Carla Thomas. Phil Walden had been sent two movie scripts for Otis to read, the producers not wanting him to merely compose a score or sing in the movies, but to act in them. Walden put them on the desk Otis used when he came into the office, for Monday. Otis had to be hot. As he told people, hardly believing anyone could be worth that much, Walden had just taken out an insurance policy on him for a million dollars.

Still, Otis must have wondered that weekend why, if he was all that, he needed to slog through a hard Midwest winter, which did not make an exception for his visit. The weather was atrocious and the skies looked anything but friendly that entire weekend in Cleveland. When he looked skyward, all he could see was dense fog and thick gray clouds. It was cold and raining in sheets and the forecast called for more of the same. On Sunday afternoon, Richard Fraser arrived at Hopkins Airport and was told by controllers that all commercial flights had been grounded and strongly recommended that he not fly. As well, when Fraser inventoried the plane with a mechanic, the battery power was low, enough for Fraser to be concerned. Otis asked him if he thought he could get the plane up and down safely. Fraser, who had logged 1,290 flight hours, 118 of them flying Beechcraft planes, said he could. “Then let’s go,” Otis said. He simply refused to believe his pride and joy, despite some mechanical problems on previous flights, was not invincible. Only weeks before, he had posed for a now-iconic PR photo striding in front of the plane, guitar in hand, looking as proud as a man could.

Yet, when James Brown had heard that Otis was learning to fly the same kind of plane Brown had gotten rid of, he warned him he was gambling with his life. “On the last morning we talked,” Brown recalled, “I said, ‘That plane is not big enough to be doing what you’re doing. It can’t carry all those people and all that equipment. You shouldn’t be messing around with it like that.’”

“Aw, it’s all right Bossman,” he said Otis told him. “We’ve had a few problems, but it’s doing okay.”

Years later Brown wrote in his memoirs, “Somebody was fooling Otis. They tried to do the same thing with his twin-engine that I did with a Lear jet, and they couldn’t do it. That plane was an old plane, with a bad battery and a lot of service problems, and it had no business flying in that kind of weather.”

What’s more, after the Nashville gig, as Bar-Kays sax man Ben Cauley would later recall, “One of the guys said the cabin was cold and asked a hangar employee to start the electrical heating system to warm it up. But the employee said no, the battery was low and we’d better wait until the pilot revved up the plane.” Both Otis and Fraser were confident the battery was sufficient enough to fly. A credit card receipt from early that afternoon from a Sohio fueling station at the airport shows that 146 gallons of gasoline and oil were pumped into the tank, at a cost of $62.65, signed for by Fraser on Otis’s credit card. And, recalls Alan Walden: “Otis always took pride in not missing an engagement. He was advised not to fly to Madison but he didn’t want to disappoint his fans and took off anyway, leaving with the words, ‘Gotta make that dollar.’”

As it happened, not far away, the Mar-Keys were already victims of the Midwest winter as they tried getting to Indiana State. “We flew on a puddle jumper to Indianapolis to catch our connecting flight,” Cropper said. “The whole north was icy, and we arrived in Indianapolis late, missing our connection.” At Hopkins Field, each member of the Redding troupe boarded. As for James Alexander and Carl Simms, who were the odd men out, as much of a hassle as it was to catch a separate flight to Madison, they would soon know this was the luckiest day of their lives.

* * *

Early on the morning of December 10, 1967, three years to the day after Sam Cooke died, Otis Redding called home. Zelma told him he sounded depressed. He said he was just tired. He wanted to speak to the kids, but only Otis III was awake and he said a few words to the boy. He then said goodbye to Zelma, jauntily telling her to be “real sweet and real good,” but not an obligatory “I love you,” words that did not trickle from his lips easily.

The Redding Revue filed onto the H18 at 12:30 p.m. and the little plane, with otis redding ent. painted in scripted letters on the top and the registration number N390R on its underside, lifted off into the turgid air. When the plane reached cruising altitude, Otis got up and moved to the cockpit, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. But did he actually fly the plane at any point in such ominous weather? He was not licensed yet, only permitted to fly with a pilot, with no passengers, and it would seem preposterous that he was actually doing anything at those controls. Yet this was a question that would cause a great deal of speculation, and agitation, because of what happened next.

At 3:25, after nearly three hours in the air, the plane, flying northwest, was around ten miles south of Truax Field, when Fraser radioed Dane County Regional Airport and received clearance to land. The plane then began to descend through the heavy clouds on its landing path, which took it over Lake Monona, the middle of three lakes nearly surrounding Madison, between Lake Waubesa and Lake Mendota. To get to the airport, the plane would have to clear the lake and make it four more miles over land. Hearing nothing more from Fraser, the tower kept trying to communicate with him, but his radio had died en route, part of a fatal power failure in the plane. On the radar screen, the plane was a blip four miles from the runway. Then the blip disappeared.

* * *

No one will ever know exactly what went wrong that day, only that something made the engine suddenly sputter and quit. Apparently Fraser, unable to see anything through the low fog, was attempting an instrument landing, that is, if any of the instruments were even working. Simply, he was flying blind. An eyewitness on the shore of the lake would say he saw the plane, its left wing lower than the right before it banked sharply and hit the lake. The plane did not break up, however; instead, rested atop the freezing water for several minutes, bobbing up and down, before beginning to sink about a half mile from land.

Controllers had alerted rescue crews, and additional crews were sent to the scene by emergency phone calls from area residents. The first responders were there within minutes, though the choppy, frigid waters made it difficult to maneuver to the wreckage. By the time they reached the area, the plane was underwater but, miraculously, one person was out of the plane and in the lake, clutching a seat cushion for dear life. This was Ben Cauley, the trumpet player, who had been asleep until the crash jolted him awake and threw him from the cabin and into the frigid water, still strapped into his seat, which was also a flotation device. Not knowing how to swim, he gripped the cushion tightly in his hands and bobbed in the water. He was close to losing consciousness when a police launch came into the area and cops saw him, not far from where the dead bodies of two other men were floating, later identified as Richard Fraser and Jimmie King.

Cauley, his limbs numb from frostbite, was pulled onto the boat. He was taken to a hospital and treated for exposure but was remarkably free of injury and able to tell the rescuers, and the press, that he had heard the screams of the two men near him before their cries went silent and they drowned. He had no idea what had happened to the others. After a while a cop came over and told him he was a lucky man. He asked why. “Because everybody else is dead,” the cop bluntly said.

That was the only conclusion the rescue teams could have reached. The plane had sunk to the bottom of the forty-foot lake at a 45-degree angle, its nose buried deep into the silt, its fuselage twisted and torn open, its left wing and engine missing. Other than the two bodies discovered with Cauley, there were no signs of the remaining passengers and pilot. Divers were in the water for hours, with great difficulty in treacherous conditions. But while it would be days before the plane could be lifted to the surface, missing its left engine and propeller, it was obvious no one could have survived. Cauley, meanwhile, would offer the only explanation of the crash there would ever be: “I was sitting behind Otis on the plane—back to back, next to the door. I fell asleep and the next thing I knew the pilot was telling us he was having trouble.”

Cauley would paint a picture of chaos and confusion in the plane. “I couldn’t breathe. The engines sounded real loud and I had a funny spinning sensation of falling through space. I thought the plane had hit an air pocket.” Redding, he said, stayed calm. “I didn’t hear him say a word. Didn’t see him do a thing.” The next thing he knew, the plane hit the water and “I managed to get out and hold on to a seat cushion. I didn’t know how to swim and one of my shoes had come off. It was so cold. About twenty minutes later a boat came and pulled me out. I was in shock. Everyone else was gone.” At other times he spoke of awakening just before the plane hit and seeing Phalon Jones looking out a window and saying, “Oh, no!” and, in the water, Cunningham and King calling for help before going under.

This was basically the scenario that began to spread in evening editions of newspapers and radio and TV bulletins all across the country, even with all but two victims not identified or extricated from the plane. Redding, in these early reports, was presumed dead in the crash, and all through the night authorities worked to confirm his identity. When the crash was reported, Al Bell was in Las Vegas with Jim Stewart, attending the same industry convention as Phil Walden. Both Bell and Stewart found out about the crash when they were paged in the hotel ballroom and heard the news from people back at Stax.

“We were in a state of shock,” Bell remembered. “I couldn’t even move. We made immediate plans to go back to Memphis. We didn’t know what to do, who to talk to. We were just walking around in a daze, hoping against hope that it was a mistake, that Otis would be found alive somewhere.”

That was Zelma’s hope, too. At around 5 p.m., she got a call from the Madison coroner who recounted the string of events and told her that one of the bodies recovered was that of a black man who was “tall and dark and has on a black undershirt,” apparently describing the still-unidentified King. Trying to stay calm and fighting back a wave of fear, she barked at him, “That’s not Otis!” For one thing, she said, he didn’t wear underwear. He was also an expert swimmer. He was out there, alive, they just hadn’t found him yet. “Go find him!” she ordered. She then dialed Richard Fraser’s wife, Diane, who, because her husband was identified, had already been notified by the coroner’s office.

Picking up the phone and hearing Zelma on the other end, she cried, “Dick is gone. Otis, too.”

Excerpted from "Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records and the Transformation of Southern Soul" by Mark Ribowsky. Published by Liveright Publishing Corporaton, a division of W.W. Norton. Copyright 2015 by Mark Ribowsky. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Mark Ribowsky

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